Meklit's Ethio-Jazz Bridges Sonic Homelands | KCET
Meklit's Ethio-Jazz Bridges Sonic Homelands
Meklit Hadero’s first memory is set in a cotton candy-tinted landscape at a state fair in Iowa, where she remembers watching her parents ride the “big roller coaster.” Shortly before this idyllic roller coaster ride and prior to Meklit’s second birthday, her family fled the murderous Dergue regime in Ethiopia and moved to the U.S. under political asylum. The singer-songwriter grew up in Brooklyn and immersed herself in San Francisco’s art scene after graduating Yale University, all experiences that expanded the breadth of her sound, but her strong connection to her culture and trips back to East Africa as an adult have nurtured the Ethio-Jazz that defines her music today.
Her voice glides into the subconscious as effortlessly as she switches between singing Ethiopian love songs in the native language Amharic and then covering The Police’s “Bring on the Night,” all on the same album. Meklit focuses on uplifting melodies that tell the stories of cultural connectedness. She wants her listeners to feel their way through music, whether they understand the lyrics or not.
In 2008, Meklit produced her first EP titled “Eight Songs.” She toured the world after releasing her first full-length album “On A Day Like This...” in 2010, then collaborated on other projects with Quinn DeVeaux and Copperwire. These side projects, including a trip to Ethiopia with Copperwire’s Burntface and her cousin Gabriel Teodros, fueled Meklit’s spirit when she began “to throw a world of flavors into a new cauldron” for her new album “We Are Alive.”
Adding to her list of credentials, the TED Global Fellow worked with musicians from 11 countries along the Nile River to demonstrate artistic trans-border cooperation in conflict zones. She has also served as artist-in-residence at de Young Museum, New York University, and Red Poppy Art House, and has collaborated on a variety of projects promoting Ethiopian artists and exploring the African diaspora in America.
Meklit fell in love when she first heard “Kemekem” from a traditional singer who taught her Ethiopian music. She decided to cover the sultry song because she liked the way it addressed culture, how it defined beauty, and its all-around swagger – a description fitting for Meklit’s entire body of work.
How did you find the traditional love song “Kemekem (I Like Your Afro)”?
Meklit: I learned the tune from a traditional singer who lived just outside San Francisco. I used to go visit him and he would teach me songs. When he got to that one, I knew this was it. I had to do it! I knew that people could identify with it, regardless of whether they knew anything about Ethiopian music... because the theme is so great! An ode to the Afro! It says so much about culture, and ideas of beauty, and it had so much swagger too. All the right ingredients.
Why was it important for you to sing this song in Amharic?
Well the song is a traditional tune from the Ethiopian countryside, so it made sense to sing it in its original language. We took all sorts of liberties with interpretation and giving the song a soul-jazz feel, but the core of the tune is in the lyrics. At least that’s how I think about it. Also - singing in Amharic is part of what I do as a singer who was born in Ethiopia and grew up in the U.S. I mix in that way, and I also think singing in Amharic releases something specific in my voice that’s fun.
How did the concept of the office romance develop for the video?
Actually it came from the lyrics, which are super flirtatious and cute. This one line says:You with the beautiful afro, Someone could ransack my house and not find a trace of you. That’s how discreet I could be with our love
This is a traditional tune but we were thinking about how we could do a modern interpretation of it. So, Pete Lee, our amazing director, had the idea of the office romance as a way to do that. We had a blast!
What were your biggest influences for this album?
“We Are Alive” is a real journey through a range of influences. Songs like “Plume” and “Waiting for Earthquakes” take a singer-songwriter approach. Then there’s a strong Jazz influence and component to songs like “A Train,” “In Sleep,” and our interpretation of “Bring on the Night.” East African influences take over in songs like “Kemekem” and even the tune “We Are Alive,” which is based on a five-count rhythm from Sudan called the Camel Walk. I was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Brooklyn, and came of age as an artist in San Francisco, where I have lived for the past eleven years. So, all those sonic homelands show up in this record.
How has your music changed since “Eight Songs”?
Well I describe my music as living solidly on those three pillars: Jazz, the singer-songwriter tradition, and Ethiopian music, particularly Ethio-Jazz.
“Eight Songs” was the EP that started my career. It was all guitar and voice, with a small bit of cello in there. The tunes were bare bones, heartfelt, and simple. Since then, I’ve branched out immensely, including: forming a committed band that works on full arrangements together (which means the sound is much bigger!), developing electricity in the live shows (there’s a lot of dancing), and bringing a lot more Ethiopian influence into my new compositions especially. But the core that is the same is really the attention to lyrics, poetry, intimacy, and story. There is certainly a through-line.
How did you switch gears from the afrofuturistic hip-hop space opera with CopperWire to the azmari, jazzy feel on “We Are Alive”?
CopperWire started in earnest after Burntface, Gabriel Teodros (who is actually my cousin), and I went on a trip to Ethiopia together in 2011. After that, we had a ton of songwriting energy, and we went all the way. We were huge Sci-Fi fans, and we loved the generosity of space metaphors to allow us to talk about our experiences of movement, cultural connection, otherness, and belonging. I think the biggest similarity between CopperWire and my solo music is that some of those same themes get addressed throughout everything that I do, though the actual sounds might change. For me switching gears makes sense. After all, the best part about collaboration with different artists is that you get to experience different sides of your personality. I sometimes think of the long arc of what I do as sonic cubism. A single image, fragmented into pieces, but fully a whole. I love bringing different influences into a whole.
Do you have any memory of your life in Ethiopia before moving to the U.S.?
I left Ethiopia just shy of my second birthday, so my earliest memories are actually in Iowa. I think the very earliest one was being at a state fair watching my parents ride the big roller-coaster. But I have plenty of memories of Ethiopia from being an adult and making trips back there more recently.
What are your thoughts about the current sociopolitical landscape of Ethiopia today?
Well that’s a big question. It’s a time of real growth and expansion for the country, so there’s lots to be excited about. The economy is growing fast, development and construction is everywhere. For example, Addis Ababa is now the home of Africa’s only light rail system. Of course there are issues too. Many folks continue to migrate looking for opportunities in North America and Europe, and they often are taking a perilous journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean. Many are dying in the process. There are a lot of contradictions to try and reconcile. It’s a complicated moment.
What message do you want your listeners to take away from your work?
On a musical level, I want people to realize that genre is a marketing game, and that people are most alive in their multiplicity. I want folks to feel that music can lift them and also follow them into the spaces where they need the most support. I want people to know that there are heartfelt songs being sung every day in many, many languages, and they can feel their way into them whether they understand the words or not.
On a social level, I want people to know that there is space for us... for all kinds of voices, who maybe have not necessarily had our day in the sun, to shine and express our histories, questions, connectedness, ideas, thoughts, aspirations. Every one of us makes that space for each other. As a singer from Ethiopia, whether I sing about love, or hope, or country, it complicates a conception of what East Africa is. I often get young people from East Africa writing to me on Facebook, telling me they have lacked role models who represent their identity in a full way. They often thank me for being a role model for them, and I turn it right back to them and say, “imagine then what you can do for those who come after you!”
Having a career peppered with a multitude of artistic and cultural endeavors, what can we expect from Meklit in the coming year? Where will she be in 10 years?
In the next year, I’m working hard on a body of music based more directly in Ethio-Jazz, with lyrics both in English and Amharic. I’m also learning to play the Krar, the six-stringed lyre from Ethiopia. After that, it’s hard to say. I have so many ideas! All I know is that I will always write music, and I will always sing.
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