Qwanqwa: Volume Two
FPE Records

Were Ornette Coleman still with us, I've little doubt he would enthusiastically endorse this sophomore effort by Qwanqwa, an instrumental Addis Ababa-based quartet that integrates a number of disparate styles into its bold take on indigenous traditional music. Together since 2012, Ethiopian musicians Mesele Asmamaw (electric krar), Dawit Seyoum (electric bass krar), and Samson “Sami” Sendekou (percussion), and American five-string electric violinist Kaethe Hostetter bring Coleman's harmolodic concept to life in a way that feels perfectly natural and wholly unforced. Harmolodically speaking, the four play together yet are always individually soloing, making for a musical product that's always in motion.

Interestingly, Qwanqwa came into being when Hostetter moved to Addis Ababa in 2012 to immerse herself in Ethiopian musical culture and connected with kindred spirits in the local music scene. Also interesting is the fact that five of the six pieces on the forty-two-minute collection are traditional (the blues-romp closer “Gorage” is credited to Demiss Teka and Abonesh Adinew); it's Qwanqwa's arrangements and overall approach that makes the material sound so contemporary.

While there's an electric dimension to the outfit's sound, the music possesses a fundamental African folk character, and the compositions are earmarked by a pronounced melodic emphasis. The four indulge in jazz-like call-and-response, with Hostetter and Asmamaw often riffing against one another, as well as unison playing. The opening minutes of “Selam Selam” effectively illustrate the approach, with the four first collectively voicing the tune's swinging theme before Hostetter branches away for individual statements to which Asmamaw and Seyoum reply. Even describing the playing as such fails to capture the fluid manner by which the musicians adjust their playing and roles to suit the material as it's performed. One of the primary pleasures from a listening standpoint derives from alternating between monitoring the interactions between the players and their individual expressions.

Vocals appear—not ineffectively—on “Tezeta,” a dirge-like folk-drone setting that's the album's longest at twelve minutes, but Volume Two is otherwise instrumental. There are moments on the album that call to mind Jerry Goodman's playing in the early Mahavishnu Orchestra, not so much in the musical style but simply the wah-wah of Hostetter's electric violin (see “Kemekem”). Qwanqwa's no jazz-fusion outfit, however: the customary separation between front-line soloists and anchoring rhythm section is dissolved by the free-flowing playing of Seyoum and Sendeku, plus the latter functions more like a limber percussionist than a conventional drummer within the group context. Put simply, each contributor is democratically represented in this thoroughly balanced outfit, resulting in a group sound that's appealingly fresh and novel.

September 2015