On a rainy Friday evening at the Columbia City Theater, Mexican folk singer Diana Gameros began the night. Her voice is ethereal, lifting everyone in the audience from the damp and cold into her warmth and sincerity. She stood alone on stage with only her guitar, but she needed nothing else to fill the room with the depth of her message. She sang in both Spanish and English, weaving both languages into the same sentence at times. Diana told the audience about her recent pilgrimage back to her hometown of Juárez, Mexico. This trip was the first time she had returned home in sixteen years. She explained that, in 2009, Ciudad Juárez had been one of the most dangerous cities in the world; she then shared about how the community is rebuilding itself and creating spaces for art and culture. She teared up as she spoke about the natural beauty of her homeland and she then dedicated her next song to all the immigrants who have had to leave their beloved homes for a safer life. With a prayer-like soulfulness and softness, she sang about the plight of raising a child in a city that is not safe, letting us know that love can be present even if danger is present as well. Her closing song sounded like a plea. Her soft soprano voice and tender vibrato resonated over the sound of her traditional Spanish guitar playing. Each of us was rapt by her sound and her story.
When Meklit made her entrance, the mood shifted from somber to celebratory. Meklit descended from the balcony and announced that we were at the show to “celebrate the bigness of what we are.” She spoke about the words “we” and “us” and how everyone present was born in a supernova and birthed in the belly of a burning star. Her ensemble of percussion, bass, and saxophone painted her words with a big sound that filled the room. Meklit burst into her song "Supernova" and began the dance party that followed her command. Meklit’s belted out her set in English and Amharic while leading her band with a friendly sass. The way she danced while her band riffed behind her demonstrated that she knew her ensemble and her music inside and out. She did an Ethio-Jazz cover of Erykah Badu’s "You Got Me" to pay homage not only to her mentor, Mulatu Astatke, but also her love of hip-hop. Her cover was authentic to her sound, showing the versatility of Erykah Badu’s songwriting and Meklit’s prowess as a performer. She gave ample time to explore the sounds of her ensemble, taking the most joy when both of her percussionists began playing on an upright bass with their sticks. Nothing felt off limits with this group of musicians.
Near the end of her set, Meklit brought Diana back onstage for a duet. Diana talked about the unique connection that Mexico and Ethiopia: during World War II, when Mussolini occupied Ethiopia, Mexico refused to acknowledge the annexation of Ethiopia. To honor their bond, Mexico City has a station called Metro Ethiopia; and in Addis Ababa, a traffic circle is named Mexico Square. The two women, one from Mexico and the other from Ethiopia, spoke about their bond as musicians and called themselves sisters. Despite sounding so different, their voices and stringed instruments played beautifully together. The night wrapped up with a couple more Ethio-Jazz anthems, and, again, everyone moved to the music. If Meklit’s mission is to build community through music, she could not have been more successful on Friday. She is living the title of her new album When the People Move the Music Moves Too. Meklit used her voice to celebrate who she was and who we all are together.
Two of KEXP's writers go back and forth on the latest multimedia art project conceived by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and the TU Dance collective.
Immigrants move to a new country for a guarantee: That life can be better in ways that were impossible in the home country. This is certainly true for Meklit Hadero, an Ethiopian-born woman who, through her immigrant experience as well as her talent, became an intriguing artist in the US.