Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Interview with Uniquely Eclectic Songwriter Meklit Hadero

Meklit Hadero is one of the most individual new voices around. Drawing on elements as diverse as oldschool soul, indie rock and global sounds from Ethiopia to Brazil, her songs share a rare thoughtfulness, intelligence and unselfconscious soulfulness. And she’s only been writing songs for five years. In preparation for a series of appearances in Ethiopia, where she was born, Hadero has several New York performances coming up in April, kicking off with a full-band show on April 3 at 7 PM at NYU’s Skirball Center on LaGuardia Place. As gracefully articulate offstage as she is in front of a crowd, she took some time to give us the scoop about what she’s up to lately:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: There’s a youtube comment up about you that salutes you for being both “demure AND badass.” I picked that one because I like it. Are those qualities that you’re consciously trying to communicate in your music?

Meklit Hadero: I guess the idea of the music is to communicate the full range of feeling that is lurking inside us. Sometimes demure is just the right thing, other times, the badass wins.

LCC: You were born in Ethiopia. How old were you when you came over?

MH: I was about a year and a half when I left Ethiopia. After that, we spent 8 months in Germany and then came to the States.

LCC: You spent a considerable part of your life here in the BK. Let me guess which neighborhood – Fort Greene?

MH: True to my nomadic compass, we lived all around Brooklyn. We spent a year living on Eastern Parkway right across from the Botanical Gardens – this was 1986 – then we spent a year in Bay Ridge on 62nd Street, and four years in Park Slope.

LCC: Any thoughts of returning, or have you been priced out of the market like so many others?

MH: I’ll always have a special feeling about New York, and when I’m here, there’s a part of me that still feels moored to the city. But, I don’t really have a desire to settle here. San Francisco brings out different things for me. My apartment there is perched atop Potrero Hill and I can see the whole western slope of the city from my back deck. I call it my “big picture” view ’cause it puts you right in a big picture mindset. There’s no beating that.

LCC: Wow. That is cool. That’s a great view…and a guaranteed workout getting home every night! Did you leave for San Francisco after high school or did you finish there?

MH: There were many stops between New York and San Francisco. We lived in Jacksonville, Florida for a year….I went to high school in Gainesville, Florida, and college in New Haven. Along the way, there was a semester in London, and a summer in Miami. After college, I moved to Seattle and was there for almost two years before I landed in San Francisco in 2004.

LCC: How would you contrast the opportunities for an artist in San Francisco – where it seems to me you found a very nurturing and receptive environment – compared with New York or Brooklyn? Or is that a fair question since you’ve spent more of the past few years in San Francisco?

MH: Well, really, I spent my childhood in Brooklyn, so I can’t really speak to developing as an artist there. I came into my own as a San Francisco musician, which was indeed a wonderful experience. I’d say my relationship to San Francisco is embedded in that. But in the last year, I’ve spent a good deal of time in in New York, and I’ve had such an open-armed reception here as well, especially by artists like Somi, Suheir Hammad, Imani Uzuri, and Morley. I treasure those friendships!

LCC: You’ve played and recorded with unusual combinations of musicians – from a rock perspective anyway. For example, with just ney flute, guitar and voice; or bass, drums, trumpet and vocals. Were these arrangements planned from the beginning?

MH: The arrangements evolved as the songs evolved. Songs are quite mysterious. Sometimes you’ll specifically hear certain instruments as integral to creating a feel, other times it’s more about a particular musician’s hand needing to touch the song. I like the arrangement of classical guitar, upright bass, drumkit, and trumpet ’cause it’s so balanced and allows for a lot of contour. I’m really earthy and the guitar can be too, so my songs need the metal of the trumpet and the kit to cut across that earth, and the bass stabilizes that relationship. The upright bass is just one of my favorite instruments. It is so generous!

LCC: You won’t get any argument from me – those four strings are my lifeline. Now you’re proficient at both guitar and piano – were those instruments part of your earlier life, or just the past five years?

MH: I started playing guitar in mid-2006. At the start, I would play at least three hours a day, so I moved through some phases fast. I actually don’t play the piano, though I use it to write songs. On the piano, you can see everything laid out. I love sitting with the instrument, and having all that sound come at you! There is a sense of largeness to it, whereas playing the guitar feels so intimate, with the wood against your belly. One day I’d like to perform on the piano, and on the drums too. I’ve recently been taking lessons on the kit and it’s this heavenly physicality. It makes me feel strong enough to run for miles.

LCC: How – if at all – do you think your approach to music has been affected by the fact that you’ve only been writing songs for about six years? Has it perhaps allowed you to grow organically, or made you more immune to cliches than, say, someone who’s been immersed in music since day one?

MH: Growing up, I was a lyric memorizer. I could listen to a song a few times and know all the words, and I would always pay attention to meaning. At some point in my early teens, I started to pay attention to the difference between a line being animated because the singer was great, and a line being animated because a line was great. In a way, that was songwriting study. When I discovered Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, they became my touchstone. Musically, I think my philosophy was more like, go with what you hear, and get the skills later. For example, when I started songwriting, I would hear a melody in my head, figure out the chords on the piano, and then learn them on the guitar. It might take 10 months before I could play the song live, but determination and will go a long way. I don’t know if my newness protects me from cliche. I think in a way, it’s because I’m just willing to use the skills that I have and not feel limited by my limitations. I’m still learning a lot about music every day.

LCC: What were you doing artistically before you started playing music?

MH: Singing in the shower! Or singing while walking down the street… Just singing all the time. Actually I wasnt doing much creatively till I decided to finally take music seriously. Music was always the thing that called to me.

LCC: Was there a “eureka” moment where you decided you would do music, or was it a slower awakening?

LCC: There was indeed a eureka moment when I knew I could really be a musician. It was April of 2007, and I had been singing in San Francisco for about two years, with mostly friends and friends of friends coming to my shows. That month, I had a performance scheduled at the Red Poppy Art House and much to my surprise, there was a line around the block and I only knew a couple of people in the audience. I thought to myself, “Who are these people and how do they know about this show!” At that moment, I knew I could really do this.

LCC: You’ve got an amazing band assembled for your April 3 show at NYC’s Skirball Center which includes Keith Witty on upright bass, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Pete Van Nostrand on drums, Analissa Martinez on cello, Jennifer de Vore on cello, Tarrah Reynolds on violin, and Eva Gerard on viola. Are you going to have the full string quartet playing on the songs?

MH: Yes, I’ll have a full string quartet with me for the April 3rd show! The core of the band is drumkit, upright bass and trumpet, and the quartet will join us for five songs. Playing with a string quartet is so luxurious. It feels like lying on a feather bed in the sun. I’m completely excited about to play with all the artists on the bill. They’re stars.

LCC: You’re currently NYU artist-in-residence – I believe that’s your official title. How did that happen?

MH: I was invited to do the residency by Manthia Diawara, and incredible Malian filmmaker and the head of the Institute for African American Affairs at NYU. He and I met through Walter Mosley, who is a dear friend of mine. Walter will actually be introducing me for the April 3rd show. Walter brought Manthia to a New Africa Live performance that I did at le Poisson Rouge last June. Post show, Manthia said that he’d like to talk to me about coming to the University for a residency. Since then, we’ve spent months developing the programs.

LCC: Are there other duties there as artist-in-residency other than playing and writing songs?

MH: It’s actually a jam-packed month! I’m sharing the residency with Ghanian-British filmmaker John Akomfrah, also an amazing artist. We’ll be working together creatively, and I’ll be writing a piece to a short visual work of his. We’re also doing lots of panels. I’m organizing one on April 11th called the Tizita Chronicles, using the Ethiopian concept of Tizita to explore collective cultural memory. I’ll also be on the panel Reshaping the Public Imagination through the Arts at the Black Portrait Symposium put on by the uber talented MacArthur fellow and NYU Professor Deb Willis. Information about all this is online here.

LCC: You’re also doing what looks like a really cool afterschool series at the Lincoln Center Atrium on Wednesdays at 4 PM in April with free performances where you’re moderating discussion afterward. You’ve got some cool people on the bill including Chanda Rule and Somi, and some of the guys from Debo Band, who pretty much everybody loves. Can you explain how that’s going to work?

MH: The series is a collaboration between Lincoln Center’s Meet the Artist Program and the Institute for African American Affairs at NYU. It’s all about a space to present the work of artists who are using the ideas that we are exploring in the residency panel series, including Reshaping the Public Imagination Through the Arts, as well as the Tizita Chronicles and Collective Cultural Memory, and multiplicity in the African Diaspora. I think having artists in residence at a university is broadly about finding paths for the NYU students to learn in a different way than they usually have access to. For me, it’s enormously important to offer students a chance to interface with arts and performance as they are lived and experienced, and with access to the artists who create the work.

Though it’s an afternoon series – every Wednesday in April from 4 to 5 PM – and ideal for students, the events are actually completely free and open to the general public. Anyone can come! There will be a 45-minute performance, and then a 15-20 minute Q&A with the artists that I will be facilitating. So it’s a chance to see a wonderful performance and delve into the process with the artists afterwards. The range of folks who are performing as a part of it are just fantastic. The artists include Somi and Chanda Rule on April 6th, Toshi Reagon on April 13th, Zimbabwean dancer Nora Chipaumire on April 20th, and the saxophonist and drummer from Debo Band on April 27th. These are all stellar artists and there will be some phenomenal performances.

LCC: I hear Nico’s Chelsea Girl in the opening track on your album – are you a fan of that album at all?

MH: I’ve never heard it before!

LCC: Um, ok! Some times great things are invented simultaneously – or close to it, I guess. I also hear bossa nova, and jazz, and rural Ethiopian music in your songs. On one level, anybody with internet access can discover all this stuff, no problem – but you were a pre-internet baby. Is it worth asking where you picked up these influences?

MH: I feel like anything you love ends up in your work. It might take years for some fragment or another to percolate into a song, or maybe it happens fast. I was a pre-internet baby, but I did have my first email account at 15, and at 18 was immersed in college filesharing. We also used to have listening parties where everyone had to bring music that they thought most of us would never have heard before. It ended up being a lot of folk music from different parts of the world, or obscure local bands from small towns round the globe. I’m also a little bit obsessed by possessing multiple sounds. Even vocally, I really search for different tones and voices to come through. I think that’s what gives an artist the ability to access the range of the human experience.

LCC: Do you come from a musical family?

MH: My parents are doctors.

LCC: The comparison everyone is making, which I think makes sense since you’re known as a fan of hers, is Nina Simone. Did you ever meet her? See her play in concert?

MH: I never met her, and never saw her play live. I almost had the chance at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1997, but the moment passed me by. She was a huge influence…talk about honesty and directness! She taught me that you don’t always have to make something pretty for it to be powerful. Let the power speak for itself. That’s a different kind of beauty.

LCC: It doesn’t seem to me that you’ve necessarily been seeking any kind of fame; your popularity seems to be a more organic thing. To what degree would you agree with the idea that your success affirms the argument that if you give people good music, they’ll listen?

MH: I certainly hope that that’s true. But there are definitely a lot of folks who put major energy towards helping my work make its way in the world and I don’t want to deny that….. But I also do have a natural aversion to the hype machine and for me, making music is certainly not all about fame. I think good music should speak for itself. I hope there will always be space for that. About once a week I get a google alert about a new place to download my music for free, and I can’t say it bothers me. It’s just part of the deal. In a way, it’s flattering because that means that people want to share the songs. It means they’re listening.

LCC: Downloading is the new radio. I think that’s great, actually – so the rest of the world can get to know your music. Here’s a hard one: how would you respond to someone who says “Oh, she’s just trying to be the next Snorah Jones?”

MH: I think if you see me live, it’s clear why that comparison doesn’t really make sense. I once got some great advice about recording an album from a cousin of mine who said “Think about how people listen to music these days… it’s mostly on ipods with earbuds. When you record, sing as though you are as singing into someone’s ear.” That rang true and I sang my album On A Day Like This… that way. But live, there’s a kind of abandon that takes over. There’s more contour and range and way more power.

LCC: In addition to being a musician, you’ve been an advocate for all kinds of good causes. Are there some in particular that we should mention here?

MH: I’d say I’m less into causes and more into a shift in perspective. A big part of my work in the arts is towards seeing the world in greater multiplicity. I feel very passionately about expanding the public narrative that we have around Africa as synonymous with poverty, hopelessness, chaos and despair. The continent is so much more than that. It’s really so many things at once, including real people living real lives, and it’s changing so fast. We have to get way more curious about it, and far less sure that we know how the world is. It’s a great big world out there.

LCC: Anything else we should mention here?

MH: Yes, this May, my band and I are headed to Ethiopia to play at the Music Without Borders Festival, taking place in the cities of Harrar, Gondar, and Addis Ababa. In Harrar and Gondar, the shows will be totally free and open to the public. Addis Ababa’s show will have only a minimal entrance fee, so we’ll really get to connect with the people. In Gondar, we will play upon the site of the landmark Fasilides Castle, built in the mid-1600s by Emperor Fasilides. That’s some serious history!!!!

The Arba Minch Collective, the collective of Ethiopian Diaspora artists that I founded in 2009, will also be there, and we’ll be giving free workshops, and continuing to build our growing relationships with the cultural movers and shakers of the country. I’ll even be taking photos for National Geographic World Music’s website! We’re not getting paid a thing to play, so we’re making it happen grassroots style through an Indie-a-Gogo campaign that we just launched. You can learn more about it or donate here.

March 31, 2011 Posted by | interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music, soul music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mehmet Dede of Drom Reflects on the Defiant Relaunch of A Popular Manhattan Nightspot

In these difficult economic times, while some New York clubs desperately pander to the lowest common denominator with jello wrestling, beer pong and other ways of killing time on the Jersey Shore, the elegant New York East Village nightclub Drom at 85 Avenue A between 5th and 6th St. is relaunching itself as an all-purpose world music emporium on April 1. It should come as no surprise that we’re fans of the club: having rated Drom as Best Manhattan Venue of 2009, we watched them slowly gravitate to being more of a restaurant before rededicating themselves to the live music that made the place such a mecca in its first two years, beginning in 2008. Drom’s Director of Programming and Bookings, Mehmet Dede, who along with global promoter Serdar Ilhan is responsible for the makeover, took some time out of his schedule to speak with us. Here’s the scoop:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: It’s no secret that we’re glad to see that Drom is back – we spent a whole lot of time at your place a couple of years ago. What’s behind the decision to make it a fulltime music venue again, other than it’s a lot of fun?

Mehmet Dede: It’s always been a fulltime music venue. About a year after it opened some creative differences arose among owners and the programming became less cohesive – the club lost its soul, in a way. When co-founder and brainchild behind the club, Serdar Ilhan, bought out his partners last summer (with his new partner Ekmel Anda), he not only remodeled the club, but also made necessary programming and management changes to re-brand the venue to fit its motto, “Global Music for a New World.”

LCC: On one hand, what you’re doing makes sense: the Poles want Polish music, the Turks want theirs. Same with the Azeris and the Dominicans and every other great culture in this melting pot of ours. So there should be a consistent market for all of that. Yet no club dedicated to “world music,” that is, music that represents pretty much every culture, has ever managed to stay in business in New York. Are you on to something that nobody else is?

MD: We tend to think of “world music” as music that brings together communities. What I think sets Drom apart is that it is open to sounds from more countries, communities and genres than other clubs: You can hear Russian space-age pop music, an alt country band and traditional Greek music all within the same day, at times here.

LCC: Does the grand reopening involve the sound system, or the decor? Since day one, you’ve been one of the best-sounding rooms in town – I hope that won’t change…

MD: We’ve enhanced the sound system, added new gear to our technical inventory and enlarged the stage area. We’ve also painted the floor, added new artwork to the walls, and new furniture as well. The biggest change is the addition of a big chandelier, which makes you feel like you’re listening to the artist in your living room.

LCC: You and Serdar use the club as home base for your frequent global music festivals, whether in Central Park, at the UN or the Town Hall among other venues. The latest kicks off with a mammoth free concert in Central Park on Friday, June 17 with legendary Turkish songwriter/filmmaker Zulfu Livaneli. Will you continue promoting big events like that one?

MD: Yes. Serdar and I started off as promoters, and over time added producing festivals and running a nightclub to the list. Today, while we continue to produce one-off shows in and around town, we wanted to bring our experience in doing these events to a live music hall.

LCC: Your schedule for April is as eclectic as anybody could want. Palestinian-American songwriter Stephan Said continues his monthly residency; you also have jazz, Turkish music, a terrific classical pianist playing her cd release show, Turku’s hypnotic Silk Road songs on the 16th, and diverse Middle Eastern sounds with Duo Jalal on the 27th, just to name a few events. Anything else that we should know about?

MD: I would add to that list the Beatrockers & Hardknockers event on April 23rd – the ultimate showcase of the beatbox artform. Poum Tchack, a sextet from the South of France, who are elegant and classy, will play on April 30th. Last but not least, new-soul-comer Chris Turner will play at Drom in April.

LCC: Maybe this isn’t your department – or maybe it is – but I noticed that while pretty much every other restaurant out there has raised their prices, Drom’s are lower than they were last year. And the menu is simplified. What’s up with that? Will you still have that mezze [appetizer] plate that I love so much?

MD: We have simplified the menu because we have a better idea now of what people eat when they attend a concert at our venue. We are primarily a live music hall:  to complement that, we’ve added easy-to-eat main courses, bar food and finger food to the menu. Don’t worry, your fave appetizers will remain on the menu!

LCC: Is there a reason why your place is so pleasant and so many other clubs aren’t? I mean, when I go to Arlene Grocery, the crackhead who does the door acts like she wants to rip my head off. If I want a decent seat anywhere near the stage at City Winery, I have to show up super early. Yet when I come to your place, it’s dark and cozy, everybody’s friendly and relaxed, I can always manage to find a spot somewhere to sit if I’m hungry and I never start to feel like going up and strangling the sound guy. Does one have to be Turkish or Bulgarian to run a club that doesn’t make the customers feel like they’re in a concentration camp?

MD (laughs): Maybe it’s the Turkish hospitality?!

March 31, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment