BY MARY HOULIHAN For Sun-Times Media March 20, 2014
It wasn’t until she was 24 that Meklit Hadero realized that music was her destiny. Now 33, the Ethiopian-born singer/songwriter has perfected a folky/jazzy style that is being compared to a mix of Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones and Nina Simone.
Meklit, who goes by just one name (pronounced Muh-kleet), says struggled for some time with her musical path. Then she stumbled upon a culturally rich community around the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco, and the pieces of the puzzle began to fit.
“I met all sorts of artists of many disciplines from many parts of the world,” Meklit recalls. “They were making art that was actually engaging with the world around them and asking questions. I realized there was another way to create, and I just took of from there.”
Meklit is touring behind a new album, “We Are Alive,” that features her earthy, soulful vocals on 11 original songs and two covers, the Police’s “Bring on the Night and a traditional Ethiopian tune “Kemekem.” Joining her on tour are band mates Lorca Hart (drums), Darren Johnston (trumpet) and Sam Bevan (bass).
One of Meklit’s mottos is “anything creative comes in slow stages.” It took time to discover her voice, in terms of both sound and subject matter. She penned her first song at 25 after “listening to a lot of Caetano Veloso,” the great Brazilian singer, songwriter and political activist.
“What I discovered about the process of songwriting is that you can write a song about anything, as long as it’s relevant and about something that people can connect with,” she says.
In a recent phone interview, Meklit came across as smart and articulate, funny and serious. Her family fled the turmoil in Ethiopia when she was 2, and her family moved around the U.S. while her parents, both doctors, redid their residencies. She spent her elementary school years in Brooklyn, high school in Florida and attended Yale University, where she studied political science.
As an artist, Meklit combines her passion for music with social justice and community engagement. For the last two years she has been a TED Global Fellow, a program that nurtures vision, passion and ideas.
Meklit also co-founded The Nile Project with Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis. The project brings together musicians from 11 Nile River basin countries to create music. The project was created after the two attended a diverse music festival in California that left them wondering why they had so much access to one another’s culture in diaspora, but not in Africa itself.
“We realized that all these cultures share this river, but they don’t know one another,” says Meklit, who recently returned from the project’s most recent residency in Uganda. “The diversity of music here is incredible, and we felt that it had the power to create people-to-people connections that could have a positive impact in broader ways.”
Inspiration to create these musical bridges comes from many people, especially her friends, Meklit says. But she also takes a lesson from jazz great Miles Davis.
“Throughout his career he was constantly exploring,” she says. “He was always searching and never settling into something comfortable. And that inspires me to keep trying to answer the questions: ‘What is our future as a world? Where do we see ourselves going? And what does that world sound like?’ ”