Ethiopia's Qwanqwa Go From Pastoral Folk to Somali Funk on 'Volume Three'

Addis Ababa-based quintet Qwanqwa’s initial plans for their third album, the succinctly titled Volume Three, went as awry as everything else this year. Recorded in 2017 with a slightly different lineup than today’s Qwanqwa, the group planned to release Volume Three during a MacArthur Foundation-sponsored U.S. tour this year that was ultimately postponed. The album, though, was ready to go, and the group released it just in time for Enkutatash, the public holiday celebrating Ethiopian New Year.

A festive release season feels fitting. Qwanqwa has always occupied a unique space in the globally-facing East African music scene, layering grooves from across the Horn into hypnotic, string-driven interpretations of folk traditions and pop songs that feel bright and unique, with plenty of room for dancing. Volume Three is no exception. The band covers a Dur-Dur disco track, riffs on rural tunes, and gives us a thick, deep cut of Amhara wedding music with a closing track nearly 18 minutes long. At the forefront of the exploration is bandleader and former Debo Band fiddle player Kaethe Hostetter, whose plugged-in five-string violin is one of the group’s most distinct keynote sounds. This is particularly true in stripped-down “Ago”, where her introductory double stops could as easily lead to a lively square dance as a northern Ethiopian shepherd tune, save for the other performers that quickly join in. Misale Legesse drives forward on the kebero, a goat skin drum, while Bubu Teklemariam’s bass lyre gives Hostetter the anchor she needs to soar with stability.

While Hostetter ably takes the helm, though, it’s former member Mesele Asmamaw’s lyre-like electric krar that sets the scene with mellow opening track “Blen”. Here, the group draws on an Eritrean melody, strings singing — and violin wah-wah-ing and wailing — against the walking pace of the kebero. Endris Hassen’s one-stringed masenqo fiddle adds another voice to the mix, lithe and ethereal as the percussion gets faster and sharper on the way to a glorious end. Following is “Somali”, a cover of one of 1980s Mogadishu disco group Dur-Dur Band’s tracks. The bass krar is particularly resonant as it leans into the track’s funk line, while the fiddles grind down in ecstatic frenzies. “Ago” comes next, and “Sewoch” after that. Here, Mesele Asmamaw sings, his voice earthy and clear against a backdrop of spectacular fuzz and reverb. Selamnesh Zemene brings her vocals to “Gurage”, a jam that hits its greatest heights with a climactic electric lyre solo.

“Serg”, the album’s long finale, offers a final sonic immersion for the listener. Serpentine violins and starry krar offer a languid introduction graced by Mesele’s crooning; the energy quickly builds. Handclaps seem to welcome the listener into celebration, and the music goes on for nearly twenty minutes, inviting and entrancing. Eventually, the strings dissolve, leaving only bass and drum as the album fades out at last.

Skillful musicians and an emphasis on acoustic dimension make Volume Three a beautiful and thoughtful addition to the group’s repertoire. It also offers a refreshing counterpoint to the rightfully beloved but perhaps overly ubiquitous sounds of what the Éthiopiques series sells as “Golden Age” Ethiojazz and which we have seen travel from Addis to DC, Tel Aviv, Brooklyn, and beyond, taking on various shapes but retaining the familiar brassy, jazz-influenced sounds Mulatu Astatke first named as a cohesive genre. These are wonderful sonics, especially when the artists who incorporate them into their not-strictly-Ethiojazz repertoires give due credit to their cultural roots. But Qwanqwa is something else, beholden neither to folk nor to jazz. Instead, the group makes eclectic music with the Horn of Africa in mind and their interrelationships as collaborators and people driving forth their exceptional creative vision.