After spending a few years behind the scenes, curating performances at the Red Poppy Art House and the Mission Arts and Performance Project, Meklit Hadero is taking center stage. The San Francisco–based singer recently released her debut album, On a Day Like This ..., on Porto Franco Records, the eclectic, Mission-based label. While her disc may get slotted in the jazz section on iTunes, her music defies categorization with a global sound blazing with positive vibrations.
Born in Ethiopia but raised in Iowa and New York, Hadero brings a one-world ethos to her songwriting. She sings mostly in English, but also in Amharic (and nominally in French); her vocals float among world, pop, jazz, and folk. Her delivery compels close listening, especially when she stutter-steps single syllables into multiple ones, each imbued with distinct character. It's a magical feat, derived from Ethiopian tradition, and when combined with a mighty vibrato, these lines flow with emotional depth. Hadero echoes a range of kindred, unclassifiable singers like soul-jazz-blues-gospel queen Nina Simone and Zap Mama's Euro-African lingual acrobat Marie Daulne.
Hadero understands the rich community-building possibilities of this moment in history, when technological advances make intercultural exchange the norm rather than the exception. She first explored what she calls artistic "in-between-ness" a couple of years back with Nefasha Ayer, an eight-piece band whose members hailed from Peru, India, the U.S., and various African countries. Last year, she reached across disciplines into theater (via a Brava Theater commission to compose music for Brian Thorstenson's Over the Mountain) and visual arts (thanks to an artist-in-residence award from the de Young Museum). Then she received a Global Fellowship from the prestigious TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) organization for her work with Arba Minch, an artists' collective from the Ethiopian diaspora whose members returned to their native land for cross-cultural collaboration.
All of this activity fed Hadero's vision for On a Day Like This ... . The instrumental palette alone is wonderfully diverse, including vibrant string, horn, and percussion arrangements by top Bay Area players from the fields of jazz (bassist Marcus Shelby, trumpeter Darren Johnston) and classical (violist Charith Premawardhana, cellist Adam Young). The sound of the ensemble often evokes the nuanced beauty of a film soundtrack.
On "Walk Up," Hadero sings of ascension, "tak[ing] your place in the sky," against a luminous backdrop of finger-picked acoustic guitar and trembling viola. "Float and Fall," a speakeasy swinger with a virtuosic melody, combines breezy sweetness with just enough sass to bypass cliché. The lyrics also underscore Hadero's global consciousness: "I know every person who passes me by/Their history is also mine."
Such awareness extends to Hadero's striking cover of "Feeling Good," a popular Broadway number recorded by dozens of artists, including her lifelong hero, Simone. On this track, Hadero revels in her relationship with nature. It's a fitting homage to the power of connecting beyond the familiar, and with Hadero on the mike, it's a thoroughly convincing sentiment.