Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Meklit Hadero Enchants the Crowd at the Skirball Center

In her interview here a couple of weeks ago, eclectic chanteuse Meklit Hadero affirmed her interest in cross-pollination, not only musically, but across cultural boundaries. At her show last Sunday at the Skirball Center at NYU (where she’s currently artist-in-residence), she reaffirmed her dedication to both goals. It takes nerve to open a show a-cappella, but Hadero pulled it off without breaking a sweat. There are plenty of women with beautiful voices out there, few who deserve comparison to Nina Simone and Hadero is one of them. Part oldschool soul, part jazz, part Ethiopian folk, her music defies category because it’s so different from anything else out there. Occasionally singing in Amharic, she charmed the audience with a jaunty proto-Afrobeat theme that translated loosely as “I like your Afro;” another, like a vocal counterpart to Hamza Al Din’s Water Wheel, celebrated bucolic Ethiopian farm life, in many ways unchanged from how it’s been for millennia.

Much of Hadero’s music is quiet, but it’s also unusually earthy and rhythm-oriented. She likes low tonalities, and it showed, with four incisive, sometimes sly bass solos from Keith Witty. Hadero also plays acoustic guitar more as a rhythm instrument, like her vocals, quiet and determined and steady. It’s always a treat to hear trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, who contributed characteristically spacious yet almost minimalistically jewelled lines, both with and without a mute. As she frequently does, Hadero put down her guitar and backed by just trumpet, bass and drums, ran through a mix of pensive yet warm material from her most recent album On a Day Like This…, including a jazzy, swinging version of the popular title track, the vividly sunny, funky Soleil Soleil – written after “forty days of rain,” Hadero told the crowd – as well as some unreleased material, including the unselfconsciously wry yet torchy Mixed Message Men that she used to close the show on a high note.

Other material took on a lush atmospheric vibe – “Like sleeping in the sun on a feather bed,” Hadero smiled – enhanced by some luscious arrangements for two-cello string quartet featuring both Analissa Martinez and Jennifer de Vore along with Tarrah Reynolds on violin and Eva Gerard on viola. It was the perfect vehicle for Hadero’s unselfconsciously warm delivery. Some singers work hard to engage the audience: with a jaunty blue note springing out of a velvety, hushed phrase, Hadero lets them come to her. She’s got an ongoing residency on Wednesdays at 4 PM this month at the Lincoln Center Atrium, where she’s engaging some eclectic artists (including members of ecstatically fun Ethiopian groove unit Debo Band on the 27th) in both music and conversation along with Q&A from the audience.

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April 11, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, soul music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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