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October 3, 2016

Scene and Heard: Meklit + Skirball Cultural Center

Meklit
Photo Credit: Ibra Ake

Photo Credit: Ryan Lash

Photo Credit: Ibra Ake

“I like to say that I was born in Addis Ababa and I grew up in Brooklyn and Florida, but San Francisco raised me creatively,” says Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter and composer Meklit Hadero, simply known as Meklit. Since landing on the music scene with her debut solo album On a Day Like This in 2010, the Yale graduate and social activist has been transcending cultural boundaries and wooing audiences with her seductive fusion of American jazz, hip-hop, soul and Ethiopian folk songs. Ahead of the L.A. debut of her latest body of music, This Was Made Here, at the Skirball Cultural Center on October 5, the songstress and S.F. resident opens up on everything from being a late-bloomer in her career to how the Bay Area helped shape her singular sound.

What role did your native Ethiopian music play in your upbringing in Brooklyn?
We used to equally listen to 1980s American radio, and these old cassette tapes of Ethiopian music. When our Ethiopian friends or family would come visit, they would sometimes bring music, like a gift that could help you travel homeward in your mind.

When did you commit to music as a full-time career?
I was a late bloomer to music. I wrote my first song at 25, and my second one nearly eight months later. I remember the moment I decided I could really do this. I was 27. Until then, all my shows had been full of friends and family. That day there was a line around the block and I didn’t know any of them. After that, it was full on.

Where does the name This Was Made Here come from?
It’s the idea that culture is born from motion, from movement—that every diaspora, no matter its origin, re-creates and reimagines itself when it lands on a new shore. I’m making immigrant music, African music that is American music. Influenced by both sides of the hyphen and something new too. But it’s not just me. It’s a process that happens when the trajectory of history lands you and your people somewhere else.

How do you think your sound has evolved on this album?
This music is far more groove-oriented, full of Ethiopian rhythms, and meant for dancing. I’d say my storytelling is a through line, as is my voice.

What are some of the themes you explore in TWMH?
Thematically, I touch a lot on movement, motion, connection to one’s roots, our power to shape culture positively for our generation and the ones to follow, love. I also touch upon the way it helps us do the work we need to do in the world, luck, sonic lineage, ancestors, kindness, our molecular origins in supernova, and the recognition that we are all human animals. There are a lot of stories to tell.

You’re also the co-founder of Nile Project, a cross-cultural collaboration that brings together musicians who come from the areas surrounding the river. Where did the idea for the project come from?
Mina Girgis and I co-founded the Nile Project together. He’s an Egyptian ethnomusicologist and we had been friends for years, both deeply involved in cross-cultural collaborations and arts organizing in the Bay Area. After seeing an Ethiopian music concert in Oakland back in 2011, we had a conversation, wondering why we have to be in diaspora to hear each other’s music. And we thought, what would it be like to create collaborations between musicians of the Nile, with Ethiopia and Egypt being two of the most populous countries of the 11-country river basin. It’s still going strong and Mina is stewarding the ship, keeping both the music and the educational aspects of the project evolving and growing, both in East Africa and on many international tours.

How does San Francisco influence your music?
Here, I found a community of inspiring artists from across the globe, working in multiple creative disciplines, all making art connected to each otherto the city, and the broader world, all asking questions about the role of arts in public life. It was like a light bulb went on, and I knew what kind of musician I could be. San Francisco taught me to always think about the ideas behind your music, and situate the sound within a concept. Then you can really harness music to explore, to comment on, and to shape culture. That’s the exciting part.

skirball.org/programs/music/meklit.

 

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Photo Credit: Ibra Ake
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