To understand Meklit’s story, you must first place yourself in front of a map and open up your ears. It’s only then that her music can hit you with full force—and trust us, when it does, you’ll be happy you’re knocked off your feet.
The singer-songwriter performs a hybrid of jazz, folk, and East African influences in her music, though it’s most easily summed up as Ethio-jazz. It comes naturally for someone who’s moved as much as she. Born in Ethiopia, she moved to Germany at age two, then to Iowa, Brooklyn, and Florida. She studied at Yale University, lived in London for a semester, spent a summer in Miami, rerooted in Seattle after graduating, and then, finally, decided San Francisco’s Bay Area would be her home. She’s now lived there for 13 years.
“I think cities are cities; they all have congestion and rush hour, housing shortages, inflation, folks from smaller towns moving there to pursue their dreams, universities and colleges, wealth inequality, industry and construction, and public transportation,” she says when asked about the differences. “Addis Ababa [in Ethiopia] has a light rail, but no subway. Addis Ababa is a relatively new city and is growing incredibly fast; the city is in fact struggling to keep up with its growth, but so are places in the States, like San Francisco. Of course the culture is quite different, with different family and community relationships, songs, food, everything you can imagine. But you can also say that people are people, wherever in the world you are.”
It’s important to start here. Meklit sees the world with both her eyes and her ears. Because she’s not just traveled the world but lived in it, she’s taken in a plethora of nontraditional voices, noises, and rattlings—all of which were foundational for her as a musician, even if in subtle, overlooked ways. Put simply, she’s a polymath. That earned her a spot as a TED Global Fellow in 2009 and a TED Senior Fellow in 2012. Several years later, after numerous conferences and educational trips, it was time for her to give her own TED Talk to the community, so, unsurprisingly, she touched upon the vibrancy of life and the materials people have at their fingertips, regardless of where they live. In her TED Talk, “The Unexpected Beauty of Everyday Sounds,” she shows how the everyday soundscape (including silence!) creates music. After playing an old clip of an opera singer for the audience, she reveals it’s actually a 1987 recording of a bird singing, slowed down. The audience’s faces range from disbelief to delight. The sounds around us are music. We know this, but hearing it in that context makes it impossible to ignore.
“My TED talk was the culmination of years of inspiration, an anthology of sonic flashpoints, strung together… When moments of insight strike me deeply, I write them down and store them away, hoping that one day I can use them to describe the way I see the world,” she says. “I wrote it because I wanted viewers to listen to the world around them differently, to open their hearing and really find pleasure, joy, and fun through a relationship to sound. I wanted people to know that there is a through line of sonic architects, and that John Cage and St. Yared need not be strangers, but have a relationship to each other through sound and silence and listening.”
If people develop a deeper understanding of music by broadening their understanding of sound, then, logically speaking, it makes sense to expose ourselves to new sounds. Not everyone can uproot their life and more. Instead, take a trip to your local library and scan the music section. Avoid the genres you lean toward—or, if you’re the average American, just head straight to the “world music” section, a poorly titled catchall genre for music beyond Western borders, but one that often dips into rock, folk, electronic, and beyond. If she weren’t a US-based artist, it’s likely Meklit’s music would be categorized as such.
“Ethio-jazz is a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar,” she explains. “If you’ve never heard it before, you’ll recognize plenty inside of it, even while you’ll be surprised by other factors. There are influences of funk and soul and New York jazz, juxtaposed against a pentatonic approach to horns and Ethiopian rhythms. It’s an intersection of East African and African-American cultures.”
For those unsure where to start, Meklit has plenty of recommendations. For traditional music, there’s dancer Melaku Belay and the ensemble she leads, Fendika/Ethio-Color, who tour the US frequently. Then comes Mulatu Astatke, the creator of Ethio-jazz and a mentor of Meklit’s. There are modern acts like saxophonist Jorga Mesfin, the lively arrangements of Addis Acoustic, the grooves of Gossaye, or the pop hits by Teddy Afro.
Of course, there’s no introduction to the genre quite like Meklit’s. This June, she plans to release her fifth full-length, When the People Move, the Music Moves Too, via Six Degrees Records. Her stop in Boston this Sunday is a part of the preview tour, which means our city gets to hear her new songs months before they’re released.
“The songs came straight from the push of a legend,” she says. “Back in 2011, Mulatu Astatke, the Godfather of Ethio-jazz, saw my show, sat me down afterwards, and said, ‘What are you going to do to contribute to Ethio-jazz? You must keep innovating!’ This music is me responding with songs laid on a foundation of East African groove, with a story of finding beloved home inside of two cultures.”
She pauses and then seems to smile. “I want people to experience this story of cultural hybridity,” she says, “but do so with their hips as well as their hearts.”
MEKLIT + SO SOL. SUN 4.9. ONCE SOMERVILLE, 156 HIGHLAND AVE., SOMERVILLE. 6:30PM/18+/$15. ONCESOMERVILLE.COM