A&E

Musician Kaethe Hostetter Navigates a Year of Uncertainty

Santa Cruz’s Kaethe Hostetter built a life in Ethiopia with acclaimed ensemble QWANQWA—until Covid hit

Separated from her Ethiopian group by the pandemic, Kaethe Hostetter spent most of 2020 in her native Santa Cruz, where she has been working on a solo album she’ll release on May 31. COURTESY PHOTO

Kaethe Hostetter has been on a lot of planes in her life, but on a March 26 flight last year, she had a knot in her stomach.

Everything was stressful, including the simple act of buying plane tickets so she could leave Ethiopia and get back to Santa Cruz. She had to purchase three separate one-way tickets, connecting the flights herself, and hope that there wasn’t a delay at any of the airports.

Before she left Ethiopia, there was a lot to be worried about. It wasn’t just Covid-19, which had by then become a pandemic. Political tensions were on the rise between different ethnic groups in the country; war seemed inevitable, and indeed, it did eventually break out. Add to that the fact that Ethiopia seemed unprepared for the spread of Covid-19—hospitals were in crisis even before the pandemic—and she felt she had to return home.

As she sat on the plane, wondering what it meant to go back to Santa Cruz, where she was born and raised, and leave behind Ethiopia, the country she’d lived in the past decade, the sheer emptiness of the plane got to her.

“It was hectic, but eerily quiet at the same time. Just creepy,” Hostetter says of her flight. “And I’m thinking, ‘Where is home?’ It’s like, ‘Am I going home, or am I leaving home?’ The whole concept is up in the air at that point.”

Ironically, Hostetter had been planning to come back to the U.S. later in the year for an entirely different reason—the band she formed in Ethiopia in 2014, QWANQWA, was to embark on a 60-day U.S. tour, their first time playing here. She plays violin in the group, which puts a modern twist on traditional Ethiopian folk music. This was going to be a big tour, with gigs like the Hyde Park Jazz Festival mixed in with smaller headlining shows.

The QWANQWA tour was possible because of a MacArthur grant that Chicago musician Tomeka Reid helped them get. It covered their visas and other major expenses. Reid is a well-known jazz musician who plays in the group Hear In Now with Mazz Swift and Silvia Bolognesi. The point of this grant was to bring QWANQWA to the U.S. for a “musical exchange” with Hear In Now. There would have been a lot of jamming, some concerts, and quite possibly some recording. Reid and Hostetter were excited about this part of the QWANQWA tour.

“What was exciting about this was to work with these musicians and to have this exchange,” Reid says. “This sharing of musical ideas and styles and exposing, hopefully, more audiences to not only QWANQWA, but this unique sound.”  

At the time, Hostetter, like most of us, didn’t realize that Covid-19 wouldn’t magically go away in a month or two—it would still be affecting us all a year later, with the return of live music tours only now being discussed. At the time, she assumed her tour was not in jeopardy. One of her main motivations for getting on U.S. soil was to have reliable internet and cell service so she could sort out details for the tour and secure a touring van. She even was supposed to stop at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, where she’d be tabling for her clothing company WUZZAWAZZEE.

Of course, everything was canceled. The only thing that went according to plan was the release of QWANQWA’s latest album, Volume 3, which came out last September to rave reviews. Pop Matters wrote: “These are wonderful sonics, especially when the artists who incorporate them into their not-strictly-Ethio-jazz repertoires give due credit to their cultural roots.”

Meanwhile, Hostetter spent the rest of 2020 in Santa Cruz, reconnecting with people in her community and playing at farmers markets with her mom. The unexpected twists and turns of this past year have at least allowed Hostetter to finish a project she’s had on the back burner for the past five years—a solo album she will release on May 31.

But as excited as she is for the release of the album, the future remains uncertain.

The Ethiopian ensemble QWANQWA (the name translates to “language”), which Hostetter started in 2014, was scheduled to play a 60-day U.S. tour before it was cancelled due to Covid-19. They were, however, able to put out their third album, ‘Volume 3.’ COURTESY PHOTO

CLASSICAL MEETS ETHIO-JAZZ

Music has been a constant in Hostetter’s life for as long as she can remember. She thinks she started playing violin around 5 years old and was classically trained as a child.

“It was just like it was extensions of my arms, from what I can remember,” she says.

She grew up in a musical family; her late father Paul Hostetter was well known in town as a local luthier and had a shop at their home. People would bring him their broken and old fretted instruments, and he would revive them. Her mom, Irene Herrmann, was a staff accompanist at UCSC and became the executor of composer Paul Bowles’ musical estate. She performed on mandolin, piano and cello. Both of her parents performed folk and classical music.

When she graduated high school, she wanted to dive headfirst into a musician’s life, so she moved to Boston, where she’d heard she could have a real shot at carving out a freelance career as a violin player.

Rather than enroll in Berklee Music like a lot of young musicians did, she got a job at a coffee shop and looked for mentors who could show her the ropes.

“I knew that I didn’t want to go into student debt at all. So I was like, ‘Let me let me try and climb up the ladder the back way,’” Hostetter says.

The gigs started coming, but it was through meeting musician Danny Mekonnen that her life was forever altered. Mekonnen was born to Ethiopian parents who were refugees in Sudan in 1980. They eventually made it to Texas, which is where Mekonnen grew up. When Mekonnen was older, they showed him a bunch of their old tapes of ’70s Ethio-jazz.

Mekonnen loved the music. He played it for anyone who would listen, including Hostetter, who fell in love with it, too. There was a whole group of friends who would get together and listen to Mekonnen’s parents’ tapes while enjoying delicious Ethiopian food and attempting to make their own tej (honey wine).

Hostetter liked how alive and vibrant the music was and wanted to dissect some of the scales they used that she’d never heard before.

The ethio-jazz listening parties eventually turned into jam sessions. These sessions became Debo Band, which formed in 2004. They earned acclaim from NPR, The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Their first album was released on Sub Pop in 2012, and the band played festivals like Bonaroo, Bumbershoot, and the Vancouver Folk Festival.

As great as things were going, the group’s problem was that they formed almost too casually to sustain a long career.

“That group grew to be sort of a touring ensemble, ungainly as it was,” Hostetter says. It was way too big. It was never like, ‘We need one of these and one of these.’ It had way too many people in it.”

TAKING THE MUSIC HOME

In 2008, Debo Band got an amazing opportunity to play Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, at the Ethiopian Music Festival, which showcased traditional and experimental music. The show also made them nervous. For years, they’d functioned as ambassadors of Ethiopian music to audiences largely unfamiliar with it. But since they learned it themselves as adults, they didn’t understand the music on the same level as the Ethiopian Music Festival audience would.

“It was a big show. We had big anticipation. What are they gonna think of us?” Hostetter says. “It was amazing, because they were singing along to all our songs. They knew them and appreciated that we learned their music.”  

While they were there, they were introduced to many of the best local musicians. For Hostetter, it was mind-blowing because, for the first time, she got to experience the country’s traditional acoustic instruments like the masinko (one-string fiddle), krar (lyre), and kebero (goat-skin drums played with sticks). The Ethio-jazz of the ’70s had used guitars and saxophones, but she loved how subtle and complex these traditional instruments were and was awed by the virtuosity of the players. Rather than go back to Boston, Hostetter changed her return flight so she could stay in Ethiopia for an additional two months.

“There’s super cool advantages of traveling with a giant group of musicians where they’re like, ‘Hey, huge band from Boston, meet all the musicians,’ and it’s all organized and stuff,” Hostetter says. “But I wanted to look into some of these introductions a little bit more individually and dig into that. It felt like a frontier of new territory, and worthy of changing a life for that.”

At first, Hostetter would visit Ethiopia for extended periods of time. When she ran out of money, she’d return to the states for a bit and save up some cash, then go back to Ethiopia.

In 2010, she became a resident of Ethiopia. She started teaching the violin to school children.

At the same time, she was studying traditional Ethiopian instruments, trying to break down what they were doing and learn how to recreate those sounds on her violin.

Kaethe Hostetter is planning new dates for her group’s international tours and a deeply personal solo album. COURTESY PHOTO

Master of Masinko

She also got to know musician Endris Hassen, a man she’d met when Debo Band played in Ethiopia years earlier. He was a master masinko player. She followed Hassen around like a lost puppy; eventually he became her teacher, then her friend. They played together for a while as a duo.

“He’s such an unassuming guy, but an unusually powerful musician,” Hostetter says.

She had wanted to start a band in Ethiopia since her first visit, but she was in no rush. Finding the right players was key. She wanted players who knew the traditions of the music extremely well, but who were also willing to experiment.

“I wanted to reach deep into the culture and see what was there that was catchy and universal—and pull it out and play with it,” Hostetter says. “Open it up and have some moments of really tight arrangements based on these catchy riffs, but then also have open sections for experimental solos that could go on for a long time. Open it up to a punk kind of energy.”

The band adopted the name QWANQWA—“language,” in Amharic—and released an album in 2014, and another in 2015. In 2016, they played Roskilde, one of the largest music festivals in Europe. Then they worked on Volume 3, which was very challenging to finish, particularly in getting the right mix. Since the album was recorded the band’s lineup has changed; it now features Misale Legesse on kebero, a goatskin drum; Anteneh Teklemariam on bass-krar; and Endris Hassen on masenko-one, a string fiddle. They added a vocalist, Selamnesh Zemene, and have a whole new album’s worth of material ready to record.

GETTING PERSONAL

When Hostetter arrived in Santa Cruz last March, she stayed in contact with promoters to get a sense of where things were heading. Some were unsure, some canceled dates, and others were overly optimistic. Hostetter stayed positive that by fall, life would be normal enough to continue with her plans. But in late May, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival was canceled. That’s when Hostetter knew the tour wasn’t going to happen; it was the anchor date of the whole tour, and part of the basis of the MacArthur grant. There was no tour without that show.

The musical exchange was a particularly sad thing to let go of. Tomeka Reid had met Hostetter a few years back on a trip she took to celebrate her 40th birthday. She wanted to meet Hassan. She did, and also met Hostetter. He gave her lessons on the masinko and the cello. Reid came out to a show to see Hassen and Hostetter’s duo and sat in with them.

“The Hyde Park Jazz Festival would have been really cool. They were going to put us up, and we were going to have these workshops, and just open it up to the community to learn about these different instruments, to learn about these different scales, the different disciplines about Ethiopian music, too,” Reid says.  

Once Hostetter let go of the tour, she had to find other ways to occupy her time. She and her mom played several farmers markets, performing some of the Italian and folk music that she’d always been interested in. Also, Hostetter found work by gardening, weeding and doing other odd jobs for neighbors. After the fire, she helped people in Bonny Doon drag brush, burn piles, chop up branches and do fire cleanup.

Sometimes she’d play solo at the farmers markets, incorporating looping pedals to make herself sound like an entire band while doing her own interpretations of Ethiopian songs. At one such gig last September, one man who had stopped to listen told Hostetter how incredible it was. He loved the textures she was creating.

“I try to pull out certain frequencies and tug on them. I think he responded to that,” Hostetter says. “He was like, ‘I’ve seen so many shows. And it reminds me of back in the day.’ He probably went to a bunch of Dead shows. He said that it was beautiful.”

His reaction inspired Hostetter to get working on her long-delayed solo album. There were at least 30 songs she had been working on: Her own deeply personal take on Ethiopian music. There was a song she’d heard on the radio one time years ago that she played from foggy memory. There was another one that an old Ethiopian woman taught her on her deathbed. Hostetter even emulates her voice as she sings.

“The liner notes are going to be kind of crucial—just what my own story is with it,” Hostetter says. “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I’ve been absorbing so much Ethiopian music. It’s like a little bit more of a personalized interpretation.”

To record these songs, she started working with Sandor Nagyszalanczy, a former senior editor for Fine Woodworking magazine, and now a contributing writer to Ukulele Magazine. He was also a friend of Hostetter’s late father Paul. He was immediately taken with Hostetter’s music and was excited to help her record her solo album.  

“I think Kaethe, both her adeptness at playing the instrument and her tone, is marvelous,” Nagyszalanczy says. “I have been enjoying recording her and listening to her. Her violin playing is wonderful. Kaethe is certainly the master of her instrument.”

Now, this spring, the world seems a little brighter than it was a year earlier. Live music isn’t back exactly, but we are finally at a place where we can see its potential and start discussing and making plans once again.

QWANQWA’s tour initially got pushed back to this fall, but that was canceled as well. Fortunately, there’s so much interest to make this happen that she was able to move it to the fall of 2022. A lot of the contacts she made are inviting her to bring her solo music on the road later this year.

Through all the uncertainty and disappointments of the past year, Hostetter has gotten through it with a willingness to adapt to any circumstance—a trait she picked up in Ethiopia, where it is a way of life.

“I’ve been caught by the community that raised me, and good timing, too,” Hostetter says. “People have said, ‘You are going to be bored back in your hometown,’ and I’m like, ‘The adventure continues. It’s here as much as it is anywhere.’”  

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Sandor Nagyszalanczy

    April 1, 2021 at 12:07 pm

    It would have been nice if the author of this article had mentioned that Kaethe recorded her solo violin album at my recording studio: Wise Acres Studios in Bonny Doon.

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