“You may not have heard Meklit’s music before, but once you do, it’ll be tough to forget. Her sound is a unique blend of jazz, Ethiopia, the San Francisco art scene and visceral poetry; it paints pictures in your head as you listen.” — NPR
Mulatu Astatke, the Godfather of Ethio-Jazz, gave San Francisco-based singer Meklit Hadero advice that would stick with her as she was finding her voice: “Find your contribution to Ethio-Jazz and keep on innovating!”
A Senior TED Fellow, Meklit has since won accolades for her unique blend of music inspired by both her native Ethiopia and her new home in the City by the Bay. In addition to her work as a performer, she sits on the Board of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and is on the de Young’s Artist Council. IVY sat down with Meklit before our concert with her at SFJazz on April 6 to hear more about her process and what inspires and influences her.
How did you discover your passion for music?
Music has always been in me. I’ve wanted to be a musician and singer since I was a kid. When I moved to San Francisco in 2004, I stumbled upon a community of creatives from all over the world who were deeply in engaged in arts of all disciplines. They became my second family. Through them, I saw an expansive approach to socially engaged creativity. That was my tipping point. I gave myself permission to pursue it. After that, for every step I took towards music, music took ten steps towards me.
Your music crosses a few disciplines and styles of music. From where do you draw your inspiration?
My music sits at the intersection of Ethiopian pentatonic scales and rhythms, a jazz approach to improvisation and vocal phrasing, and a singer-songwriter’s storytelling and strum. To hear my inspirations, listen to “I Want To Sing For Them All“, which I wrote and features the incredible violinist/whistler Andrew Bird. I lay it all out right there: Michael Jackson and Aster Aweke, Prince and Mahmoud Ahmed, Leonard Cohen, John Coltrane, and the Godfather of Ethio-Jazz, Mulatu Astatke.
What inspires you outside of music?
My friendships, literature, warm weather at night, plane rides, the color of the sky right before total darkness, hummingbirds, lightning bugs, red soil, fractal geometry, astrophysics, laughter with abandon, kindness.
What are the skills needed by young professionals to be more creative in the 21st-century workforce? How do we build those creative muscles if we are not musicians or artists?
Creativity is a habit, as much as it is a lightning rod. Here are a few lessons about accessing creativity that I’ve learned:
1) Brainstorm often, but turn off your judgement mind. Let things flow. Edit later, edit rigorously.
2) Volume is one of the biggest predictors of good ideas. For my last album, I wrote 55 songs to get to 11.
3) Polymath thinking is a key. Develop multiple ways of understanding a question. For example, I often ask myself: “how would I approach a question as an artist, as a manager, as a venue, as a publicist, as an audience member, as an usher, as a critic, as a sound engineer? What’s the common ground, how do I speak to each thinker differently in order to communicate my needs and address theirs?” Then, I draw connections between those ways of thinking to find a spark.
4) Write down every idea. Keep a running tab of them. Return to them when you’re tackling a new question. The hardest thing is the blank page.
5) Find something that puts you in a big picture place. Always keep it around. For me, it’s this book called The Home Planet — glorious photos of the Earth from outer space, paired with quotes from astronauts from every country that ever sent someone into space. It’s all about how their understanding of life itself literally changed out there, looking back on our pale blue dot. If I ever need to get out of “smallness” thinking, I open that up and it does the trick.
5) A little bit of visual communication goes a long way.
6) What is the story you are trying to tell, how does every part of your message relate to that story? Storytelling is what grabs people and makes them give you a chance.
What is the bravest thing you have ever done on stage?
On stage, I follow my impulses. I get these very clear messages of what I have to do in the moment, whether it’s standing on a table, going out into the audience, laying down on the edge of a stage, putting an instrument down. It took time to start following those messages. But that’s the bravery: not asking why, just trusting the inner voice. Also, just getting used to baring your soul without question is a brave thing. I love it!
What is the potential for music to exchange ideas across cultures?
Stories are what make strangers into people we care about. Music is a vehicle for that. Through it, we can understand others with more than our intellect. We let our guard down, our bodies and spirits are involved. So it’s got this extra potential for transmitting and inspiring empathy, for inviting listening. We need more of that in our world.
How does appreciation for music differ in the United States than in other places you have performed?
It’s hard to make generalizations, because it’s so different from place to place. Folks in the U.S. like songs in 4 count rhythms. Folks in Ethiopia feel music differently. It’s more based in 3/2 rhythms, but that’s easier to drum than to write about.
Also, often in other parts of the world, people clap when the music moves them, not necessarily at the end of a song. It’s like constant feedback of when you’re hitting the mark.
In your ideal society, what role would music play in our everyday lives?
Ideally, everyone would have some musical training and group playing experience.
Playing in a band is an experience of grounded, connected unity, which is so satisfying. It’s also a wonderful template for team building of all kinds. You start to understand how different knowledges work together to create a whole; it’s a pretty cool metaphor.
I’d also love for people to be accustomed to hearing music from other places in the world and to really giving new sounds a chance. It’s a way of knowing the validity of other cultural experiences.
You are on the board of YBCA. Why do you think it’s important to have artists serve on the boards of our art institutions?
It makes sense for stakeholders of all kinds to serve on the boards of institutions that impact them. YBCA really has that figured out. They understand that a board is about building social and cultural capital for an organization, as much as it is about fundraising and financial strength. It’s a three-dimensional approach. That said, I’ve also run arts organizations myself and have been both a co-founder and a co-director — so I understand both sides of the equation. It’s a good match.
What does cultural activism mean?
Well, I’ll tell you what it means for me. As a cultural activist, I harness the power of music to help us ask questions about who we are and where we want to go collectively. In order to do this, I co-create, co-direct, and participate in projects that engage the arts as a tool for social transformation.
What does the next generation of young professionals need to do to ensure the sustainability of the arts in our communities?
The best thing you can do is support live, local music. Try new venues and bands that you may not have heard of before. Take a chance on something new. Ask me! I’d be happy to make recommendations.
But if you wanted to go one step further, I’d love to see circles of young professionals coming together to support arts issues they care about like immigrant musicians in our national dialogue, the power of women storytellers and producers to reshape the music industry, hip-hop as a platform for global dialogue. There is so much we could do together!