By Kaethe Hostetter | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
The last ten years of my life have been a swirling East African adventure with my instrument serving as my North Star. I’ve found myself deep in the Rift Valley, playing violin with tribal communities who would be surprised to learn they are technically Ethiopian. I’ve learned melodies in the unique, walled city of Harar—a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most sacred cities of Islam. This trade-influenced town in Eastern Ethiopia was where French poet Arthur Rimbaud settled for a time, working for a coffee trader at the end of the 19th century.
I’ve crossed the border by train to the deserts of Djibouti, where I jammed on oud melodies with Somali incense traders, and traveled to the reggae studios of the Rastas of Shashamene. I’ve traveled to the border of Kenya and Ethiopia, setting up in the shade with my fiddle at a Saturday market among bead vendors and farm stands, with music as my first offering of acquaintance and greeting at every turn.
My violin has brought me to a dark club in Addis Ababa, where a legendary singer was reviving his dormant career after the trauma of the military Derg regime had left him all but silent. My violin has also brought me onstage with the biggest pop star in Ethiopia, Teddy Afro, playing to a stadium audience of around 20,000.
How did I get here?
I am lucky to come from a family that encourages musical adventure and experimentation. My mom, a classically trained pianist and cellist, also became the executor of Paul Bowles’ musical estate. Her frequent trips to Morocco in the ’90s to archive his manuscripts became an elusive and mystical theme in our lives at home, as she would return with pottery, rugs, and stories about Bowles’ field recordings for the Library of Congress. Meanwhile, my father, a luthier known for his broad expertise in stringed instruments, and for his workshop in the redwoods of California, also produced and recorded a series of acoustic guitarists in Madagascar, bringing some of the musicians for a tour in US in 1994. These early influences set the stage for a unique approach to life, where music, connection, and adventure meet.
I first really explored improvisation with career circus accordionist and clown Peter Bufano, who hired me when I was 18 to play in a summer circus-tent tour in the grassy New England countryside. With two shows a day for three months, there were plenty of possibilities to develop soloing ideas, incorporate pedals, and get used to the range of the five-string violin my father built for me specifically for the tour.
My years of classical training made me feel that no technique was out of my reach, that my only limitation was my courage. After a certain period of working in orchestras around Boston in the early 2000s, I found myself daydreaming—how far could my violin take me?
In Boston, I fell in with a group of like-minded creative folk, and soon met Danny Mekonnen. We started a Sunday practice group, unearthing Ethiopian music from his parents’ old cassette collection. Enthusiastic about the food as well, we dove deep into the cooking tradition, even making our own tej (honey wine) to the soundtrack of golden-era Ethiopian sounds from such artists as saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya. The group settled into a 14-piece band with a horn section, bass guitars, accordion, drum set, and, of course, violin. We chose the name Debo Band, referencing “communal labor” in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language.
It was with Debo Band that, in 2008 I first traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. We had begun gaining recognition, touring all over the US, and were invited to perform at the Ethiopian Music Festival, which featured both traditional and experimental Ethiopian music. On our first night we visited Fendika—a life changing evening for me. This dimly lit traditional bar served us tej while acoustic musicians and vocalists—azmaris, Ethiopia’s traditional troubadours—enraptured the customers with their improvised political commentary and poetry embedded in ancient melodies. I was taken by the strong, melismatic voices, the acoustic virtuosity of the musicians, the vapors of the tej, the audience joining the performers in song, and the incredible crack of a unique, seemingly effortless handclap that everyone managed while also stomping on the packed dirt floor of the bar.
This was my initial introduction to the core traditional set of instruments—masinko (one-string fiddle), krar (lyre), and kebero (goat-skin drums played with sticks). It was also the night I first met a beautiful woman named
Selamnesh, a vocalist of my exact age to the month, whose friendship, despite the many contrasts of our lifestyles, would come to be significant proof of the power of music to reach across great barriers.
These first experiences would prove to be a strong pull that I could not ignore. Upon my return to Boston, I found the sounds of Addis, the nascent friendships, the elusiveness of the music, and the friendliness of the culture were calling me to venture further into unknown territory.
As soon as I could return, I did. Within a year, I found myself spending more time in Addis than in the US. In effect, I moved there—renting a small place a few doors down from the very bar that first entranced me. I would go there every night, sitting on the bench next to Asrat, the drummer, who would teach me Amharic and melodies while he was playing. I absorbed everything, internalizing how to navigate between artistic license and immovable tradition.
Increasingly, I was also participating in the daily routine of the masinko players of the bar, which included chewing khat leaves and playing music all day. They taught me music and Amharic—and I was always with my violin. It was at this point that I succumbed to the intoxicating and surprising sounds of the masinko, thanks mostly to the brilliant experimenter Endris Hasan, who would become an ongoing partner and colleague in music.
I was in the music scene by then, and slowly, here and there, began to collaborate with musicians in town; I started getting calls for my own gigs, where I would hire my own band. I would play concerts, get called as a session player, make arrangements for films and TV shows, and perform with singers at weddings and hotel openings. Over the years these gigs have become both more frequent and also more difficult. Session recordings and events are more common, but smaller clubs have been disappearing—demolished, burnt down—taking an aspect of my Addis musical life history with them.
Eventually, after about 5 years, seeking a deeper, more personal creative project, I invited a few musicians to join me in a group we called QWANQWA (the Amharic word for “language”), named in honor of music as the universal language. QWANQWA brings together my violin and the traditional instruments I encountered on my first night in Addis.
Along the way, QWANQWA has had its ups and downs. Our first big breakwas an invitation in 2016 to Roskilde, one of the largest music festivals in Europe. Ethiopia’s poverty, combined with the allure of the West, has led many Ethiopians to flee to other countries, seeking a better life. Our original drummer and bass krar player used the opportunity to seek refuge in Europe, abandoning the group before we’d even played our concert—leaving me stuck with just one other band member on a giant stage (we got a local drummer to join us). But I rebuilt the band, stronger and better than ever. The current lineup, now four years solid, has multiple international tours under its belt, and includes connections, like the vocalist Selamnesh, I made that first night at Fendika.
In the fall of 2020, QWANQWA is coming to the US for a collaboration with cellist and rising jazz star Tomeka Reid and her string group Hear in Now. We will be bringing our traditional scales, rhythms, and ornamentations to the incubation process before premiering our collaboration at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. Although the ten-piece ensemble won’t be very mobile, the five of us in QWANQWA will then strike out on our own for a three-month tour across the US.
I’m thankful for the work ethic and ability to break things down to their most basic components that my years of classical training ingrained in me. The flicker of discovery is seductive, but diligent practice is what truly fuels exploration. A deep personal connection with my instrument was forged at a young age; my time in Ethiopia has allowed me to follow that connection further than I ever expected.