London-based Krar Collective brings its modern Ethiopian music to Pittsburgh | Music Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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London-based Krar Collective brings its modern Ethiopian music to Pittsburgh

In light of the group’s basic instrumentation, it has been dubbed “the Ethiopian White Stripes”

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Krar Collective - PHOTO COURTESY OF JACOB CRAWFURD
  • Photo courtesy of Jacob Crawfurd
  • Krar Collective

The music of Ethiopia has received increased recognition in the current millennium. The Ethiopiques CD series has released 24 discs since 1997 that celebrate the music of the country, which includes both traditional music and jazz that merges cultural sounds with American influences.  Some Ethiopian-born musicians have either collaborated with Western players or traveled west themselves, bringing their songs with them. 

The instrument known as the krar resembles an ancient lyre, or an oversized guitar without a neck. Acoustic with six strings, it was often associated with azmari minstrel shows in Ethiopia. But in London, a group of Ethiopian expatriates has pushed the krar into the modern age, electrifying and running it through wah-wah pedals and other effects. While these efforts can potentially strip the instrument of its appeal, musician Temesgen Zeleke uses them to his advantage and creates a sound that doesn’t sacrifice its unique tone. He learned to play by studying with jazz maestro Mulatu Astatke, one of the biggest performers of Ethiopian jazz. 

Despite the name, the Krar Collective is actually a trio, with Zeleke’s strings joined by traditional kebero drummer Grum Bogashaw and dancer/vocalist Genet Assefa, they to create spellbinding music that has layers of vocals and rhythms that overlap carefully. They don’t play Western jazz, nor does it come strictly sounding like traditional music. The results fall somewhere in the middle, with energy flowing from the first ecstatic whoop. In light of the group’s basic instrumentation, perhaps, and its intense delivery, it has been dubbed “the Ethiopian White Stripes.” 

The Collective’s performance marks several firsts in Pittsburgh. For starters, they are reportedly the first group of Ethiopian musicians to ever perform in the city. It also marks the first time that Tana, the Ethiopian restaurant in East Liberty, will host a live touring band. Considering the music, it marks a welcome confluence of events.


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