Krar Collective brings an electric update of Ethiopian music to Artscape
Published: July 17, 2013
It’s a familiar story. A teenager sees somebody making music and wants to do it too, but his parents just don’t understand. Maybe it was a guitar. Maybe it was two turntables and a microphone. For the Krar Collective’s Temesgen Zeleke it was a krar, the bowed, stringed instrument used in the traditional music of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
“When I was kid, I saw one of my friends in Ethiopia play the krar [and] I was just amazed,” Zeleke says from London during a Skype interview. Originally from Ethiopia, he speaks with an accent but he’s an adept storyteller and knows some things are funny in any language. “I decided I wanted to play the krar and I get some wood and tried to make one by myself. When I was 15 years old, I made a krar, and my mom, she break my krar four or five times. She didn’t want me to become musician. She was always telling me, ‘You have to give time for your school.’”
Music finally won out for Zeleke. In 2003 Zeleke and kebero drummer Grum Begashaw moved to London, where they eventually saw and met vocalist Genet Asefa, who was performing in Ethiopian nightclubs and at weddings. This nucleus of the Krar Collective took shape about six years ago. The trio plays an energetic, stripped-down take on traditional Ethiopian songs, a rousing sound captured on the group’s 2012 debut, Ethiopia Super Krar. The trio makes its first visit to the United States this summer, stopping in Baltimore to play Artscape, playing the Wells Fargo main stage July 20 at 3 p.m.
For Western fans of Ethiopian music, the Krar Collective’s sound is both familiar and fresh. This pair of ears only knows Ethiopian music from a considerable distance, such as listening the Éthiopiques recordings put out by France’s Buda Musique. These are compilations of Ethiopian music that were originally released in the 1960s and 1970s and they feature the gorgeous sounds of singers such as Mahmoud Ahmed and Alemayehu Eshete. And while the music is undeniably riveting, listening to them is a bit like trying to get a sense of American music by listening to somebody else’s version of choice cuts from a handful of artists from the ’60s and ’70s.
On Super Krar the Collective references the past while putting its own spin on it. “Mr. Astatke,” presumably an allusion to the great jazz multi-instrumentalist Mulatu Astatke, features Zeleke’s dizzying electric krar-work dancing over a shaking beat, and the short tune produces the same sort of adrenaline rush as a surf-rock classic. “Oromigna” moves along a more serpentine and funky beat, over which Zeleke and Asefa trade vocal lines and harmonize. The group’s approach captures the energy and intoxicating rhythmic nuance of some Ethiopian music and arranges it into a big sound produced by two instrumentalists and a singer. It’s a bit like how Detroit’s the Gories took the basic building blocks of 1960s rock ’n’ roll and distilled it into their own serious groove.
“Those songs on our CD are all traditional songs,” Zeleke says, and points out that Ethiopia is a country made up of many ethnic groups, each with its own culture and music. “Each ethnic group, they are their own culture, they have their own language as well. So we collect some of the popular [songs] from different regions. Most of them are about country and some of them are about love. We play one children’s song, an old song called ‘Ete-mete.’ That’s a famous and popular song in Ethiopia.”
Adapting his country’s songs for the trio has inspired Zeleke to look forward as the band prepares material for a second album following its summer tour. “Our first CD, we call it the old songs from other singers, songs from a long time, but I changed the arrangements for the music, and we changed the style for the old music and we make it in a modern way,” he says. “But this time, we need to bring our new lyrics, our new melodies, and we need to make the best CD by ourselves—the new songs, the new lyrics, the new form. We want to do that for the next CD.”
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