Born in Ethiopia Meklit Hadero was raised in the US. She holds a BA in Political Science from Yale University but she is globally known as a singer/song writer. Meklit has released five studio albums, tours regularly and is currently signed to Six Degrees Records. She is a TED Senior Fellow and has served as an artist-in-residence at NYU, where she curated a performing arts series at the Lincoln Center Atrium. Meklit has completed musical commissions for the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Fund for Artists, Brava for Women in the Arts, and the De Young Museum. She has been a panelist and grants evaluator for the National Endowment for the Arts, and worked with Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) to establish an artist fellows program. Meklit is the founder of the Arba Minch Collective, a member of the de Young Museum’s Inaugural Artist Council, one third of the Ethiopian Hip-Hop Space Opera trio CopperWire, Lead Artist for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in Community Program, and former Co-Director of the Red Poppy Art House. She is currently working on a body of music steeped in Ethio-Jazz. Addis Standard interviewed Meklit on her works. Excerpts:
Addis Standard – You studied political science at Yale, but you became a singer/songwriter known for your unique fusion of soul, jazz and folk music. Do you think studying political science helped the extraordinary messages found in your music?
Meklit – Yes definitely, but in a sort of roundabout way. A liberal arts degree at Yale meant I only had to take 11 classes out of 36 in political science so I was able to take tons of classes in Literature, Anthropology, History, Astronomy, and more. College was also about learning how to learn, and developing a relationship to language. How do you talk about what you love, what inspires you, what you are curious about? How do you integrate the complexity of the world, seeing issues from multiple perspectives? All of those questions feed into my everyday life and messages as a musician.
How do you find the political scientist Meklit inside the musician Meklit? Is it easy?
I believe everyone is made of different aspects. My university degree is one side of me, but there are other sides that get to come out through music and arts. These days, I am able to bring these sides together through working with various cultural institutions and museums, like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the De Young Museum in San Francisco. There, I am able to focus on integrating other artists from Ethiopia, East Africa and the African Diaspora into the arts world. For example, this past year we built an art installation on Lake Merritt in Oakland called ‘Home [Away From] Home’. The gallery was directly inspired by a Gojo, an Ethiopian traditional circular house. We used a CNC machine to cut the fractal patterns of Axum designs into wooden panels that served as walls and windows. The Gojo was filled with paintings and installation pieces from ten East African visual artists living in the Bay Area. This was a kind of statement, saying Ethiopia and East Africa are present and making an impact in Oakland, in California, in the US, and on the world stage.
What did influence your decision to become a singer/song writer?
Growing up, I was a lyric memorizer. I could listen to a song a few times and know all the words. I used to dance in my living room at three years old to Michael Jackson and old tapes of Ethiopian music. I always knew I wanted to be a singer, but I didn’t know what that meant or how you do that. I moved to San Francisco at 24 years old, and right away met an incredible group of visual artists and musicians who were creating art in a way that was meaningful and connected to the world around them. That community became my role model, my band, my audience. I started taking voice lessons, started Co-Directing San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House, and I went from simply dreaming of the arts, to very suddenly being fully immersed in them. Things grew from there.
Many critics trace an East African music influence in your songs. Can we safely place the source of that influence to where you were born, in Ethiopia?
Absolutely. Ethiopian music is one of my deepest touchstones. The music itself is so powerful; it can stand shoulder to shoulder with any musical tradition in the world. There is such history, starting with St. Yared of Axum, such depth of communication through unique scales and melodies. Then the singers, the vocal tradition, the instruments like Krar and Masenqo, the modern mixings with Jazz, and beyond. I am a student of Ethiopian music and I listen to it every day.
Of your voice, some say you display a great sense of fragility, while others say it is a mixture of fragility and at the same time self control and vigor. In your own words, how do you describe your uniqueness?
Only a listener can tell me if I am unique, but I can tell you that I am always striving for a flexible voice, capable of communicating the ups and downs of life. For example, to express intensity, you dig deep and find a sound of vigor, to express sadness, longing or loss, perhaps you reach for a more fragile, tender sound. To express humor, perhaps a light tone is right, or something more like talking. I reach for range.
So far you have released five albums. Which album, in your own rating, has brought you closer to your fans?
Certainly ‘On A Day Like This’ was my breakout album. I think that was how many people discovered my music. But for me, ‘We Are Alive’ is the next step. It represents a real leap in terms of arrangement, vision, musical intention and more.
Tell me about your creation the ‘Arba Minch Collective’. How many Ethiopian artists in diaspora are coming together through the collective? And how did it influence your connection to your homeland, or even perhaps your unique style?
The collective began in February 2009 and it was a way for artists from the Ethiopian Diaspora to connect to each other and also stay connected to Ethiopian culture as it was growing and changing. We felt that our art was collectively dealing with similar themes of home, connection, longing, separation, and the need to return. In other words, we were a generation and wanted to name ourselves as such. We came to Ethiopia twice as a group, once in December of 2009 and once in May of 2011, both life-changing trips. We became connected to the new generation of movers and shakers in the culture world of Ethiopia, as well as some significant torchbearers of tradition and innovation-within-tradition. Every trip I made before that time was purely about family, which is a beautiful thing, and of course I see my family whenever I go to Ethiopia. But these collective trips were the major hallmarks of developing a relationships with musicians themselves, which of course has had a big influence on me. For example, folks like Munit and Jorga Mesfin, Henock Temesgen, Girum Mezmur, Abegaz Shiota and more. After the last trip, we decided that we were more like a network than a collective. We help each other in myriad ways, and there’s a lot of support there. But we also realized that new Diaspora artists were coming up every year, and as a network, we could much more easily continue to be there for each other and help each other grow.
You are also the founder of the Nile Project which you established along with the Egyptian ethno-musicologist Mina Girgis. Via this project you united artists from the 11 Nile riparian states. How hard is to bring artists from countries whose Nile politics is, well – at best anemic, and unite them under the banner of the ‘Nile Project’?
Well our intention is on the side of culture. We realized that the people of the Nile countries don’t know each other that well, not just Egyptians and Ethiopians, but all the Nile countries: Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Egypt, Uganda, Eritrea, Tanzania, South Sudan, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Musicians are able to address that. We can connect through improvisation, learning each other’s songs, and we are immensely curious. When you hear a beautiful song from Uganda, you want to know, how did they do that? How did they communicate such virtuosity and depth of feeling? So you ask, you learn. And a musician from Uganda or Sudan or Egypt will say the same thing about an Ethiopian song, an Ethiopian tradition. In the Nile Project, each musician is a teacher, but also a student. And there is a spirit of true friendship, collaboration, brotherhood and sisterhood that we have developed. And yes it is hard and there are real challenges. People have been interested in the project because a better cultural relationship in the Nile Basin has the potential to make a positive impact beyond just the music.
Recently you collaborated with Samuel Yirga, a leading pianist here in Ethiopia, to produce ‘Kemekem’, which you sub-titled as “I Like Your Afro”. How did that come about?
Yes! I love Samuel Yirga. I have admired his music for a long time, and I think he is immensely talented. I really wanted to invite a musician based in Addis to collaborate with me on this song, and I felt he was the perfect choice. We did the whole thing electronically! My San Francisco band and I recorded a really basic version of the track, which left a lot of room for him. We prepared a digital file and sent it over. I asked him to creatively respond to my vocals and also contribute a solo. The wonderful arts organizer Heruy Arefaine facilitated the logistics, and the fabulous producer/musician Abegaz Shiota lent us his studio for the recording. Sammy heard the song and he sent us three versions, each with a different pianoresponse to the song. We loved each of them, but actually ended up using most of his first take. Sometimes with music, the first response is the freshest. So we haven’t actually met in person, but I can’t wait to meet him next time I am in Ethiopia!
You tour many parts of the world with your works, and yet you are short on a visit to your home country, Ethiopia. Why is that? Perhaps we can expect ‘Kemekem’ to bring you to Ethiopia? Or any other plan to meet your home based fans?
You are right! It’s been a while and I think some of it is related simply to timing. I never feel like I can just go for a week. When I go to Ethiopia, I want to stay for a month! I am planning to come to Ethiopia in May for concerts, so I will be seeing my dear home, my family and my Ethiopian fans very soon. Also, we just recorded the music video for Kemekem a few weeks ago, so look out for that in the coming months.