Afro-Zen Allstars

Afro-Zen Allstars

Richmond, Virginia, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2014 | SELF

Richmond, Virginia, United States | SELF
Established on Jan, 2014
Band World Jazz




"Golden Devotion"

"I do this stuff to increase the amount of joy in the world. Nothing brings people together quite like music does, and being exposed to the musical culture of some other place can result in understanding more and grasping the fact that people are much more alike than they are different." George M Lowe

Davy Jones - River City

"Afro-Zen Allstars Let the Instruments Do the Talking"

Afro-Zen Allstars is a nine-piece juggernaut that was born in 2014 under the leadership of guitarist George M. Lowe. Lowe has been an avid consumer of indigenous global sounds since 1980, having been turned on by the classic Nonesuch Explorer album series. (Lowe told me his favorite musician is Thomas Mapfumo of Zimbabwe, obviously earning points from me as Mapfumo’s biographer.) After playing in a few bands and arranging African pieces for them, Lowe wanted to create his own band with a special focus on revisiting Ethiopian music from the 1960s-’70s “golden era.” Lowe knew that local Richmond, VA universities turned out extraordinary players year after year, and he began recruiting candidates to fulfill the vision. Surrounded now by music educators and full-time pros, Lowe describes himself as “the least accomplished musician in my own band.” Not a bad place to be in this case.

The band’s 2016 debut album was called Afro-Zen Allstars Greatest Hits. (Lowe quips that they were hits for somebody.) The follow-up release, The Buzz and The Bells, was nearly complete when the pandemic hit, and like so many projects it was long delayed in reaching our ears. As a guitarist, Lowe—who says he hates recording—takes no solos on the session, leaving that to Chris Vasi, who juxtaposes clean, elegant electric guitar lines with a layered tsunami of brass—a satisfying effect every time.

Lowe’s role is principally in curation and arranging. He composed one track, “Longing,” a lush, polyrhythmic journey inspired by Ethiopian vocal star Tilahoun Gessesse. The remaining eight pieces are all arrangements of tracks ranging from a shuffling Afrobeat take on a tune by Malian techno-folk artist Issa Bagayogo (“My Madomba") to an inspired soul-tinged cover of “Binta Madialo” by Cameroonian maestro and scholar Francis Bebey, to a moody, muscular arrangement of a song by the faux-Nigerian Brooklyn band The Daktaris, “Daktari Disaster.”

For all that, the Ethiopian tracks are the heart and soul of this album. Lowe’s arrangement of Mahmoud Ahmed’s “Mela Mela ’17” absolutely smokes. Here again, the interplay between Vasi’s eloquent guitar wail and the deep blare of the interlocking brass sections is magic, culminating in a ballsy baritone sax solo from Chris Sclafani and a high summit of caviling horns that sounds like Dixieland gone to the dark side. Sclafani also bellows wonderfully on “Dewel,” a rearrangement of Ethio-jazz king Mulatu Astatke’s arrangement of an Asmari funeral song. “Kulunmanqueleshi,” another traditional Ethiopian piece memorably recorded by Astatke, gets a rollicking treatment here working around one of the catchiest bass riffs in African music. Track after track, Lowe’s shapely arrangements shift between rich ensemble work and off-the-hook soloing, all of it delivered flawlessly and with joy, despite those ubiquitous, dark Ethiopian modes.

Afro-Zen Allstars don’t tour much. Most of the players are booked steadily with more lucrative gigs. So you may not see them on a stage near you any time soon. But throw on The Buzz and the Bells, crank it up, and it’s guaranteed you’ll have a party on your hands.

Banning Eyre - Afropop Worldwide

"Review: The Buzz and the Bells""

"Whether floating on the undulating melodic surface or diving into the rhythmic crosscurrents, this is music that takes you somewhere."

Peter McElhinney, Style Weekly Music Writer - Style Weekly

"At Home in the '60s of My Mind"

Honestly, they were barely into the first song, their Ethiopian funk settling into a groove so deep it was startling for its immediacy, when people began dancing. They might have played one or two songs that weren't Ethiopian, but even those followed the groove.
And a mighty groove it was! - Karen Newton

"Global A Go-Go"

There’s no Richmond band more deserving of national and international attention in 2017 than this one – music for your head, feet and soul at the same time. - Bill Lupoletti



Our music exists at the place where African musical tradition connects with Jazz & Jam. The lovely and haunting sounds created in Ethiopia during the "Golden Age" (late '60's- mid '70's) serve as our primary inspiration, but we also have a large repertoire of material from all over Africa and beyond, plus similarly flavored originals. This is music for the mind, body and spirit and, with the goal of increasing the amount of joy in the world, we hope to share it far and wide

George M Lowe- Band Leader, Guitar & arrangements

Brian Cruse- Bass

Scott Milstead- Drums

Keith Cable- Percussion

Chris Vasi- Guitar

John Lilly- Alto & Tenor Sax

Christopher Sclafani- Baritone & Alto Sax

Toby Whitaker- Trombone

Band Members