For over a decade, local violinist Kaethe Hostetter lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. While there, she absorbed as much of the music as she could. She did this by meeting—and playing with—several local musicians. On one occasion, she met Asnakech Worku, a national treasure both as a master of the krar (Ethiopian harp) and for her passionate vocals. But she hadn’t sung in 20 years. Worku’s niece, a filmmaker, took Hostetter to meet the famous musician, who was bedridden and chain-smoking. Hostetter played the violin for her.
As Worku lay there, she suddenly sang along to Hostetter’s playing. This is a particularly special memory for Hostetter, which she commemorated with her song “Alemiye.” With just a violin, pedals and looping technology, she created a dark minor key tune—a celebratory musical scale in Ethiopia— and combined a plucking loop to resemble the krar sound, with a hoarse melody on a low string, to resemble Worku’s smoky voice that day.
The song is a mixture of all these different Ethiopian elements, filtered through Hostetter’s lens as a longtime Santa Cruz violinist—a truly unique composition.
“Alemiye” will be featured on her upcoming solo album. Though there is no release date yet, she will be performing songs from the record at her upcoming performance at Indexical’s space at the Tannery Arts Center on Nov. 6. The show, which she’s calling “GUZO,” will also have a multimedia element with fabric patterns, field recordings, textiles and video she recorded in Addis Ababa.
Her solo violin project began at the onset of the pandemic last year. She returned to Santa Cruz amidst the chaos of Covid for a variety of personal reasons. Before this went down, she had anticipated a big U.S. 2020 tour with her group QWANQWA, which is made up of herself and several virtuosic Ethiopian string players. Since that tour was canceled, and she was suddenly without a band, she threw herself into playing solo tunes at local farmers markets.
“I would have been on tour with my band, so I funneled that energy into a solo project,” Hostetter says.
In Ethiopia, she rarely performed solo gigs. The few times she did, she would play her own renditions of popular Ethiopian tunes as background music. She devoted a lot more time to jamming with other musicians and learning the nuances of the music around here.
But playing a lot of those same songs here in Santa Cruz got a totally different response. A lot of passers-by were mesmerized by the scales and musical styles she’d picked up in Addis Ababa. They’d never heard anything like what she played.
“I tried to keep it as free as possible,” Hostetter says. “It was just improvising in certain styles and adding loops. I didn’t have to create such a sharp form. Just take the elements that I developed and float around using them.”
Before the pandemic, QWANQWA was her life. And while her big tour is rescheduled for 2023, writing and recording a solo album has at least temporarily overtaken her creative focus. As she’s recorded these songs, they’ve also functioned to unpack and process her time in Ethiopia. Some are loosely based on songs she heard once on the radio in Addis Ababa, others take chants, riffs, popular songs, specific techniques and get filtered through her lens as a violinist with a looping pedal. It’s both musically adventurous and emotional as the songs trigger lots of memories for her. The title of her show, “GUZO,” translates to “heavy journey.”
“Every tune has tons of meaning. It’s very layered. There’s techniques of me emulating either the voice or the masenqo —the one string fiddle—but there’s also the way that they layer and group tones, harmonies and stuff,” Hostetter says. “It’s drenched in meaning.”
Kaethe Hostetter performs at 8pm on Saturday, Nov. 6 at Indexical in the Tannery Arts Center, 1050 River St., #119, $18. 831-621-6226.