Interview: Meklit – Humble to the Unknown (August 2018)

With a nomadic upbringing and a yearning to speak her own truth, Meklit is an empowered songstress making big noise in the modern world of Ethio-jazz. Combining East Coast African jazz with her own brand of danceable soul, the end result is a dynamic mix of energy and courage in her music.

Born in Ethiopia, she moved around the States growing up and now lives in San Francisco. Meklit is a well-educated woman, whose love for music shines out when she performs. There is no doubt this is her destiny. Most recently, she released an album, When The People Move The Music Moves Too, which is a deeply personal offering, bringing all her histories together.

Meklit sheltered from the rain with us backstage at WOMAD Festival 2018 after her set. On one level enjoying the break from the heatwave, we also mourned wearing frocks and chatted about how we have to constantly readapt to the British weather in less desirable fashion.

We asked about her music, what is important to her and consequently what forms the message for her songwriting.

What inspires your music and what has had the biggest impact on your creativity?

I have three streams that come into my music; Ethiopian music, which includes the pentatonic scales and the rhythms; American jazz; and I am also deeply influenced by lots of singer-songwriters. Those three things come together to form my sound. My sonic lineages include Michael Jackson, Prince, Mahmoud Ahmed and John Coltrane. These are the musicians that I want to honour with my songs.

Mulatu Astatke is an artist that has had a fundamental impact on my creative vision. In 2011, I brought my band to Ethiopia, and he pulled me aside and said, ‘hey, why are you playing Ethio-jazz like we played it fifty years ago?’. He questioned what my voice was within this sound and what was my contribution. You have to experiment, and you have to keep innovating. He kind of tasked me with that, and he really gave me permission to deconstruct it and build it up again and find a way to perform it that is true to the life that I’ve lived. My upbringing is one of diaspora and hybridity and Brooklyn and San Francisco and Addis. So, any time I sing a song from the album When The People Move The Music Moves Too, it’s very directly channelling him and his influence and the space that he gave me to create with freedom from tradition.

How did Mulatu’s direction and inspiration change your style?

It changed my style a lot. I’ve always described my music as Ethiopian and jazz and singer-songwriter, however, in the past, each song would fall into only one of those categories. He helped me find a way to put them all together and make them into something that is whole rather than separated. It also raised the energy, as I chose to focus on Ethiopian rhythms as a foundation. And that’s dance music.

So, you have integrated your day-to-day life, memories and experiences with your musical influences to create your own unique brand of sound?

Music is our medicine. For musicians, whenever we are feeling bad, the best thing to do is play. Or, if there is an incongruity or fissure, I can heal it in my music. I can express myself in that way. And I can also say that I make the music that I wish I had when I was growing up. I only had music that was very traditional or very Ethio-jazz, or else there was American music. But, there was no music that had a relationship between them the way that I did in my life. I felt I was constantly separating who I was and could only show certain parts of myself in different contexts. I needed a place where I could show my whole being. So, I hope that I can give that space to others.

Sounds like your music has really matured as you have matured and grown alongside you. Do you have a main message that you aim to deliver through your music?

There are many messages because I’m a paragraph, not a sentence!

One of the messages is very much about migration. I came to the US as a refugee in the early 1980s, and my parents are both physicians. During that time, they redid their residency and spent years in service to society. I hope that I’m able to do the same through the music. Also, migration and cultural development go hand in hand, and its nothing to be afraid of. It’s actually something we can dance to.

Another message has to do with being who you really are, even when other people feel it’s easier to limit the fullness of your expression. The thing I said about wanting to make the music I wanted to make as a kid; well, that doesn’t just happen to people around ethnicity, does it? It can happen to people with split families, for example. Where one side of their family wants them to be something and the other side to be something else. But, they are a whole made of both parts. Now, doesn’t the same exact sense of being your whole self, made up of multiple parts, apply to that. It’s about shining yourselves as you truly are, and when we are doing that, we are always making space for others to do the same.

In order to get to the truth of who you really are, have you had to travel back in time to your days living in Africa? Does the Ethiopian influence in your music come from the eyes of a child?

I think there are things that are in you, and I think there are things that you reach for, and they are both welcome. I am expressing my African-ness in the ways that I dance and the ways that I am with my family. But, I am also expressing it in the way I think about poetry. Ethiopian poetry is deeply influential in me, with its approach to double entendre, and so it just comes up in a million ways. And I do think we have to look back to know where we are going. We have to recognise our histories. Our unconsciousness is gigantic, so it’s an ongoing process. Nothing is finished.

You get asked all these questions in interviews, but part of being an artist is working with the unknown. There is a part of me that always has to be humble to the unknown.

Do you think about how your music will be received in a wider context when writing?

If you can understand the context of what you are doing and why it’s important to others, you give more roads in. We are all bombarded with content and ideas, and so sometimes we just need an invitation. And that invitation can be a dialogue, just as it can be a melody.

You have a strong feminine spirit in your music and you work in a male-dominated industry. How important is it to represent the female side?

You become aware of it, as you realise how few women musicians there are out there. I have had the great pleasure of sharing the stage many times with Angelique Kidjo, and every time, she pulls me backstage and tells me I have to keep doing what I’m doing; how there is not enough of us out here. She’s talking about female composers and leading a way of thinking and a way of being. And this is something that is really important to me.

I co-founded the Nile Project in 2011, a project about bringing musicians together from the countries along the Nile to learn and to create music with each other. When we were on our first scouting trip, I was very clear that we needed to have a deep female leadership. We are in a place where there are very few women composers from the African continent.

And it’s the same in the UK; for example, only 5% of songwriters in the North of England are women.

What was the most eye-opening thing about the Nile Project that surprised you?

I think I wasn’t expecting how much we would love each other. The first residency we did was in Aswan in the South of Egypt in 2013, and it was seventy musicians, and everyone falling in love with each other, sharing everything. It was the most heartfelt musical experience. It was as though we were hungry for each other without knowing.

What’s in the future for you and what are you excited about?

I am working on a new podcast, which I can’t talk about yet. I’m working on a new album. I’m doing a bunch of curating in the Bay area for a new festival that’s happening later this year. So, I am really busy with lots coming up for you to look out for!

Photo ©: Tessa Shimizu