When she performs, singer and songwriter Beti Masenqo leaves this earthly plane in a way that seems entirely effortless. Once, though, she came back down to earth when a little dog in a wheelchair rolled right in front of her at an outdoor gig and she completely busted up. Then she picked the song right back up like the professional she is.
Masenqo was born in Ethiopia, and after a short stint in Germany, moved to Davis at the age of 5. Everything she learned about playing the violin in those early years, she got from playing in her elementary school orchestra — a testament to supporting music in public schools. In ninth grade, her family moved out of the district, and she lost her access to music education for eight years. The violin would flit in and out of Beti Masenqo’s life like an elusive butterfly. But she kept chasing.
Then, in her senior year of college, she started playing violin again for a folk cover band. She couldn’t afford a second instrument, but when she borrowed a guitar from a friend, she discovered that her voice stepped in naturally where the violin usually lived. And that’s when the songwriting began.
Masenqo now lives in Sacramento and has achieved a kind of synergy between her three instruments, moving fluidly between vocals, violin and guitar. Her lyrics are immediate and concrete, rich with poetic imagery, evoking everyday wonder and sorrow:
We ride our bikes down
The river’s passage
The lead weighs heavier still
The stars distract me
For just one second
I feel I might find the will
She performs solo but also belongs to a collective of eight Sacramento songwriters called Angelite! All the members play together in bespoke configurations, and sometimes when they play shows, everyone contributes two compositions to the set list. Here’s Beti playing her music with Angelite members Sol Caracol, Jasmine Rubio, Gabe Leria, and Zoe Gocuan.
Commercial pop channels won’t know what to do with Beti Masenqo, but she remains a strong magnet in indie rock and folk circles, building a steady following that will hopefully enable her to keep collecting musicians and songwriters from all styles and parts of the globe.
You had played music when you were young, but how did the songwriting impulse emerge for you?
I always felt like I had melodies deep inside me. And I was always a good writer. Like in English class, I really enjoyed writing and storytelling. When I borrowed that guitar my senior year, I was feeling a little down, you know the transition and confusion, and what am I going to do with my life?
I kind of started strumming and learned four chords and then there was just a melody that came from within me — but I didn’t share it with anyone that year. I just kind of wrote at home in my dorm. Then that spring quarter, I picked up the violin more seriously and got actual lessons and worked consistently for the first time in a long time. It’s my primary instrument, but I don’t write songs on it. I think that’s where my melodies come from. It’s a solo instrument, so in that way, it influences my songwriting a lot.
When you think of songwriters that electrify you, who comes to mind?
I really like Adrianne Lenker. She’s a songwriter for a band called Big Thief. She’s such an earnest songwriter. I think sometimes earnestness is looked down upon or seen as corny, or that it’s hard to be earnest without being corny, but listening to her sing is like being in the room with her as she’s writing it, you can tell it really comes directly from her heart.
A lot of Ethiopian music, the lyrics often tell a really clear story. I grew up listening to Ethiopian church music, and that’s where I probably sang the most growing up. A lot of the lyrics are direct takes from biblical passages, and they make them incredibly poetic and beautiful.
Another artist I love for that same reason is Sufjan Stevens, he does the same thing. One song of his, “Transfiguration,” is just a bible passage, but he puts it into this song that is so moving and beautiful, even if you’re not religious, it makes you feel like there is something greater. I was really drawn to what he was doing in “Seven Swans” because it’s so similar to what I grew up listening to with Ethiopian music. A lot of the Ethiopian music I was listening to, which was like the oldies from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, was really super poetic and the way they talk about love is really full.
When you write songs, are you drawing consciously on that approach?
I’m not really thinking about those things so much, but one of my earliest songs I took a psalm and put it to music, but that’s one of the few times I set out to try and do what Sufjan and these Gospel artists did. Generally, songwriting is just whatever is in my head and writing it down.
What’s it like playing with Angelite! vs. playing solo?
It has helped me get into different mentality. … It’s helped with violin as well; it makes me think about how do I add violin that’s tasteful without it being overpowering. But with my last show where I had four people playing my songs, that was interesting because they came in with baselines, guitar lines. … It was more collaborative: “I like what you’re doing here, I don’t like what you’re doing here.” … But in terms of lyrics and melody, I don’t know if I want anyone’s input.
It’s kind of your private domain.
Yeah, it’s a little bit too personal, I don’t know if I would like doing that. But I’m open to it if I formed a band that we agreed we were all going to actually write together.
Does the collective model work better for you or do you see yourself with your own band?
It would be really awesome to have a band where I was the primary songwriter, but for now, I’m really content and really really happy with the way that Angelite! functions as a collective, with all of us helping each other out.
I would think this would give you a lot more elasticity, like collectives are loose and spontaneous.
There are so many more shows that we can be a part of, too, and since I play solo, I’m not limited to making sure everyone in my band can play with me, I just take gigs whenever I want to, and then if they can, they play with me, and if not, I’m totally comfortable playing on my own.
And you have a day gig, right?
I work for the water board in climate and conservation.
Does that feed into your songwriting at all?
Not at all (laughs). I keep my job and my music separate.
Is there a kind of work as a musician you want to come your way?
It’s a two-parter. This is a really far-off dream, but I’d love to be a seated member in an orchestra. Even if I could be a substitute, I would just love that. I’d also just love to release an album that I’m proud of, and to tour on that album, maybe opening for someone I admire. That’s really the dream.
Beti Masenqo will be performing at Saturday, April 29 at Amatoria Fine Art Books, May 12 at the Whole Earth Festival in Davis, and May 27th at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.
Correction April 24, 2023: This article was updated to correct the spellings of the names of Zoe Gocuan, Beti Masenqo and Sufjan Stevens.
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