Here comes a delightful music superstar with substance - simply known as Meklit
I’ll admit, I didn’t get Meklit Hadero, the Ethiopian-born, San Francisco-based singer and songwriter when she burst onto the music scene some six years ago. But then one of her songs from her most innovative album to date, “We Are Alive” (Six Degrees Records), implanted in my brain. (The title track, ‘We Are Alive,’ with Meklit’s silky voice floating effortlessly above the guitar-driven song) quaked my foundation and my girl crush was born. As a-matter-of-fact I love the raw ambition of the “We Are Alive” album – the preposterousness, the simplicity and also the fundamental intelligence. But, witnessing her live-in-concert was mind-blowing. Meklit Hadero is the business. She performed songs from her second solo full length album to a packed audience and critics alike at Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, London. This singer, musician, and cultural activist simply known as Meklit took us on a musical odyssey of Ethiopian traditional tunes and more besides: American-Jazz, Hip Hop, street-level Jazz, Rock, East African Folk and Ethiopian classics - the lyricist practice of her auditory mother country.
Born in Ethiopia, from Ethiopian parents, she feels deeply African and deeply American and her records are deeply inspired by Mulatu Astatke, the Godfather of Ethio-Jazz. Her work builds upon the concepts pioneered by Astatke as part of the late 60s and early 70s Golden Age of Ethiopian music. Taking these principal elements of her heritage as introductory building blocks, she explores the cultural dreams happening as part of the arrival of the Ethiopian Migration en masse to North America. In spite of this, it must be celebrated that this artist's voice makes for compelling listening. Her performance on stage makes for compelling seeing. Her voice is earthy and soulful, supple and freed, and exudes all four. If champagne were a person it would be Meklit Hadero. She is stunning. In an alternate life, one where talent was spread out differently, this is the kind of music I would like to make. It’s subtle, contemporary and one of its kind, while being massively emotional. Oh well, fair enough! What is more? There’s more to this woman. We also find this touring performer, and a political science Yale University graduate, is a committed activist extraordinaire.
In 2011 she launched the UN Women's campaign for gender equality in Africa, and co-founded the “Nile Project” with dear friend Mina Girgis, an Egyptian ethnomusicologist, with background in hospitality experience, curating and producing innovative musical collaborations across diverse styles. The Nile Project brings together artists from the eleven Nile countries that borders the River Nile, namely, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt, to make music that combines the region’s diverse instruments, languages and traditions. Meklit Hadero may not yet be your household one and you may not have heard Meklit Hadero's music before, but once you do, I promise it’ll be tough to get it out of your head.
If champagne were a person it would be you in your fizzy performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. How would you rate that performance at the Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, London?
We had an amazing time. The UK has always been good to me, and Southbank was just wonderful. And of course having the legendary Pee Wee Ellis there (long-time musical director for James Brown) was a life highlight, especially since the funk that he helped to create was so much part of the Ethiopian tune we played together, Tiz Alegn Ye Tintu.
Where do you go in your head when performing on stage?
Well, in the best moments the “I” disappears entirely. You are consumed by the music and the sound, responding like lightning to your instincts for movement and voice, and to the band around you.
Your band was downright superb on stage. Now, have you always believed you could be successful but did not know how?
I think you have to believe in yourself like that, no matter what your vocation. But music is different because there is no definite path, especially now. Everyone in music is just making it up as they go along, and trying new things. That’s all you can do!
Is it reasonable to term your music as subtly modern and unique while being massively emotional, fierce, and brutal and a no-nonsense dagger in the heart?
Well if you describe my music that way, then I’m doing something right! I describe my music as the intersection of jazz, the singer-songwriter tradition, and Ethiopian music. I think of myself as reflecting my three sonic homelands, Addis Ababa, Brooklyn and San Francisco.
It’s a highly commercial world we live in today. Everything is a trip to profitability. Are you under pressure to produce commercial music and to put out only a money-making album?
Of course everyone is under pressure to succeed in a massive way, but I think producing for the market is tricky. If you do that, you lose what drew people to your music in the first place, which is your authentic voice in the world. I think the more deeply you go inside yourself, the more you reach the universal place that can appeal to people in a wide way. It sounds backwards, but it’s the only way to do this long-term, and I’m in for the long-term.
Wise Lady! You are involved in more than two projects. Tell us about your projects - how do you get so much done?
2015 has been so full. The Nile Project, which I co-founded with Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis in 2011, brings together musicians from the eleven countries of the Nile Basin to learn about each other’s music, to create music together, and to bring that music to the Nile and to the world. We just finished a four month US tour, and are in the middle of our second album. What a whirlwind! After the last show, I caught a flight to the UK for a two week tour and residency, and finished off this period with a show in Zurich. I’m looking forward to spending the second half of 2015 in the Bay Area writing new music based in Ethio-Jazz.
In the last two years refugees are streaming out of your country like ants – what is your perspective on this growing humanitarian crisis? Were you a refugee at some stage?
It’s very sad…. Recently Ethiopians felt this in a huge way when 28 of our countrymen died in Libya at the hands of ISIS. They were on their way to cross the Mediterranean into Italy. There was a national mourning and a big light shone on how far people are going to search for a better life. Ethiopia has gone through a huge development leap in the last twenty years, but sadly folks are still streaming out. My cousin Teodros Teshome just made a film called Sost Maezen (Triangle) that I believe everyone should see. In it, he tells the story of a group of friends from Ethiopia and Eritrea who walk across Sudan to Libya, then take a boat to Italy, fly to Mexico, then walk to the US. It is a treacherous journey. Thousands attempt it and many die along the way. My family and I were refugees in a different sense. It was the early 80s, just after the revolution and the Red Terror in Ethiopia, and we left for East Germany, and then crossed at Check Point Charlie through Berlin. We then came to the US and spent years in a kind of limbo, adjusting to life in the US. But we were lucky. Movement takes its toll in many ways, some small and some big. Recently, we are seeing tragedy after tragedy. We are all very sad.
Back to your recent album – We Are Alive – please describe it?
We Are Alive is a collection of songs about the big arc of life, the ups and downs, the magic and the absurd, the beautiful, the danceable, and the quiet. It is the through-line of life and living that crosses all our experiences.
Recently the US R & B /hip-hop star Lauryn Hill cancelled a concert in Israel because she was banned from performing in the Palestinian territories. As one who know injustice first hand, if you were in her position, what would you have done?
I understand her position. Injustice anywhere reverberates outwards. It has also been interesting how many links are being made recently between injustices in Israel and those in the United States. For example, Ethiopians in Israel have been marching recently because of racist treatment and brutality by Israeli Police, and many have been making links to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. It’s all related.
I know you have performed in Ethiopia on more than one occasion. How does it feel performing in your birth country?
I love performing in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian people have always been so supportive of me. And it will always be home, so it’s a homecoming!
Most musicians claim that their music is inspired by heartbreak – how about you? What is your song-writing and music inspired by? Do you write all of your own songs?
I like to think that music should be inspired by the widest of possible life experiences, from heartbreak, to the birth of a child, to the natural phenomenon in the world around us. You can write a song about anything! I write about 80% of the songs I sing, but we do reinterpret some Ethiopian traditional tunes like Abay Mado and Kemekem, and the occasional pop tune, by folks like David Byrne and The Police.
People will always judge if you are good or just terrible – how do you cope?
You choose a select group of folks whose opinion you value deeply and you listen to their feedback. Beyond that, you can’t listen to what people say about you. And you have to know that you will never please everybody.
Any obsessions at the moment?
I'm always obsessed with music.... Right now Muluken Melese is on repeat. He's a classic.
How many gigs do you roughly do a year? And do you do any in African countries?
Depends on the year but generally between 25-60 gigs a year. The Nile Project has been brining me to perform regularly in the Nile Basin as well.
Who does Meklit influence?
I hope I am influencing young women, especially from Africa and the African Diaspora to find their unique voice and to sing it loud! We need more of those voices in the public dialogue, and I think we are at a tipping point where they will soon be much more present in the world sphere. I want to be there to support them!