Meklit: Bringing the Sounds of the World to Her Melodies

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Part of a weeklong series on poems and poets, sounds and sense.

I meet Meklit Hadero at her house in Berkeley, California, which looks about like you’d expect a global singer’s house in Berkeley to look: packed with plants, mirrors, rugs — cosmopolitan trappings of the eclectic traveler variety. Fresh-faced with a scattering of barely-there freckles and wearing a red terry cloth dress and beaded leather sandals, Hadero puts on coffee — Ethiopian grounds — and we move into her backyard recording studio. It’s a tiny cave of cool: blue walls, keyboard, drums. This is where the singer-songwriter practices, when she’s not eavesdropping on the natural world around her.

Hadero combines folk, jazz and East African influences to create a sound she calls Ethio-jazz. But the artist and TED Fellow draws inspiration from more than those disciplines might suggest. She writes the notes of her surroundings into her tracks, whether that’s birdsong or the sound of a pot of lentils simmering on her stove. The 36-year-old has released two solo albums, hosted a world tour and collaborated with Quinn DeVeaux of the Blue Beat Review on Meklit & Quinn, a soul album. She’s an interdisciplinarian, dipping into academia, performance and production. She’s co-founder of an East African musicians’ collective, sits on the board of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and works with physician Charles Limb studying music and the brain. Hadero is “a very rare artist who is full of integrity and brings an enormous amount of soul … not only to her music but to collaboration in general,” says Deborah Cullinan, CEO of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

The Ethiopian-American has heard melodies in everyday sounds since she was a child. Born in Addis Ababa, she thought of Amharic, her first language, in terms of its singsongy cadences — you can hear them in her TED talk. When Hadero was 2 years old, her family fled the oppressive regime and landed in smallish-town Iowa. Even as her spoken Amharic faded, its melodies remained an anchor, allowing her to interpret what was being said around her. The following years took Hadero to Brooklyn, where the clanking of the subway enchanted her, and to North Florida, where American racial dynamics added another layer to her experience. By age 24, when she launched her music career, she had already lived in 11 places.

It’s fitting that in movement, Hadero finds herself at home. When you’ve moved around a lot, “you don’t make so many assumptions about what’s normal,” she says. She’s able “to encounter any type of person.”

“She creates a sense of intimacy and emotion that is really beautiful,” says Cullinan. That intimacy isn’t just with her own form, though; take Hadero’s work with the Nile Project, that East African collective she co-founded with Mina Girgis, an Egyptian ethnomusicologist, in 2011. Why, they wondered, did the African diaspora have to travel so far to learn of their neighbors’ music back home? Add to that an interest in water usage troubles on the continent; they gathered musicians from 11 countries along the Nile to organize tours and concerts.

That first U.S. tour with the Nile Project was the “most creative period of my life,” Hadero says. She wrote some 25 songs in three months. In seven years of songwriting, she had never been so productive. Then, she says, she felt free to call herself a composer. Supporting the music of others changed her own.

It can be hard to maintain the connections to family and friends and the good parts of routine in all of the movement. Now, Hadero is trying to do more things that allow her to be in one place, to feel the rhythms of daily life. She closes her eyes, playing with her hair, as if searching for the perfect sentence to compose. She tells me, mellifluously, about allowing her personal stars to align in a way that satisfies the many and very different parts of her soul.

These days, the particular piece of her soul occupying her imagination is This Was Made Here, a new body of work inspired by Mulatu Astatke, the so-called godfather of Ethio-jazz. Combining Hadero’s experiences in America and the Ethiopian diaspora, This Was Made Here will debut at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts next month. After that? She’s not quite sure. But somehow, that uncertainty seems to ground her.

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