QWANQWA in Amharic means language. Music has long had the beloved nickname “The Universal Language”. It is the world’s mother tongue, understood by all, and has the reputation of bridging socio-economic groups and joining the young and old, and the new band, QWANQWA, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is named for this concept.
The music is characterized by tight arrangements, psychedelic sounds, extended experimental moments, and occasional audience sing-a-long sections. It is driving, powerful, and different than anything else coming out of Ethiopia at this current Golden Age of Ethiopian music. The live show ranges from intimate to wild, from whispery conversations to full blown rock show, and it is hard to believe these psychedelic sounds are coming from traditional harp and violin.
At its core, this band is instrumental, however, the list of guests and collaborations is long, including both beloved and famous singers such as Fikraddis, Habte Michael, Amelmal Abate, as well as Azmari singers Selamnesh Zemene, Ertibu Agengehu, and Etenesh Wassie. Qwanqwa also has invited the virtuoso masinqo player Endris Hassen, the father of washint Johannes Aferwork, Dawit Frew (Ethiopia’s foremost clarinetist).
Qwanqwa’s members’ combined experience in experimental music ensembles is part of what contributes to Qwanqwa’s unique sound.
- Mesele Asmamaw is Qwanqwa’s lead electric krar player. (Krar is a traditional harp, relative to the lyre). Mesele is known as a composer and arranger, active in Ethiopia for over twenty years. He has released many albums of his compositions as well as traveled extensively throughout Europe and Africa performing the traditional music of Ethiopia. Since the mid-2000s, Mesele has been a favorite guest of the extremely influential punk and “The EX”, has recorded several albums with the experimental Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, and has toured and recorded with his experimental rock group Trio Kazanches. He uses several interesting techniques in Qwanqwa, including a wah pedal, a distortion pedal, a coke bottle and a plastic tube!
- Dawit Seyoum, master of the bass krar, plays extensively in traditional groups around Addis, including Ethiocolor and Hager Fikr. He also is a member of the Nile Project, a much-acclaimed American based project which tours internationally with traditional musicians from all Nile countries.
- Elias Wolde Mikael is Qwanqwa’s percussionist. He uses the traditional kebero, goat skin drums played with sticks, as well as a variety of other homemade percussion instruments. He can be seen regularly in several groups around Addis Ababa as well as on popular TV music programs in Ethiopia, including Ethiopian Idol and Balageru.
- Kaethe Hostetter, 5-string electric violin, has been playing Ethiopian music for many years now. A founding member of the critically acclaimed Debo Band (signed to Sub Pop), the first Ethiopian band in the US to top many charts including iTunes and CMJ, and who has played many stages from Lincoln Center to Kennedy Center, from Chicago World Music Festival and GlobalFest to Bumbershoot and Bonarroo. She also has had an active performing life in the experimental scene, including tours with Fred Frith, Butch Morris and Jim Hobbs.