Meklit Hadero – On A Day Like This…

Meklit Hadero
On A Day Like This…
Porto Franco – 2010

If Joni Mitchell were East African and met Nina Simone for tea in San Francisco’s Mission District, she might end up sounding like Meklit Hadero. Meklit is a true modern global artist: born in Ethiopia, raised in US and nurtured for the last several years in San Francisco’s richly diverse arts scene. Add in a warm and luminous singing voice and lyrical songwriting that moves from the starkly personal to the poetically metaphoric, and you have her entrancing debut full-length recording, “On a Day Like This…”, to be released by Porto Franco Records in April 2010. 


While Meklit’s music is like a sponge soaking up influences from all over the world, in some ways she’s the perfect embodiment of the City by the Bay – cosmopolitan, striking and worldly, with an outlook that seems to change every few blocks or so.  In fact, it’s tempting to tag Meklit and “On a Day Like This…” – with its jazzy but expansive vibe, moods that veer from the hushed to the impassioned, and a female voice so lushly spellbinding it draws you into its world – as San Francisco’s answer to Norah Jones. 


The recording is both a product and evocation of Meklit’s five years in San Francisco, a period which saw her deeply involved in the city’s fertile arts scene. Moving to San Francisco in 2004, she came into the fold of the Red Poppy Art House soon after, a place that would grow to shape her creative world. The Art House is a cultural cornerstone of the Mission District, hosting eclectic performance and artist workshops and residencies that draw on the neighborhood’s rich diversity. Meklit became co-director of the space in June of 2006, working alongside its founder Todd Brown. She spent much of the next three years running its programs and acting as a core curator of the Mission Arts and Performance Project (MAPP), a bi-monthly event that presents art, music, poetry and performance in a multitude of neighborhood spaces, from cafes to street corners to garages.


Today she credits these experiences with shaping her art in crucial ways.  Running the Art House introduced her to the city’s vibrant music scene and its array of gifted players. “I was constantly seeing musicians working from multiple traditions,” she says, “whose roots went back to as many corners of the world as you can imagine.”  It wasn’t long before many of these musicians were working with Meklit on her own music. Many of them appear on “On a Day Like This…”, from pillars of the city’s jazz scene like bassist Marcus Shelby, saxaphonist /clarinetist David Boyce and trumpeter Darren Johnston, to classical musicians like cellist Adam Young and violist Charith Premawardhanda, founder of the international string collective Classical Revolution.  


You wouldn’t guess it from her arresting stage presence and potent range of songs, but Meklit is relatively new to performing. Her first public performance was in October of 2005, and consisted of a 20-minute set of cover songs as part of the MAPP.  But she soon threw herself into singing and writing songs with abandon.  “I always knew I wanted to be a singer,” she says now, “but I just didn’t know what that meant, what it meant to write songs and express yourself in the world in this way.”


But express herself she did – as songwriter and co-bandleader of Nefasha Ayer, which she created with Red Poppy co-director Todd Brown, an eight piece group that received a grant from the San Francisco Foundation to write music that explored a feeling of “the space of in-between” in all its cultural shapes and forms. The experience of leading her first large group taught her about structuring music, and exploring metaphor.  Her own songs then began to take a clearer shape. Drawing on both her everyday experiences and her involvement in such creative endeavors as Nefasha Ayer, she began writing many of the songs that appear on her new disc.


And those experiences multiplied in 2009: in January Meklit was commissioned by San Francisco’s Brava Theater to write the music for Brian Thorstensen’s world premier play, “Over the Mountain.” Premiering in April, the play featured the song “You and the Rain,” now featured on “On a Day Like This…” That June, Meklit also became an artist-in-residence at the De Young Museum: “Walk up” – inspired by James Turrell’s sculpture inside the museum – is a product of that time. Finally in July, Meklit was recognized for her cultural work by the world-renowned TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Organization, which selected her as one of 25 TED Global Fellows for 2009, bringing her its annual conference in Oxford, England, where she spoke, as well as performed. 


One reason for her selection as a TED fellow was her work on behalf of the arts organizing in San Francisco; another was her work with the Arba Minch collective, a group she founded to bring together a group of artists from the Ethiopian diaspora living in North America to collaborate on projects and reconnect with their native country and its culture.  In the fall of 2009, the group embarked on their initial trip to Ethiopia, collaborating with local artists and performers in the nations capital of Addis Ababa and more remote regions, partnering with local arts institutions and laying the groundwork for future projects in East Africa.  And there will be songs about it too: the SF Arts Commission just gave Meklit an individual artist commission to write songs based on the trip.    


A San Francisco-based artist with deep local ties and a growing international profile, Meklit is now nurturing a number of projects that will take her back to East Africa and around the world.  For Meklit Hadero and her remarkable music, there is no limit. But whatever the future holds, “On a Day Like This…” encapsulates her time in San Francisco. The musicians she met Red Poppy Art House grew into her community. “Bringing these folks together to make this record was a symbol of that time” she says.  The end of one beautiful chapter, so that another can begin.