How a trip from Boston to Ethiopia gave birth to the nonconformist group QWANQWA

When the band QWANQWA takes the stage BU World Music Festival on Saturday, September 17, they will make their Boston debut, along with five of the other groups participating in the free event. But if the violinist sounds familiar, that’s because Kaethe Hostetter was a busy Boston musician before a trip to Addis Ababa changed her life.

Hostetter moved to Boston when he was 17. Avoiding enrolling full-time in one of the local music schools – “I wasn’t looking to get into deep debt” – she soon began working as a violinist and violist with bands ranging from the Philharmonic of Boston at the Cirkestra marquee set. Playing with the informal street band Stick & Rag Village Orchestra and volunteering at Bikes Not Bombs put her in the same Jamaica Plain scene as Danny Mekonnen, an Ethiopian American saxophonist and ethnomusicologist who was creating a large ethiopian band. funk called Debo Band.

The first time Mekonnen played Hostetter a classic Ethiopian recording, she knew her life had changed. “I didn’t really understand why it affected me so much at the time, but what I realize now affected me so much are the scales and the melodies and how there is a real immediate groove behind the virtuoso playing”, she says.

Debo quickly became a popular Boston band. Soon he was recording for Sub Pop Records and touring internationally. In 2009, he was selected to be part of the Ethiopian Music Festival in Addis Ababa. Like many Western musicians and listeners, Hostetter was most familiar with 1960s and 1970s Ethio-jazz and funk from artists like Mulatu Astatke and Mahmoud Ahmed, who had been collected in the long-running series of Ethiopiques compilations. But on the first night of the trip, the members of Debo went to one of the traditional music houses known as azmari bet, giving Hostetter his first chance to hear the masinko, a one-string fiddle. “It was even more of a ‘wow’ moment,” she says. When the rest of the band returned to Boston, Hostetter stayed.

“It wasn’t really well planned,” she laughs. “I would be in Addis Ababa for a while until my money ran out, then I would go back to the United States, earn more money and come back until the money ran out again.” Eventually, she lived in Ethiopia full time, where she opened a children’s string instrument school and began research into Ethiopian textiles that led to a clothing line called WUZZAWAZEE.

Hostetter was not just a white American playing East African music, but one of the few female instrumentalists in Addis Ababa’s vibrant traditional music scene. “There was a lot of otherness there,” she admits. “But everyone was super nice and I was always made to feel welcome.”

“I was so happy to see Americans who wanted to play Ethiopian music,” says Misale Legesse, who plays the kebero goatskin drum in QWANQWA, which plays traditional Ethiopian melodies and rhythms through a psychedelic lens. “Now we are like brother and sister.”

Legesse had also been a member of a more traditional music and dance ensemble, Fendika, which toured the United States with Debo Band in 2011. “Fendika sounded more like real azmari music. With QWANQWA, we take that music, merge it and experiment with it,” says Legesse.

“Our songs are traditional melodies that might just be a few-word chanting,” adds Hostetter. “So there’s always a source, and then we add all the beats and harmonies and shape the music.”

This rapprochement between tradition and innovation is something QWANQWA has in common with many other artists who will be performing and leading workshops during the festival on Saturday. Other bands making their Boston debut include Mexican marimba punks Son Rompe Pera, Estonian electro-folkies Puuluup, and Malawian instrument makers and street duo Madalitso.

QWANQWA, which means “tongue” in Amharic, began as an instrumental quartet. Its first release, “Volume 1”, dates from 2014. Today, it is a quintet which also includes bassist Anteneh Teklemariam, masinko player Endres Hassen and singer Selamnesh Zemene. “Having the fiddle and the masinko means we can really converse and dance around each other with the strings,” says Hostetter.

Musicians have always ignored boundaries, and QWANQWA is no exception. As well as including tracks from different Ethiopian ethnic groups, the band’s latest release, “Volume 3”, opens with a song based on an Eritrean melody from the Blen tribe before switching to a wah-wah drenched song. that the band learned from Somali disco pioneers. Strip Hard Hard. A new string instrument created by Hassen resulted in a song inspired by Malian music. Zemene is a master of the lyrical tradition known as sen-ena-werq (gold and wax), where words contain multiple meanings.

Shortly before the COVID-19 shutdown, Hostetter returned to her hometown of Santa Cruz to help plan what was originally to be the 2020 QWANQWA Tour, funded in part by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Between COVID and political unrest and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, she has not backed down. Even though the QWANQWA tour finally takes place, Hostetter says it will likely stay in the United States. “I think my new relationship [with the music] will be done by collaborating outside of Ethiopia. We can profit more by exporting the base work that we have built there. »


boston university World Music Festival takes place Saturday, September 17 from noon to 9:30 p.m. outdoors at the Warren Albert Mall.

Editor’s Note: Boston University holds the license to broadcast WBUR, but is not involved in editorial decisions.

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