Universal language | Music | Weekly styling

Appearing together downtown this Sunday, November 13 at the Richmond Music Hall, two dance groups will draw their highly individualistic music from a common source: the folk melodies of Ethiopia.

In the case of Richmond Afro-Zen Allstarsthis flow is filtered through the westernized jazz sensibilities of the golden age of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, during a brief cultural renaissance stifled by a totalitarian revolution.

The tour group Qwanqwa is a supergroup of musicians from Addis Ababa who perform on traditional acoustic instruments including a single-sting fiddle and a goatskin drum; their music mixes authenticity with modernity and the added harmonic depth of the five-string fiddle of the group’s organizer, Kaethe Hostettler (originally from the United States).

Qwanqwa is on the final leg of her first U.S. tour, a cross-country odyssey that began on Labor Day and ends on Thanksgiving Day.

“We have about 53 shows,” says Hostettler. “We started in New York, went down South, to the Midwest, then through Colorado, to the West Coast, then across the country. Which means we were able to hit some towns twice. This is our first tour, so we’re taking this opportunity to reach out to all markets and plant seeds for the future.

To set up the Richmond show, Hostettler contacted Afro-Zen frontman George M. Lowe. He was enthusiastic about the idea and surprised their number at the North Carolina Folk Festival in Greenville. “They’re different from any other Ethiopian band I’ve heard,” says Lowe. “They mainly rely on a tradition of string music with other music from Somalia and Sudan. It is very different from what has been popularized in recent years. They have an amazing charismatic singer who performs like she’s 100% enjoying the world.”

He adds that there is a krar [lute] which “sounds exactly like an electric bass and is the only instrument I’ve seen where notes are played with finger stops directly on the strings rather than a neck.” Plus, what looks like a drum kit is a collection of traditional percussion, he explains, “with incredibly intricate rhythms played with a bass drum pedal on a floor tom-tom. It’s absolutely mesmerizing to watch.

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

So far, the public response has been excellent, she said.

“We played the full gamut, jazz centers, folk music festivals and craft spaces. And we made every audience dance. The group’s mission is captured in its name; “Qwanqwa” is the Amharic word for “language”, a human connection that music makes universal. “It was really fun to test our approach on the tour,” adds Hostetter. “And so far we’ve had some memorable shows every night.”

What should the public expect? “They should expect to feel a whole range of emotions, the biggest slice of joy you can get straight from Ethiopia,” Hostetter promises. “It’s a unique vision through the filter of actively experimental and avant-garde traditional musicians. It’s foreign, energetic, different and immediate. Many people have told us that this 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 horn over haunting beats is the local embodiment of the globally beloved “Ethiopiques” sound. [That term comes from a series of French CD re-packagings of 1960s-’70s- era Addis Ababa recordings.]

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  • Peter McElhinney
  • Afro-Zen Allstars of Richmond during a recent concert at the VMFA.

The Richmond band have sped up the release from a COVID-era hiatus with a new CD, “The Hum and the Bells”, and a series of concerts with growing crowds at larger venues, including Hardywood Park Craft Brewery and the VMFA, fueled in large part by players’ affection for this particular branch of world music.

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

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