Ethiopian Sounds Infuse The Music of Meklit Hadero

Meklit Hadero's sound is a unique blend of jazz, Ethiopia, artsy San Francisco and visceral poetry. Her first musical performance was only five years ago, and her debut album, On a Day Like This..., is now on music stands.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

And now we have another treat for you. Today, we revisit our conversation with Ethiopian-born guitarist Meklit Hadero. Her sound is a unique blend. It's an infusion of jazz, rich Ethiopian culture and that artsy San Francisco flavor. It's also got a spicy dash of visceral poetry that paints pictures in your head as you listen.

Hadero's first musical performance was just five years ago. In her first show, she sang songs that were written by other artists. But now she's writing her own music. Her debut album is called "On a Day Like This." Back in March, Meklit joined me to talk about her journey, and we started out by playing her song "Float and Fall."

(Soundbite of song, "Float and Fall")

Ms. MEKLIT HADERO (Musician): (Singing) Well, the sound of your step reminded me of a snow, that winter before I left for good. And the knock that you knocked had an accidental rhythm. Yeah.

KEYES: Oh, my God, it sounded like being in love. It reminded me, anyway, what that was like. Is that what you were writing about?

Ms. HADERO: Actually, I was writing about Brooklyn. Yay. Yay, Brooklyn. I grew up there. I spent my childhood years there, but left when I was 12 years old. And I returned in 2008, and it was just this it was this very romantic experience with the city, with the borough, really, you know, walking down the street and having all these memories just be so alive and having - so many things have changed. And - but yet so many institutions there, the same, my elementary school and all of these stores that were the same.

And so there was this kind of sense of falling through time, you know. Someone could've said, oh, it's 1986 or it's 1992 or it's 2008, and time was just all mixed up in there. But yet it was like this feeling of a very present nostalgia and, like, a loving memory. So that's what that song is about.

(Soundbite of song, "Float and Fall")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) When in a moment of dark, a moment of light, oh, will memory dance so strange and slow. A moment of darkness and of light. I alive, you alive, we drift and we float and we fall.

KEYES: It's so interesting that you said time, because I was talking before about the lyrics that you write. And one of them in that song was the wrinkles when you smile are like the rings upon a tree. You reminded me of plane rides, baby. And I'm listening, going, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: I think it's interesting, 'cause you started out not being in music. You were a political science major, right?

Ms. HADERO: That's right. Mm-hmm.

KEYES: How'd you make that very cool left turn into artsy?

Ms. HADERO: Well, it's hard to not get a little bit artsy when you move to San Francisco, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADERO: There are so many things that point to it here. But I moved to San Francisco in 2004 and, really, with the intention of beginning to take music more seriously. I didn't really know what that meant. I started taking voice lessons and started doing some songwriting. And kind of the return on it was just huge. It was like every step I took in that direction was just - that effort and energy was returned a hundredfold.

And so I became really imbedded in an arts community here in San Francisco in the Mission District. I began curating for a street-level arts festival and then began running an interdisciplinary arts and performance space called the Red Poppy Art House. And once all that happened, you know, my friends were artists and they were really deep in their craft. And it was so inspiring, and that kind of momentum carried me along.

KEYES: When you say you didn't know what that meant, do you mean the actual thing of being, okay, I am artist, I am a singer, I am supporting myself and therefore you have a different, say, mission, than you would've had as a political scientist?

Ms. HADERO: I feel like there aren't very many role models that we have of people who are artists who are in the world in a kind of real way, right? Because once people become successful, there's kind of this fantasy element that comes in. And so it's like when you're trying to plan your life and you're thinking, you know, what is my life going to be like, it doesn't feel real.

And, again, that's where my community really came in, because I did have those people around me. And I also had a real partnership with, I think, the ideas that I was working with in political science, which were all about social justice and community engagement and really being able to merge the two. Like, for example, on my card, you know, when I give people my card, it says singer/musician/cultural activist. And I do a lot of work...

KEYES: That is so cool.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADERO: I like that term. And I do a lot of work with arts and culture, using music and culture to bring people together and to be able to dialogue across boundaries and borders.

KEYES: I know - or at least I've heard a rumor that you brought your guitar with you. So perhaps we can get you to play - and I may mispronounce this, "Abbay Mado?"

Ms. HADERO: "Abbay Mado."

KEYES: Mado. It's a traditional Ethiopian song.

Ms. HADERO: Mm-hmm. It is. Yeah. I could play that, sure.

KEYES: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Abbay Mado")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing in foreign language)

KEYES: That was gorgeous. Tell us what it means.

Ms. HADERO: Well, abbay mado means beyond the Nile, and it's this story of a farmer. It's a super traditional song which was made famous by the incredible, legendary singer Mahmoud Ahmed. And it talks about the farmer as he calls his ox over the Blue Nile. And, you know, to me it's kind of a tribute - having it on the album was kind of a tribute because, you know, such a huge percentage of the population in Ethiopia lives that life. And so it's sort of an open-heart nod to the country and to the people there.

KEYES: You were born in Ethiopia, and then you've lived everywhere on the planet.

Ms. HADERO: I was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: What did your family think when you said, hey, mom and dad, so, I'm going to be a singer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADERO: Well, they were, like, what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADERO: No, the thing is that immigrant culture, it's like, you come to this country for a reason, and a lot of it has to do with economics. And so when you choose a career and work where they're, like, well, are you going to make any money, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADERO: It's challenging for them. But I totally understand that, and actually, over time, they've become incredibly supportive. And, you know, my dad, when he comes to my shows, he, like, gives me a standing ovation after every song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADERO: It's just so adorable. He's - that's my daughter. It's so cute, you know. I love it.

KEYES: I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

I'm speaking with singer/songwriter Meklit Hadero about her new album "On a Day Like This."

Talk to me a little bit about the concept of the album. If I understand it, it's the passage of a single day from its beginning to end?

Ms. HADERO: That's right, it is. It begins with the song "Walk Up." And that song has a kind of sense of breakthrough, and it's really all about moments of breakthrough.

(Soundbite of song, "Walk Up")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) Walk up, walk up straight through the roof. Straight through the hole in the ceiling, take your place in the sky. Oh, the ground at the clouds. They'll hold you. They'll hold you.

And the album wanders, it meanders. It's not a straight line. It's the moods and the transitions of a day, but it's also very much tied up the whole album is tied up in that song "Walk Up." I wrote that song about a month before I recorded. And it was so much the mood I was in in my life. And the lyric that the song ends with is: And you suddenly think of the kings and the poets in the past and how they must've felt just like this on a day like this.

(Soundbite of song, "Walk Up")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) And you will suddenly think of the kings and the poets in the past and how they must have felt just like this on a day like this. On a day like this.

And it's a kind of trampoline moment into all the rest of the songs and that feeling of that opening outwards moves through all of the songs. And so that lyric ties it together.

KEYES: It's interesting that you said that. I know that that song was inspired by a sculpture. It was a round room that was open to the sky, right?

Ms. HADERO: That's correct, yes.

KEYES: The lyric that caught me, 'cause I spend a lot of time watching the birds dancing above the river here in D.C., was the bird surround you and make a tornado in the air.

Ms. HADERO: James Turrell's work is just incredibly inspiring to me. He's an American artist that spends half the year in L.A. and half the year carving a crater in Arizona called the Roden Crater. And he's been doing it for 30 years. It's this total magnum opus kind of work. And that sculpture in particular has a sense of lift. And you have the sense that you're going up into the sky, as well as sinking into yourself at the same time.

And so I started to sit there and imagine myself a mile in the air. And in that place, the birds were just coming, you know. And it was like a moment of relationship with the birds. And at the time, I was also living on a hilltop in San Francisco, where I was really at the level of the birds. There was a lot of that - both sound influence and sort of the feeling that the birds give you. That was in my mind.

(Soundbite of song, "Walk Up")

KEYES: Even listening to you talk is kind of poetic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Do you - when you write, is it like you're writing poetry, or are you writing the music first and then the lyric?

Ms. HADERO: It really depends on the song. But it is poetry. You know, lyrics are poetry. But I've never been tempted to write poetry without music. For me, you know, just in terms of my artistic process, it's all kind of one in the same thing. But, yeah, it is poetry. It's a different understanding coming forward.

KEYES: Meklit, thanks for taking us on such a beautiful journey.

Ms. HADERO: Thank you. Thank you.

KEYES: Meklit Hadero is a singer/songwriter. Her new album is called "On a Day Like This." She joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. To find out more about Meklit and to hear more of her songs, please go to the program page of npr.org and select TELL ME MORE.

I wonder what song you think we should go out on today.

Ms. HADERO: Well, I would love to go out by playing "Walk Up" for you.

(Soundbite of song, "Walk Up")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) Walk up, walk up straight through the roof, straight through the hole in the ceiling. Take your place in the sky. Oh, look around at the clouds. They'll hold you. They'll hold you.

KEYES: And that's our show for today. You're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Happy Memorial Day. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song, "Walk Up")

Ms. HADERO: (Singing) The birds surround you. They circle you and make a tornado from the air. Oh, it feels just your dreamed, just like your dreamed.

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