By PAUL FREEMAN | Mercury News
In the ancient Ethiopian language, Meklit means “one who knows the balance of things.” Achieving that balance is something singer, composer and cultural activist Meklit Hadero says she considers a life goal. That quest can be heard in her stirring, thrillingly sung songs.
“I’m seeking music that moves people, that has story and substance, but also is joyful to experience,” says Hadero, who was born in Ethopia and who now lives in Oakland. “My hope is that people can come to a concert and have a great time, but also experience meaningful stories. That’s important to me, something I learned from lots of my mentors.”
Her influences include artists whose work inspired her, such as Leonard Cohen and Nina Simone. Hadero draws from jazz, singer-songwriter and African musical roots.
Her most recent album, “We Are Alive,” brims with vibrant, diverse songs. In concert, the dazzling vocalist plays guitar and krar, a traditional Ethiopian harp. She’s accompanied by drums, percussion, bass and two horns.
At Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall Studio on March 11, Hadero will treat the audience to some songs from an album due in May. It will reflect Hadero’s more fully realized merging of her eclectic influences. It’s being produced by Dan Wilson, who has worked with Adele, John Legend and The Dixie Chicks.
Hadero infuses elements of Ethiopia’s musical heritage into her songs. “I’m inspired by Ethio-jazz. (A combination of Ethiopian music and jazz.) It’s a hyphenated music. It has so many American elements — funk and soul — mixed with the sense of pentatonic melodies. Something that I’m really bringing in now are the traditional rhythms, which are propulsive and joyful and hit you in your hips, your feet and your shoulders. It’s fun to bring those elements together with the storytelling.“
Hadero says she believes music and cultural activism come together in many different ways. “I’ve always had a philosophy that the more space you make for other artists, the more space you make for yourself. No one succeeds alone. If you succeed, you succeed as a community.
“For me, it’s important to be involved in projects that bring lots of musicians together, to learn from each other, as well as to find unexpected collaborations and inspirations, but also to get audiences to think about genres and types of sounds that maybe they hadn’t been exposed to before and to embrace the local live music scene, which is pretty amazing right now in the Bay Area, despite the challenges of housing and cost of living that people are facing here.”
Hadero is giving audiences a fresh musical experience. “When I play in Ethiopia, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is American music.’ And then I play it here and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s Ethiopian music.’ It’s really both. It’s a hyphenated music that’s about questions of immigration and culture. And when we think about where our hybridized culture is moving, what is the sound of our demographic shift? These are all questions that come up in this music.
“This music comes out of where we are right now. I’m making American music, but it has elements of the world outside of America inside of it, because America is a nation of immigrants. I’m trying to reflect a reality that deserves a musical voice, a cultural voice and a cultural space.”
Hadero began writing “You Are My Luck,” a track on the new album, as a love song. When Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were shot and killed by police that week (July 2016, in Minnesota and Louisiana), the song took a new direction.
“It became about the love that lets you do the work you need to do in the world, and about the fact that we can’t hide inside of love, but that it can be our engine, our forward motion into doing whatever we have to do to impact the world in a positive way.”
Melodically and rhythmically, Hadero says she finds inspiration in everything she hears around her. She illuminates this process in her TED Talk, “The Unexpected Beauty of Everyday Sounds.”
“This Was Made Here,” another song from the coming album, came from Hadero hearing the clatter of a cooking pan lid.
“This comes from a perspective of not having a defined line between what is music and what is not music. It’s about an openness to the world and what happens when we listen. It’s a way to think about the magic that’s all around us all the time, that we can let in with this very simple way of opening our hearing. If I turn on that way of thinking, it puts me in a state of mind that allows me to compose, and allows me to have insights about things outside of music, as well.”
In her early life, her family — parents who are both doctors, and sister, Meron, now an author — moved a lot. “We were refugees,” Hadero says.
They left Ethiopia and went to Germany, where her mother had a fellowship. The family came to the U.S. in the early 1980s and lived in numerous cities. The relocations expanded Hadero’s outlook and her adaptability. On her own, Hadero lived in London and went to college at Yale, before heading to Seattle and then San Francisco. “It was a great training for touring,” she says of her travels.
She didn’t think of pursuing music as a career until, in 2004, in her mid-20s, she moved to the Bay Area. “I met all these musicians doing socially and culturally engaged work and found my inspiration from them. I might have grown up in Iowa and Florida and Brooklyn, but I was raised, artistically, by the Bay Area.”
Hadero co-directed the Red Poppy Art House. She co-founded the Nile Project with Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis. Its goal is to bring together musicians from all 11 Nile countries, rising above conflicts, to create.
All the while, Hadero honed her performing and songwriting skills. In 2007, she wrote and recorded her debut EP. By 2009, she was a full-time musical artist. In 2010, she released her first album. She continues to be involved with arts institutions and cultural organizations.
She speaks at universities about collaboration and how to be a bandleader, as well as cultural topics such as global diaspora. Having learned the business side of a music career and how to balance that with her creativity, she shares that knowledge.
She says she relishes sharing her musical creations. “The process of composing, getting this idea that’s inside of you and bringing it out into the world, in a way that people can experience and enjoy and dance to and sweat to — that’s so gratifying. The core of what it means to make music is to be in a relationship with folks who are not just listening to you, but are also understanding the ideas inside of what you do.”
Email Paul Freeman at email@example.com.
Who: Meklit Hadero
Where: Bing Concert Hall Studio, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday March 11, 2017
Tickets: $20 ($5 for Stanford students); www.live.stanford.edu
Artist website: www.meklitmusic.com