Qwanqwa: Ethiopian Instrumental with a Hint of Shouting

Qwanqwa:  Photo by Kidus Berhanu

Qwanqwa. Photo by Kidus Berhanu

The easiest way of describing Qwanqwa would be as a new instrumental band from Addis Ababa. However, that would be a neither fair nor adequate labeling. Because while the group only started performing together last year, the members – Messele Asmamaw on lead krar, Sami Sendeku on kebero and percussion, Dawit on bass krar and Kaethe Hostetter on 5 string violin – have decades of experience from the music scene in Ethiopia and abroad. Furthermore, while Qwanqwa does not have a permanent vocalist, the band has performed and recorded with a wide range of singers already. And actually, the group is not really from Addis either but originates from Gondar, Kombolcha and Santa Cruz (and Addis). So while Qwanqwa might not be a new instrumental band from Addis, what Qwanqwa is for sure is an incredible experimental traditional Ethiopian rock group that deserves to be played in every living room, at every party and on every radio station from Gondar to Santa Cruz.

We managed to catch up with the one of the Qwanqwa members, the very busy Kaethe Hostetter (of Debo Band fame) while she was in New York performing with a number of Ethiopian groups (incl. Fendika, Arki Sound and Debo Band). Home in Addis, Kaethe teaches music privately and later this year she and the other Qwanqwa members will be recording their debut album to be released on FPE Records. We asked Kaethe to share with us a number of top-3 lists: from the best things about playing music in Ethiopia, over the essential krar features and the finest singers who have performed with Qwanqwa to the reasons behind the universal appeal of Ethiopian music.




3 best things about playing music in Ethiopia?

– The chance to play for interested and eager ears, who are familiar with my source material and are into my reworking of it. This makes for an encouraging atmosphere.

– “Music lover” describes most people in Ethiopia, across the demographics of rich and poor, young and old, male and female. From ambassadors to foreign countries to a shoe shiner street kid, music is a big part of life, and it is fun to be part of that activated musical ambiance.

– In the traditional music, every performer has his or her own distinct style of ornamentation, form and lyrics. This allows for a lot of freedom by any player, and individuality of interpretation is appreciated, encouraged and expected! Great for me!


3 (or 4) things everyone should know about the krar?

– It is precisely like the first documented string instrument known to mankind.

– Krars are played in infinite different tunings, depending on size of the instrument, tension of string, and preference. There is no standardized size, so anything goes!

– The krar can be played one-handed or two-handed.

– There are two ways to play it. In one, the player plucks individual strings with the left hand, like a hand-held harp . The other involves using fingertips of one hand to mute certain strings, while the player strums all of them with the other hand, allowing only the unmuted strings to be heard.



3 features that make Qwanqwa stand out from other bands playing traditional Ethiopian music (Ethiocolor, Krar Collective etc.)

– Qwanqwa is an instrumental band with just a hint of singing/shout choruses, whereas most Ethiopian groups center around a vocalist. We also don’t perform with dancers, although we encourage the audience to come up and dance with us or in the back!

–  We use effects pedals and noisy machines.

– Instead of reproducing a facsimile performance of traditional Ethiopian cultural music, we take well-known pieces that everyone does and we go further into experimental sounds with it.


3 favorite singers who have performed with Qwanqwa?

– Etenesh Wassie: the otherworldly voice, the sheer disregard for expectation, her mastery of Ambassel. This woman is a force!

– Mimi: always seeking new repertoire from hidden caches of old Ethiopian cassettes, she has a unique sense of a “hit.” She has worked with a lot of international artists and is very flexible and ready to collaborate across genres

– Bekele: the winner of the first Ethiopian Idol, his voice is thunderous and gruff. When he takes a breath to prepare to sing a long note, it feels as though he is sucking up all the air in the room!


3 biggest differences between playing in Qwanqwa and in Debo Band?

– Qwanqwa is smaller, so by nature, more spontaneous arrangements become possible.

– Musical influences of the band members are very different.

– Up until now, Qwanqwa has only performed in Ethiopia for Ethiopians.


The Qwanqwa members: Mesele Asmamaw (middle right), Kaethe Hostetter (front). Photo by Kidus Berhanu

The Qwanqwa members: Dawit (back), Samir Sendeku (middle left), Mesele Asmamaw (middle right) and Kaethe Hostetter (front). Photo by Kidus Berhanu


3 reasons that explain the universal appeal of Ethiopian music?

– Riffs: everybody likes a sick riff right? Ethiopian traditional music is chock full of them

– Virtuosity: the lyrical aspect of Ethiopian music, and ornamented expressivity is uniquely gorgeous.

– Ethiopian music, although categorized under the label African music, is so different than anything else you might come across in the genre. Instead of being rhythm heavy, it is melody heavy. The scales are different. There is not as much guitar. By being different, it is a discovery.


3 Ethiopian musicians (other than the Qwanqwa members) that deserve recognition outside Ethiopia?

– Endris Hassen: the baddest masinko player in the land. Keep track of this guy. Besides being the most sought after traditional masinko player in Ethiopia, he is known to branch out into experimental music, rock music, and more. He is a favorite guest with the Ex, Trio Kazanches, and Imperial Tiger Orchestra, and frequently tours internationally.

– Genet Masresha: this woman’s voice is deep. Virtuosic with a roughness, earnestness. Her Ambassel from her first album is crushing.

– Johannes Aferwork:  washint, or flute player. Check out his solo record! Johannes evokes the landscapes with his shepherd’s flute. The dramatic craggy mountains, dry prairies, crater lakes, and lush Rift Valley are all detectable in his music…



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