HomeInterviewsSinger-songwriter Meklit talks new EP ‘Ethio Blue’

Singer-songwriter Meklit talks new EP ‘Ethio Blue’

San Francisco-based Ethiopian-American singer, composer, and cultural activist Meklit Hadero took time from her current tour to chat with 360°Sound. Meklit (pronounced Me-KLEET, rhymes with beat) will be releasing a new EP entitled Ethio Blue on March 8. The first single, “Antidote,” an Ethio-jazz-inspired ode to emotional wisdom and self-knowledge, is out now. In this exclusive interview, Meklit discusses the characteristics of Ethio-jazz, what we can expect from the forthcoming EP, her cultural activism, and more.

Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. For the full interview, see the video at the bottom.

360°Sound: Please start by giving our readers an introduction to you and your music.

Meklit: I was born in Ethiopia. I grew up mostly in Brooklyn and then moved to San Francisco. I like to think of myself as making the music that touches each of those places. Being born in Ethiopia and growing up in an Ethiopian family community, I’m really inspired by Ethiopian scales, rhythms, and the music of Ethio jazz. In my years in Brooklyn, I was deeply influenced by American jazz. For example, my first ever performance was when I was 12, singing Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” at my Brooklyn middle school.

New York is where I learned jazz, and I’ve been in the Bay Area for about 20 years now. I started making music when I moved to the Bay Area. For me, the Bay Area really inspired me to become a singer-songwriter. This idea that, with simplicity, you can strum your truth. And so those three places and those three sounds – Ethiopian music, jazz, and singer-songwriter music –  really come together to shape the music that I make.

I’m also a cultural activist. I’m always involved in projects, initiatives, and organizations that think about the intersection of social change and creative practice. I’m the co-founder and host of a podcast, radio show, and live show called Movement, which uplifts the songs and stories of immigrant musicians. We’re really thinking about how we can make new narratives of migration inspired by and led by the people who’ve experienced it. It’s part social commentary, part world-building project, but also part music discovery, because the music coming out of immigrant communities is just so badass, genre-less, and innovative.

I’m a big jazz fan myself, but I’m only vaguely familiar with Ethiopian jazz. What distinguishes Ethio jazz from American jazz?

Ethio jazz is a way of bringing Ethiopian traditional music – the pentatonic scales of Ethiopia, which are very particular – into a relationship with Western jazz. To tell the story best to not make it abstract and theoretical, but to make it personal, I think it’s always good to tell the story of Mulatu Astatke. He was the creator of Ethio jazz and the first African to attend Berklee College of Music. He graduated in 1966, and then went to New York and was immersed, playing congas and vibraphone in the Latin jazz scene. He was like, “I can do this with our music the way that Cuban music was able to bring the traditional rhythms and approaches to music into jazz.”

He went back to Ethiopia. He created Ethio jazz, bringing Ethiopian traditional music into a relationship with jazz. I think of myself as part of continuing that legacy. I came to the U.S. as a refugee, and so I’m deeply inspired by the way that Ethio jazz lets me be like my full African diasporic self. It lets me be in relationship to Black music that comes from this place, the United States, while still maintaining my relationship to my culture.

It’s hard to talk about music, because we use music to talk about the things that are hard to talk about. Sometimes you just got to press play. Over 10 years ago, Mulatu Astatke came to a show of mine in Ethiopia. He basically said to me, “What is your contribution to Ethio jazz going to be? This is a living music. It has to continue to evolve.” That conversation was transformative for me. That became the wellspring of the music that I make today.

What can we expect from your forthcoming EP Ethio Blue?

I started writing Ethio Blue back in 2019. The pandemic slowed a lot of stuff down, and at the same time, I was pregnant when beginning to write the songs. I was thinking, “Gosh, everybody’s really worn out. People just seemed really tired.” I could feel the weight of the world when I was talking to my communities. I was like, “I want to write an album that’s really about nurturing, sustaining, and uplifting the heart.” That was the origin of the EP.

The songs are very heart-centered. “Antidote” is really about understanding our collective power, understanding that we have enough for all of us, but we have to reach out to each other and try to listen and understand where folks are coming from in order to get to the solutions. The power is ours. But I wasn’t doing it in this political speak; it’s really about being centered in the heart.

I named the album Ethio Blue after the title track. I got really inspired by thinking about the people who created the music that we love and the lives that they lived, to be able to sing with that kind of depth, to be able to play with that kind of depth. And the intense challenges and pressures that they were feeling – Black people in the U.S. and in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, there’s this way that you get these incredible musicians, like flute players, who will just play for the animals, they’ll be shepherds, and they’ll play. Then you hear these recordings, and you’re like, “What is happening?” The glorious nature of this music and just thinking about how the best music has a root in these folk spaces. I wanted to pay homage to that.

It’s an EP about healing and understanding where we come from, understanding where our power comes from, and that there is enough for all of us. It’s a six-song EP, co-produced by Dan Wilson, my very dear friend, who just won a Grammy for a song that he wrote with Chris Stapleton. Dan has a really deep mind. We met at the TED conference in 2012 or 2013 and then just started working together. We love working together.

Any plans for a full-length LP?

I’ll have a full-length coming out next year, which is almost finished. You know how these things are – there’s a lag time. You dream it up, you record it, you mix it, you master it, you wait. You get all your assets together, you get a plan, you get a strategy, so there’s always a big delay. So yes, there will be a new record of full-length coming out about a year from now.

To learn more about Meklit and find out about upcoming gigs, visit her website meklitmusic.com and follow her on Instagram @meklitmusic.  


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