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How San Francisco helped Meklit Hadero find her voice


Born in Ethiopia, local musician Meklit Hadero lived all over the map until she landed in San Francisco almost eight years ago. The singer-songwriter was a resident artist with the de Young museum, is a TED Global fellow, and worked with the Red Poppy Art House and the Mission Arts and Performance Project.

But just seven years ago, the artist now compared with Nina Simone was but a receptionist with a dream.

In this story from our archives, KALW’s Martina Castro met up with MeklitHadero at the Red Poppy Art House to hear how that artist-run space, and others around the Mission helped her find her voice.

MEKLIT HADERO: You know the thing about singers is that they've always sung, you know? My name is MeklitHadero, and I'm a singer, musician, and cultural activist.

One day I was at this pretty terrible bar in North Beach, and some of my friends were here at the Red Poppy Art House in the Mission District, and they called me and they said, "I don't care what you're doing, get over here right now." And so I came, and it was just a real transformative, breaking open moment. I walked in and there was a guitar player in one corner and a bass player and a drum player in another corner. And up in the loft, there was an oud player, and they were all improvising a song. And then somebody began a call and response with everybody in the room, and suddenly in an instant, 30 people were all singing together. And it was so lifting. So that started my involvement with the Red Poppy Art House. And music became the center of everything.

San Francisco has been an enormously inspiring part of what has made me a musician and a singer. And especially the Mission District. And that also comes down to the Mission Arts and Performance Project (MAPP). Once I started curating for the MAPP project in 2005, I was totally hooked, and I was involved in every single MAPP for three years, in garages and backyards and local spaces like the Secret Garden.

So when you're walking down the street in the Mission, you're going to hear a lot of different kinds of things. Of course you'll hear the cars passing. Many of the cars have far better sound systems than I have in my house! It's funny at the Red Poppy when we have shows, and sometimes those cars go by and ... sometimes jazz musicians will just incorporate the rhythms or the beats that they're hearing into their improvisation, so that's kind of fun...

And these are full of cherry, and they're bees here, and they're buzzing around and friendly. So here we are, this is the Secret Garden. And there are raised beds over there with rainbow chard and all kinds of good, yummy greens for the neighborhood growing here. And over here we have a stage that is the center of performance. There have been all kinds of dance and bands in here. Venezuelan singers, Cuban song and salsa.

For me, this space is important because it's about the things that are hidden and the places that are hidden being the real treasures. That maybe take a little bit of exploration to get to, you know, there's not a straight line. There's not a sign outside of, "Get here, come to the Secret Garden, this way." You have to find it, although they are going to be doing a lot more public programs. But I guess I feel like that's part of my story too, you know, no straight lines...

I founded a collective of Ethiopian diaspora artists who are living all over North America. The idea was that we kind of have a limited understanding of what our own culture is having grown up, many of us having been born here. I was born in Ethiopia but left when I was very young. And to a large degree, when you're growing up in the U.S., your experience of your culture ends up being what your family experience and expresses as Ethiopian culture. But actually, that's just such a small fraction of what it is. There's an incredible diversity of cultures and peoples and languages. I had almost no access to that, and I was like, "I want to know about this!" So I started this group of people to kind of do this cultural exploration and connection.

I have a song on the album that is a traditional Ethiopian song. It's called "Abbay Mado."

"Abbay Mado" means "across the Nile." And aside from being a real classic of the Ethiopian repertoire, I included it as a tribute to the country and the people there. And the funny thing is I totally mispronounce words in there! You know, I don't really speak Amharic, I totally got my friends, you know my Abasha friends to translate it for me and to kind of spell it syllable for syllable and then I checked it with my mom. But still, at the time of the recording, I didn't have all of the pronunciation right. But I've gotten a lot better by performing it live a whole bunch! 

There's a kind of pushing upwards that happens when you're walking through a neighborhood all the time, and when you have those memories of these really important moments of your development that are so much in the soil of the place that I can't say that I've ever had anywhere else.

Meklit Hadero will be playing at the SF Jazz Center on Saturday, March 2, at 7:30pm.  

This piece originally aired May 11, 2010. Do you have a local musician you'd like us to cover? Leave a message on our tip-line at (415) 264-7106.