Meklit Hadero had been working late the night before she called from her San Francisco home. "If you're in the middle of writing a song, you can't let it go until it tells you it's done with you," she said. Hidden in that explanation is a hint at how she relates to music -- her songs have a life of their own and a hold on her that she can't quite account for. When she lets them go, they grab hold of the listener.
Born in Ethiopia, Meklit and her family left Africa in 1981 when she was still a toddler. She maintains her connection however -- she has returned to Africa five times in the last 10 years. "It's a significant part of my life, even if my first memories are from Iowa," she said. "It was an odd place to land because there weren't many immigrants, but my dad was a college professor and had a job there.
"The older I get and the more I go back to Ethiopia, the more it becomes part of my life. I've been working with this collective of Ethiopian diaspora artists, Arba Minch Collective, and we've been going annually for two years. The group includes poets and photographers, filmmakers and musicians. We go there to connect with traditional and contemporary artists, both in Addis Ababa as well as outside of the capital in different regions. Now when I go back, I'm learning about the artistic communities of Ethiopia and that has connected me to the country in a whole new way."
There are hints of her homeland in her recordings (she included a cover of a Mahmoud Ahmed song on her most recent album On a day like this...), but for the most part her sound is along modern American folk jazz lines.
She says the Ethiopian elements are there, just indirectly. "I'm definitely not a traditional artist and I know I never will be -- I feel like I can't really give voice to what that is because I didn't grow up there, even though I did grow up with the music. The way I lived was really international and traveling a lot in America, so my music reflects the life I had, one of a mixing.
"I think the most immediate way you can see the influence is in my vocals, and it really comes through in a live show. On the album, you hear it on 'Leaving Soon,' with this intense vibrato and movement around note, stretching words in sort of strange ways, at least ways that might sound strange to an American ear -- that comes from Ethiopian music. If you listen to Mahmoud Ahmed and traditional singers, they do it in Amharic. I do it in English."
And she does it well.
Stopping off on a tour that will take her to Seattle's Bumbershoot festival, Meklit Hadero and a jazz trio -- bass, drums and trumpet -- play at the Arcata Playhouse Tuesday, Aug.30 at 8 p.m. Note that this is the first show after the completion of the next phase of the Playhouse's extreme makeover. Admission is $15, $13 for Playhouse members. Call 822-1575 for information about advance tickets.