By Jean Noel Mugabo 

QWANQWA brought a unique, experimental, energizing contemporary sound, based in Ethiopian musical traditions, to the Space Gallery in Portland on Sunday, April 7. The concert was part of their 2024 Spring tour of North America. 

Kaethe Hostetter, founder of the group, explained the name: “QWANQWA is derived from the Amharic word for ‘language.’ Our ethos revolves around the belief that music serves as a universal language through which we communicate and connect with one another. Our chemistry thrives on the pursuit of universality through music and rhythm.” 

Performed in Amharic – Ethiopia’s predominant language – on traditional instruments, the ensemble features Misale Legesse on the kebero, Endris Hassen on the masinko, Anteneh Teklemariam on the bass kirar, Selamnesh Zemene as the vocalist, and Kaethe Hostetter on the violin. Zemene commanded center stage, dressed in a sparkling traditional gown and singing and performing Eskitsa, an intense “shoulder dance” form characteristic of Ethiopian dancing.  

QWANQWA’s music is woven from the diverse rhythms and beats of East Africa, particularly Ethiopia, but including Eritrea and Somalia. Hostetter said the sound can be described as a fusion of various musical influences, incorporating elements of jazz, rock, experimental sounds, and traditional melodies. 

“It’s a combination,” she said. “It’s sort of like a little bit of jazz, a little bit of rock, a little bit of words … it’s categorized as a little bit experimental. If you like any of those kinds of music, you will like QWANQWA, because you have inroads with us.” 

For rock enthusiasts, there were plenty of dynamic riffs to enjoy, while jazz aficionados appreciated the improvisational flair. Experimental music fans found intrigue in the unconventional use of instruments and departure from traditional norms. Additionally, elements of the blues, which likely originated in African music, created a familiar yet distinctive connection for listeners. And for those who like to dance, the music did not disappoint, and fans filled the dance floor with bodies in motion. 

The Portland concert took place early on the tour, and the band was full of energy, smiles, and a strong improvisational spirit that clearly delighted the crowd. “It was a long-held dream of mine to bring [QWANQWA] to the U.S. for a tour, and it finally materialized after the challenges of the pandemic,” Hostetter said. “The group is now embarking on an extensive tour across the United States, spanning more than 40 shows in less than three months, showcasing the rich musical heritage of Ethiopia to diverse audiences nationwide.” 

The birth of QWAQWA 

Hostetter’s musical journey began at the tender age of 3 when she started playing violin in her hometown of Santa Cruz, California. Fourteen years later, she relocated to Boston, where she discovered Ethiopian music, which touched her so deeply that she began delving into the rich cultural tapestry of the country. She was a founding member of the esteemed Debo Band, which toured extensively, and moved to Addis Ababa in 2009. Eventually, she founded the quintet QWANQWA, which has garnered international acclaim. This is the quintet’s second tour. 

QWANQWA was featured prominently at Roskilde 2016, the largest music festival in northern Europe, and has captivated audiences on three European tours. They have released three critically successful albums: “Volume One” (2014), “Volume Two” (2015), and “Volume Three” (2020). For information about the band and the tour: qwanqwa.net