Genet Asef, vocalist for the Krar Collective, performed a head-twisting, hair-whipping dance. A few minutes later, she jumped down off the stage and into the midst of the dancing crowd. Temesgen Zeleke pulled gorgeous sounds from his electric krar, and Grum Bebegashaw kept the rhythm moving on the kebero drums.
“There are no words,” said the man behind me.
“Can I quote you on that?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, and gave me his name: Mike Tepper, one of the members of Dr. Caterwaul’s Cadre of Clairvoyant Claptraps.
Dr. Caterwaul’s had opened for The Krar Collective, which was about halfway through its set Tuesday night at Cafe Nine when Tepper spoke. Shyness had evaporated and the dance floor was packed. Rain poured outside, but inside we could easily have been in a hip live music venue in subtropical Addis Ababa.
The Krar Collective is a London-based Ethiopian trio. Their sound is part classic Ethiopian and part rock, which has led some to describe them as “the Ethiopian White Stripes.” Much as I adore Jack White, I don’t think the comparison does The Krar Collective justice. They are bluesy. They are rocky. They have the hypnotic drum rhythms so characteristic of African music and the mystical yet earthy sounds of classical Middle Eastern music. They’re descendants, in short, of a deeply-rooted Ethiopian musical tradition that they’ve brought into the present.
Zeleke’s krar—a six-stringed harp—is an important feature. It is an ancient Ethiopian instrument, and Zeleke studied it with master player and legend Mulatu Astatke. Though Zeleke’s krar is electric.
“Most of our songs are about love and beautiful places,” was the only full sentence Zeleke spoke during the set. The rest was all gorgeous grooves blending constantly shifting beats, trilling ethereal vocals, and Zeleke’s krar. For which there are no words. And then of course Asef’s dance performances, no less impressive than her soaring vocals.
“It was really very refreshing. They can bring so much life to the moment. And I loved how the crowd got into it,” said Beza Getachew after the performance. She and Beserat Debebe , young people from the local Ethiopian and Eritrean community, led the way on the dance floor for much of the night. “I thought it was amazing,” said Debebe. “We don’t get to see this very often.”
As the opener, Dr. Caterwaul’s set the stage with a “world tour,” including their own rendition of an Ethiopian song, “Musicawi Silt,” for which they apologized. Their thickly textured, immersive sound is rich with rhythm and momentum, and the lyrics are instantly transportive. Which is a good thing, because they moved fast. “We’re going to continue jumping continents and time periods,” said Adam Matlock, vocalist and accordion player, telling the audience that we were now in an MTV studio circa 1991 with Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson. Then: “Now we’re in 2003 Los Angeles, before Britney Spears’ highly publicized breakdown.” Then: “Now we jump to Macedonia.” Their blends are surprising and fresh. During one song, for instance, I felt like I was listening to a mash-up of French café music and sincere 90s power ballad.
The always fabulous Rudeyna closed the evening. Carried along by the Krar Collective’s explosive energy, past midnight, she was still singing.