Meklit Hadero, keeping it real and varied

Boston Globe, July 10, 2011

“On a Day Like This,” the 2010 debut album by San Francisco singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero, traces the arc of one day, its 10 songs sequenced to convey the moods and events of the passing hours from daybreak until time to sleep.

It is a day of shifting weather, from “You and the Rain” to “Soleil Soleil,” as befits the city by the bay; a bittersweet day, as misgivings over a love that can’t last (“Leaving Soon”) give way to the affirming Nina Simone cover “Feeling Good.”

It is a day as emotionally rich as the sounds that accompany it are eloquent in their assured diversity, from the New Orleans jazz feel of “Float and Fall” to Hadero’s cover of “Abbay Mado,” by Ethiopian master Mahmoud Ahmed.

It is, all in all, a very Meklit Hadero kind of day.

“It has a lot of everything, which is kind of what my life is like,” Hadero says. “I have a lot of variation in my days and I love that. It comes back to that feeling of multiplicity that I’m always trying to explore in my music.”

Hadero is speaking from the idyllic setting of Big Sur, having played a festival at the Esalen Institute. The location emblematizes a certain new age California that is very different from Hadero’s day-to-day milieu in San Francisco’s Mission District, where she helps run a grass-roots venue, the Red Poppy Art House, and works with immigrant and low-income communities.

A Yale political science graduate, Hadero, 31, moved to the Bay in 2004 and proceeded to immerse herself in the arts scene. She wrote her first song, she says, in 2005. But she quickly found her place, growing a local reputation before her album lifted her onto the national scene. She makes her Boston debut Tuesday at Johnny D’s.

Her thoughtful lyrics and the spare, direct feel of her album – a few string passages are its only ornamentation – inscribe Hadero in a tradition of singer-songwriters who are moved above all by a sense of purpose.

“I cannot sing something I don’t believe in,” she says. “Not believing in terms of ideology, but believing in the world that you are making through the song. I feel I get that from the songwriter tradition. The lyrical unfolding is so important in my music.”

A student of the greats like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, she reserves special affection for Leonard Cohen, whose oeuvre she discovered through Nina Simone’s version of “Suzanne.”

“It’s the way he tells stories and the way he is so surprising in the openness that he makes with his lyrics,” she says of Cohen. “Even seeing his songs age, and how they are still so true.”

But just as important an influence, for reasons musical and more, comes from Ethiopia, where Hadero was born soon before her parents, both doctors, immigrated to the United States, landing at first in Iowa.

There, and later in Brooklyn, and finally during her high school years in Florida, she grew up with exposure to Ethiopia mostly through her parents’ old cassettes. It was only at 21 that she made her first trip back. “It was a revolutionary experience,” she says. “Just me and my mom, and for the first time seeing this whole other side of her.”

Since then, Hadero has taken multiple trips, not just as an expat visiting home, but also as an activist trying to use the arts to build ties between Ethiopia and its diaspora, under the auspices of a group she started to that end, the Arba Minch Collective, and with her perspective enriched by a stint as a TED Global fellow in 2009.

Two months ago, Hadero visited Ethiopia again and performed there for the first time. There, in the front row of her first Addis Ababa performance, she found Mulatu Astatke, the iconic bandleader of the 1970s who has been prominently featured on the acclaimed Ethiopiques re-release series.

Hadero was playing her English-language repertoire with her touring band of American jazz musicians. She says she sometimes feels pressure from fellow Ethiopians to play traditional, ethnic-identified music. But not from Astatke, with whom she and the band went on to spend several afternoons talking about music over strong coffee.

“He was so kind, sweet, and supportive,” she says. “He told me, `You just keep innovating.’ “

Armed with that blessing, Hadero is forging ahead with her vision – one in which being a San Francisco singer-songwriter and a representative of Ethiopian arts are in no way incompatible, but rather an expression of diasporic identities today.

That might seem odd in the “world music” segment of the industry, but to East Africans of her generation whom she meets on the road, Hadero says, the overlap is completely natural, and their reaction is gratifying.

“They come up to me and say, `We feel you are representing us in a different way, and we’re proud of you,’ ” she says. “It’s family. And it makes touring feel like a constant reunion.”