Meklit Brings Ethiopian Jazz to the Bay Area

The Oakland musician's third album, When The People Move The Music Moves Too, comes out today.

Today, Oakland musician Meklit‘s third album, When The People Move The Music Moves Too, comes out, featuring an upbeat, swirling mix of soul, pop, and Ethiopian jazz. Produced by multiple Grammy Award-winning artist Dan Wilson, the rollicking album sees Meklit on vocals, guitar, and the Ethiopian harp, krar, and has features from the likes of Andrew Bird and Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

SF Weekly spoke with Meklit about her musical origins, her discovery of Ethio-jazz, and how being a TED Fellow has influenced both her life and her music.

SF Weekly: What is Ethio-jazz?
Meklit: To understand Ethio-jazz, it helps to recognize that jazz is a global music. Much like hip-hop, jazz itself changes with every culture that it touches. Ethio-jazz was developed by Mulatu Astatke, a genius vibraphonist/percussionist and the first African to attend Berklee College of Music. In the ’60s, he was spending a lot of time in New York’s jazz and Latin jazz scenes. He later went back to Ethiopia with that hybrid spirit in his hands and brought the kignit — Ethiopian traditional scales — to funk, Latin, and Ethiopian rhythm sections. His creation became known as Ethio-jazz.

SFW: And you met Mulatu Astatke and he became a mentor of sorts for you, right?
M: I met him in Ethiopia in 2011, when I brought my band to play there, and we did shows in three cities. Mulatu came to one of our shows and I was totally freaking out. I was like, ‘OMG! He’s in the audience!’ He’s one of my heroes. After the show, he took me aside and said, ‘Hey, why are you playing this music like we played it 40 years ago? What’s your contribution to this music? What are you going to do to take it forward and make your mark on it? You have to figure it out. That’s your job as an artist.’ He has a very forward-thinking musical mind. He isn’t about preservation of tradition in any way. He’s about deep connections to tradition, but what he was telling me to do was to keep innovating.

SFW: Do you keep in touch?
M: We’ve kept in touch, yes. I saw him last year in June in Ethiopia. We did two shows at his club. Later, we had a long conversation one afternoon over tea, and he continued to give me really strong and powerful musical advice. He likes to break my mind open about music every time we talk. It’s nuts. He’s a musical genius.

SFW: Tell me about how you started making music.
M: I’ve always sang, but didn’t start writing songs until I moved to San Francisco back in 2004. It was like a tide — everything around me pointed towards music. I started taking voice lessons, won a scholarship to study at Blue Bear School of American Music, and dove in head first. I started performing at the Mission Arts and Performance Project, and co-directing the Red Poppy Art House. I was surrounded by creativity and took it all in. I realized that musicians have no choice but to grow in front of other people. You learn by doing. In creativity, you must be brave.

SFW: You’re also a TED fellow? 
M: I became a TED Fellow in 2009 and a Senior TED Fellow in 2012. TED has had an enormous impact on my life. I met my producer, multi-GRAMMY winning songwriting genius Dan Wilson (Adele, John Legend), at TED in 2013. I’ve developed deep friendships, found collaborators, and expanded my way of thinking and communicating ideas in the world.

SFW: Have the skills you’ve accrued through TED translated to your music?
M: TED is fundamentally about relationships and interconnections, so in that way, TED has had an enormous impact on my music. For example, working with Dan Wilson, whom I met at TED, has changed the way I think about songwriting. I write down everything he says in the studio. TED is also a place where the ideas behind the music are just as important as the music itself. In other words, if you can move people emotionally through songs, then back that up with a philosophy and a purpose, music becomes twice as powerful. I was also a natural fit for TED because I already held that approach through my work as a cultural organizer. TED allowed me to sharpen that and create interdisciplinary connections based on it.

SFW: When The People Move, The Music Moves Too is your third album and you’ve said that you feel like it’s the first time all your various skills have come together in one project. How so?
M: This album is about Ethiopian music, jazz, and the singer-songwriter’s approach. In past albums, one song would lean towards one direction, another towards another. In this album, all three are in each and every song. That is what I mean by culmination. I found a way to make them one sound.

SFW: Your music is bilingual?
M: I sing mostly in English, but also in Amharic, one of the main languages of Ethiopia. I love to go back and forth, to explore the different senses of poetry and also to just play with how different languages let you explore the voice.

SFW: Who are some other Ethiopian musicians that are innovating through their music?
M: There are so many! Jorga Mesfin is an Ethio-jazz saxophonist who is a real torchbearer. His sister Munit Mesfin is also rocking it as a singer-songwriter. Ethiopian superstar Teddy Afro just spent weeks at No. 1 on the iTunes World Music Charts. Wayna Wondwossen is a Grammy-nominated Ethio-American singer based in D.C., who is doing beautiful work. Many folks don’t know that the Weeknd is Ethio-Canadian too. We’re everywhere.

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