When Ethiopian musicians Temesgen Zeleke and Amare Mulageta met singer Genet Asefa at a London cultural group in 2005, they knew they wanted to form a trio. Zeleke, a krar player (a six-stringed lyre, similar to a harp), Amare, a percussionist, and Asefa, a vocalist, quickly became in-demand among the Ethiopian community in London, playing at weddings, night clubs and cultural events.
It was after one of their shows in 2008 that Sebastian Merrick, a UK band manager and booking agent, approached them. Under his management, Krar Collective began playing at bigger shows, gaining a reputation as one of the most exciting bands to emerge from Africa.
In the summer of 2012, the group toured with Damon Albarn’s Africa Express Train, a travelling caravan of African and Western musicians who perform mostly improvised collaborations in clubs, parks and schools across the UK. Speaking with the Rover, Zeleke said it was “one of the best experiences of my life” and that he was thrilled to play with Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal.
Playing his krar and jamming on a train with Baaba Maal, Malian guitarist Amadou and American rapper M1 from Dead Prez marked a long journey from Zeleke’s first exposure to the krar. When a 16-year old Zeleke saw a neighbour playing it, he was enthralled and decided he had to learn the craft. So he made one himself: “It was difficult to find the wood,” he says. But Zeleke made a functional, simple one and began teaching himself. His mother had other plans for him. “I made five krars and she broke all of them,” he laughs. She wanted him to concentrate on school, become a doctor or an engineer. After he made his sixth krar, she got tired and gave up.
He did go to school, studying under Ethio-jazz legend Mulata Asteke for three years. The trio’s 2012 debut album, Ethiopia Super Krar, is dedicated to Asnaketch Worku, the legendary krar player (and first female player) who died in 2011. The album pays homage to the greats, like Mulata Asteke, and showcases Krar Collective’s modern twist on their traditional roots.
When Krar Collective took to the stage at Cabaret du Mile End on Tuesday dressed in kabas – the velvety, jewelled traditional capes worn at weddings – the trio seemed serious, the stage stark. Asefa’s unnervingly powerful voice filled every crevice and corner of the cabaret. It was a traditional thanksgiving song, Zeleke – charmingly polite with accented English – explained to the audience. “We are very happy to be here.”
They followed that with a love song, and a smile emerged from beneath Asefa’s huge head of hair which stayed for the rest of the night. Asefa made several wardrobe changes throughout the night and wowed with not only her powerhouse vocals and ululations, but her dancing as well, jerking her shoulders and shaking her head wildly.
Guided by her dancing and singing, and directed by Zeleke’s gentle commands – “Everybody please clap your hands,” and “There are lots of Ethiopians here, you can follow them and dance. They are really wonderful” – many in the crowd danced on the floor, with Zeleke and Asefa even pulling some people up onto the stage. And whether it was the skilled, rooster-like strut of a young Ethiopian-Canadian man, or the flailing arms of a middle-aged Canadian man, the crowd cheered them on, and Asefa and Zeleke hugged them and shook their hands as they hopped off the stage.
It was only Krar Collective’s second time in Canada. He told the Rover he was amazed at how friendly and welcoming Canadians were, and how open they were to Krar Collective’s music during their shows in Calgary and Edmonton. He also marvelled at Canadian politeness, exclaiming “Drivers stopped for us when we crossed the streets!”
I didn’t get a chance to ask Zeleke if that opinion had changed after crossing Montreal streets. Regardless, they seemed quite happy with their introduction to Montreal. “What a beautiful day!” he said to the dancing, clapping crowd before him. “What a beautiful people!”
Krar Collective performed as part of the Festival International des Nuits d’Afrique, which runs until July 21. For more information please visit the festival website.