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Universal Language 

Ethiopian band Qwanqwa is teaming with Richmond’s Afro-Zen Allstars for a night of mesmerizing music.

click to enlarge Based in the capital of Ethiopia, Qwanqwa is on its first tour of America. Music writer Byron Coley noted that their music reminded [him] of what Fairport Convention did with traditional music from the United Kingdom,  an "amping up and stretching without really distorting the rootage too much."

Based in the capital of Ethiopia, Qwanqwa is on its first tour of America. Music writer Byron Coley noted that their music reminded [him] of what Fairport Convention did with traditional music from the United Kingdom, an "amping up and stretching without really distorting the rootage too much."

Appearing downtown together this Sunday, Nov. 13 at Richmond Music Hall, two danceable bands will draw their highly individualistic music from a shared source: The folk melodies of Ethiopia.

In the case of Richmond’s own Afro-Zen Allstars, this flow is filtered through the Westernized jazz sensibilities of golden age Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, during a brief cultural renaissance snuffed out by a totalitarian revolution.

The touring band Qwanqwa is a supergroup of musicians from Addis Ababa who perform on traditional acoustic instruments that include a single sting violin and a goatskin drum; their music blends authenticity with modernity and the additional harmonic depth of the five-string violin of the band’s organizer, Kaethe Hostettler (who is originally from the United States).

Qwanqwa is on the final leg of its first U.S. tour, a crisscross country odyssey that started on Labor Day and ends on Thanksgiving.

“We have like 53 shows,” says Hostettler. “We started in New York, went down South, up to the Midwest, then through Colorado, up the West Coast and then back through the country. Which means we were able to hit some cities twice. It’s our debut tour, so we are using this opportunity to hit every market and plant seeds for the future.”

To set up the Richmond show, Hostettler contacted Afro-Zen leader George M. Lowe. He was enthusiastic about the idea and caught their act at the North Carolina Folk Festival in Greenville. “They're different from any other Ethiopian band that I have heard,” says Lowe. “They are primarily building on a string music tradition with other music from Somalia and Sudan. It’s very different from the stuff that has been popularized in recent years. They have an amazing charismatic vocalist who performs as if she is having 100% of the fun in the world."

He adds that there is a krar [lute] that “sounds exactly like an electric bass and is the only instrument I have seen where the notes are played with finger stops directly on the strings rather than a fretboard.” Also, what appears to look like a drum kit is a collection of traditional percussion, he explains, “with incredibly complicated beats played with a kick pedal on a floor tom-tom. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch.”

The result is music that is grounded in the past but with an experimental, psychedelic edge that may appeal equally to folk purists and jam band fans. “We really lean on our riffs,” Hostettler points out. “And we use pedals, wah-wah, phasers, delays, and our drummer is really rock influenced.

So far the response from audiences has been great, she says.

“We’ve played the gamut, jazz centers, folk music festivals, and DIY spaces. And we've gotten every audience up dancing.” The band’s mission is captured in its name; “Qwanqwa” is the Amharic word for “language,” human connection that music makes universal. “It’s been really fun to test our approach on the tour,” Hostetter adds. “And so far, we have had memorable shows every single night.”

What should audiences expect? “They should expect to feel a gamut of emotions, the biggest slice of joy you can get straight out of Ethiopia,” Hostetter promises. “It’s a unique view through the filter of actively experimental and forward-thinking traditional musicians. It’s foreign, energetic, different, and immediate. A lot of people have told us that it is a life-changing show.”

Now combine that with the built-in RVA sounds of the Afro-Zen Allstars, whose hypnotic blend of guitar and horns over mesmerizing rhythms is the local embodiment of the internationally praised “Ethiopiques” sound. [That term comes from a series of French CD re-packagings of 1960s-'70s- era Addis Ababa recordings.]

click to enlarge Richmond's Afro-Zen Allstars during a recent gig at the VMFA. - PETER MCELHINNEY
  • Peter McElhinney
  • Richmond's Afro-Zen Allstars during a recent gig at the VMFA.

The Richmond band has accelerated out of a COVID-era hiatus with a new CD, “The Buzz and the Bells,” and a series of gigs with growing crowds in bigger venues, including Hardywood Park Craft Brewery and the VMFA, powered in large part by the players' affection for this particular branch of world music.

“If I was not a member of Afro-Zen,” says Lowe, “I’d be their biggest fan.”

Afro-Zen Allstars and Qwanqwa play the Richmond Music Hall downtown on Sunday, Nov. 13. 2729 Main Street. Admission is $20 in advance, $25 the day of the show. Doors are at 6 p.m.

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