How to describe a Meklit Hadero performance? Warm, bluesy upright bass; bright trumpet and saxophone. Elements of classic ’60s folk by way of acoustic guitar, a lean toward R&B and soul, lyrics that blend personal and political, the intimate and the universal. The unmistakable influence of the music of Ethiopia — the singer’s country of birth — shapes her music as it darts between genres. But what sucks you in, what keeps your eyes and ears locked on Meklit, what makes an unselfconscious Damn start to grow at the back of your mouth is her voice: Lilting, sensuous, capable of the leap from staccato jazz-cat to honeyed songbird, she conveys both fragility and great strength in a single line.
Meklit, who often goes by her first name, grew up in Washington DC, Iowa, Brooklyn, and Florida after her family moved to the US when she was just shy of two years old. Throughout the moves, she was always singing. “As a kid I saw two paths…[one] that led to a kind of cult of fame, which wasn’t really my thing. The second path was a more academic approach to music, which I also didn’t like,” she says. “I was interested in music that engaged with the world around it, and artists who were cultural voices that mattered.”
She didn’t begin making music professionally until moving to San Francisco, however, post-Yale, at age 24. Here, she found an artists’ community that was “still reeling from the first dot-com bust,” with “artists picking up the slack and making noise with all sorts of street-level organizing.” The Red Poppy Art House and the Mission Arts and Performance Project both served as launching pads for her live performances, which led to recording. Ten years later, she’s been a TED Global Fellow, served as an artist-in-residence at NYU, and completed musical commissions for the San Francisco Foundation and the Brava Theatre.
Meklit’s second full-length album, We Are Alive, has her backed by Darren Johnston on trumpet, Lorca Hart on drums, and Sam Bevan on bass. The record is currently garnering critical praise from NPR, USA Today, and other national media hot-shots, and the year is shaping up to be a busy one — in addition to touring North America and traveling to Rio for a TED conference, Meklit will be working on an arts installation with YBCA called “Home (Away From) Home” with Ethiopian and Eritrean artists based in the Bay Area. We in the Bay Area also get her record release show, at Great American Music Hall on April 2.
Influences: Caetano Veloso taught me that you could write a song about anything, Aster Aweke taught me that the human voice can express absolutely any emotion if you lead it the right way. Michael Jackson taught me that you can create an entire dance style all on your own. Nina Simone taught me that the raw moments are what stay with people once the song is done. Miles Davis taught me to never sit still and sit on a sound that is bring you success. Keep moving! John Coltrane taught me that you can hear when sound comes from intense inner searching. David Byrne taught me that a little humor and absurdity goes along way.
The first album I ever loved was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I remember being four years old and dancing to it in the living room of our tiny Iowa apartment. I really wore the entire record out. I even wrote a fan letter to MJ when I was five. It took more than a year but his fan club wrote back.
Weirdest/coolest thing that’s happened at a show? In 2011, I went on a tour of Ethiopia with my band. We were performing at the foot of the ancient castles in Gondar, with electricity borrowed from the local Red Cross. It had been storming all day long and the power in the whole city suddenly went down. Folks started driving their cars with the headlights on to light the stage. The sense of possibility was palpable. My cousin, emcee Gabriel Teodros, climbed on top of another car and begin rapping to the crowd from there. Suddenly, the electricity was back, the crowd went wild, and the band continued to play. That was pretty epic.