Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero

A Voice of the Diaspora

Mon, Jan. 21, 2019
San Francisco-based, Ethiopian-born singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero oscillates between cultures and genres with a smoothness and fluency only a hybrid as distinctive as herself can manage to achieve. A co-founder of the experimental music group The Nile Project, which seeks to promote intercultural dialogue and cooperation between citizens of the Nile basin, Hadero’s music inspires cultural curiosity and empathy in others, in an aim to bring people joy and relief from the hardships of life through songs and celebration.

Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero’s music is a product of a life marrying two distinct cultures, varying interests and multiple genres. The result transcends familiarity in a modern-day world where coming across unique tunes, the rare sounds that aren’t marked by groupings of similitude, becomes a challenge. An artist who is also a social activist of sorts, Hadero has participated in cultural projects such as co-founding cross-cultural initiative The Nile Project and developing a forthcoming podcast celebrating global migration in music. When she briefly visited Cairo to deliver a TED Fellows talk she gave on October 7 as part of an exclusive event at the Marriott Mena House, Egypt Today sat down with the Ethio-jazz musician to discuss her passions, influences, and impact.

Growing up as an African woman in the diaspora, Hadero describes herself as an “intersectional person.” Born to parents who were both doctors, yet arriving to the United States as refugees when Hadero was just two years old, her upbringing was characterized by the seemingly unlikely “full access to claim [herself] as an American, but also as an Ethiopian.” Their lifestyle was also nomadic; by the time she began a bachelors’ in political science at Yale University, her family had already lived in Germany, Washington D.C., Iowa, Brooklyn, Florida, among other places. “I changed middle schools three times because we moved around so much,” she says with a laugh, “and middle school is only three years!” In retrospect, she describes adapting and readapting to different cities so often while living between cultures as informing her craft many years later, as her Ivy League education did.

“The way that I bring together those cultures is not very common. My work is very different than what you typically find in music. I understand how to talk about the issues [my music tackles] in an academically engaging context. This is also something [asides from the uniqueness of the ‘Ethio-jazz’ genre] you don’t typically get from a musician in the music industry,” she recalls.

Living in San Francisco, where she has been based for over a decade while often traveling and touring for as long as six months a years, is the longest Hadero has spent in one city. She settled down there at the age of 24 to work for the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, a philanthropic organization affiliated with the Levi’s jeans brand, and began making the transition to a musical career in the evenings, after working hours.

“My parents wanted me to have guarantees in life, because they came from a time in Ethiopian culture that was very uncertain [Ethiopia’s democratic transition in the early 1990s]…But I also felt I would never be happy unless music was my north star,” she says fondly of her career shift. Her family remains encouraging, and Hadero’s work as an artist arguably has an significant societal impact, a demonstration of her early academic and professional becoming that reflects in her music and cultural projects.

At 25, she earned a scholarship at the Blue Bear School of Music in her last year of eligibility for the institution’s young musicians program, covering yearlong lessons in guitar, voice, and music theory. She recounts the experience as a time of immersion; alongside her fulltime job at the foundation, she was practicing the guitar for 3 hours every night. Within merely a month, she wrote her first song on the guitar and was performing it a week later. “When you’re 25, it feels like you have no time to waste—which is crazy, because it’s really not the case. Yet it’s important to feel this urgency, because it propels you forward,” she recalls, with a rare, burning enthusiasm. “Right after my first voice lesson [when I began taking music seriously, a year before the scholarship program] I learned, with a little bit of technique, to find the voice that I hadn’t found before. I thought to myself, maybe there’s an infinity here that I’m just beginning to tap into, and I was addicted to it.”

Soon thereafter, she became co-director of The Red Poppy Arthouse, a center for the arts serving as a San Francisco hub for all things cultural, musical, and creative, where she helped create a family arts program for young kids, a residency program for visual artists, and programmed an international concert and performance series. The business and leadership savvy behind managing her work as an artist she largely picked up there, as she balanced myriad behind-the-scenes toils from building collaborations to editing videos and building relationships with the press.

Simultaneously, she put together her first eight-song EP entitled Eight Songs, which she independently released in 2007, with an unconventional, progressive concept for the album covers. Seventeen artists from the Red Poppy Arthouse uniquely hand painted each of the first 300 art covers; instead of printing the same visual graphic on each cover multiple times, every cover was a painting, thick-paper sleeves used as canvases inspiring a sense of beauty and wonder.

“It was a time when a lot of CDs were plastic, and I didn’t want to invest in plastic—it’s something that’s very disposable, and also toxic. I wanted to instead create objects that reminded people of a handcrafted sense of care and observation about the world; it was a process of creating covers to match the feelings I made the album with,” she explains with an air of understated cool often characteristic of Bay Area inhabitants.
A couple of years after she completed the scholarship program, local indie record label Porto France Records’ Peter Varshavsky, who knew Hadero from the Red Poppy Arthouse, enthusiastically conveyed an interest helping her record her first album.

Consisting of her first 10 songs, the album, dubbed “On a Day Like This,” was released in 2010. Not long after, a booking agent came across the album on social media, and got in contact with Hadero to arrange national tours promoting the album. Within a couple of years, she had gone from selling copies of a short EP herself to gaining widespread publicity. “It was all going so fast…it was a very expansive time,” she says of what might be an almost overwhelming couple of years as she developed from an emerging artist to gaining enough audience rapport and turning heads as part of the inaugural class of TED global fellows. An arm of the independently run nonprofit TED running short, powerful talks, the TED Fellows Program highlights voices of speakers who are younger and in an earlier phase of their careers than that of speakers at the organization’s usual talks. A commitment to diversity and boosting ideas of “rising stars,” the program was a fit for the budding artist, who was also turning heads as a cultural “instigator.”

In the meantime, Hadero also started the Arba Minch Collective, a group of Ethiopian artists, filmmakers, poets, writers, theatre makers and musicians from the North American diaspora dedicated to making annual cultural trips to Ethiopia to meet and connect with contemporary and traditional artists from their native land. The project’s name, which means “Forty Springs,” is derived from the many springs that emerge from the base of a cliff on a ridge below a town in southern Ethiopia. “We all had stories about Ethiopia that were very much our parents’ stories, and it was almost a veil over our experiences and our understanding what the country was…The country was changing so fast [in the 2000s], and we needed to go there together as artists to truly understand it and connect with the very exciting arts and culture world there—it was an amazing experience,” she recounts of the collaboration. The group organized a series of events there in 2009, in an aim to create performances that resonate with Ethiopians, and returned in 2011 to hold a festival which included shows at Gonder, a city of impressive medieval castles nestled between the hills of northern Ethiopia.

Hadero led the project through three years of programming, and it was during one of these events in her homeland that she met Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke, who is known as the first to blend jazz and Latin music with traditional Ethiopian elements, a style that Hadero’s work echoes. She refers to Astatake as a “major influence” and narrates of him, “He came to one of our shows, and when we spoke, he looked at me right in the eye, very respectfully…he said, ‘Meklit, what are you doing to bring Ethiopian jazz forward? Don’t ever play it how we played it 50 years ago. Find your voice, experiment, and take this further. I made my contribution, now you go make yours.’ He’s a legendary musician, and I have so much respect for him.” She pauses almost in reflection, and adds, “[Astatke] encouraged me to find my voice and take this music forward; it was a moment of expansion and opening, and it was extremely powerful to have his permission to be experimental while still standing for who I was as an artist.

He really inspired me to make my own mark.” The transformation in Hadero’s music over the years is clear; while her first album may sound closer to classical soul and jazz, with tracks that include a cover of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, her more recent work sounds more like a quirky, distinctive brand of danceable soul, reflecting the variety of her histories and influences. She has also collaborated with hip hop artists Gabriel Teodros and Burntface to form Copperwire and produce the 2012 fusion album Earthbound, dubbed a “southful space opera.”

She later co-founded The Nile Project with Egyptian-born ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis in an aim to celebrate music from the Nile basic and create a platform for dialogue between citizens from those countries. After an African music concert they attended together in the United States, they found themselves thinking, “Wait, why do we have to go to the diaspora to hear each other’s music [as Africans],” Hadero says. “Coming up with The Nile Project was a moment that struck like lightening. When we thought of it, it seemed like such an obvious idea that I thought someone else must have done it. But we looked it up and that wasn’t the case, although the Nile is so important and the music of the Nile is incredible.” What followed was a scouting trip in 2012 to find musicians who might be interested, where the pair travelled to Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. According to Hadero, musicians from countries on the East African coastline—a term she uses more loosely than its conventional political context—often have less of a platform internationally, an issue The Nile Project sought to resolve. Another goal was to focus on inclusivity of female musicians, who are often underrepresented, which the project has managed to achieve in recent years. Kasiva Mutua, the only female percussionist in Kenya, Rwanda’s Sophie Nzayisenga, the first female player of the ancient instrument Inanga, and Egypt’s homegrown Dina el-Wedidi have been among the Nile Project’s longtime collaborators. The musicians have since toured Europe, the U.S., and Africa in an aim to promote dialogue on Nile sustainability challenges and showcase musical talent from the Nile basin.

Hadero has not been as closely involved in The Nile Project since 2015, when she left to focus on other endeavors such as launching her latest album entitled When The People Move The Music Moves Too. “I tend to go in a pendulum between times when I am really focused on my own music, and other times where I am more immersed in arts and culture projects. I have to swing between them, and if I don’t, then I feel that something in me is missing. I grew so much with The Nile Project as a musician, but after four years I just felt that there were so many songs inside me waiting to be born,” says Hadero. “I like the energy of being involved in the beginning of a project, making something out of nothing, and then dreaming it into the world. That’s where my focus is, and where I tend to enjoy being involved in projects the most.” Her upcoming cultural project is the Global Migration Through Music podcast, which highlights “stories of global migration” through music and the lives of musicians, slated for release in Fall 2019.

Another one of Hadero’s influences is her mother, who she describes as “one of the most musical people in my life…everything she says is melody.” She recounts how her mother’s everyday, singsong phrases and the music she sang to while washing the dishes after a long working as a physician, were part of her “sonic lineage.” In a 2015 TED talk, she argued that birds and the natural world are crucial as a teacher of music.

As for her current family in the studio, her band, she says Grammy award-nominated drummer and percussionist Colin Douglas is “the best drummer [she has] ever been live with. What he has taught me in terms of rhythm has really been like an infinity!” She refers to her other band members similarly, and optimistically hopes for an impact promoting an understanding of “how badly we need voices from all parts of the world leading the way we think of as a global world.” She adds, “[Through my music] I hope to inspire cultural curiosity and empathy in others, and to bring people joy and relief from the hardships of life through songs and celebration.”


 
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