Like Rupa Marya of Rupa & the April Fishes, Meklit Hadero was born a long way away from San Francisco, California and lived in many different cities before ending up in the Bay Area. Hadero was born in Ethiopia and that country’s culture doubtless exerts an influence on her outlook and on the music she makes. But it would be a mistake to explain her work solely via reference to her country of birth. Like Rupa’s, her music is clearly the product of the cosmopolitan arts scene of San Francisco. Hadero is heavily involved in that scene, from her involvement in the Red Poppy Arts House in the Mission District to her formation of the Arba Mich collective, an organization aimed at promoting cultural work associated with the Ethiopian Diaspora.
On a Day Like This… is Hadero’s debut full-length album, following a self-released eight-song CDR in 2007. The album consists of ten excellent songs, all distinguished by Hadero’s beguiling mix of experimentalism and tradition—though one should really say “traditions”, for her sources are numerous and varied. One minute she may be regaling the listener with the leftfield bossa nova of “Call”, the next delivering the haiku-like fragments of “Under” (“green, green, green everywhere / then the turquoise moment / everything at half speed”) to a stripped-down piano and bass accompaniment that wouldn’t be out of place on David Sylvian’s last album.
There are many instances of poetic beauty in Hadero’s lyrics, such as the moment in “Walk Up” where she sings, “The birds surround you / they circle you and make / a tornado from the air”. Elsewhere, she sings the simple line “In some countries there are a hundred words for rain” (though the way she sings it is far from simple), then goes on to render some of them: “one for the kind it falls slow like pearls”, “one for the kind that makes you brave”, “one for the kind that smells of new life”, and so on. The musical arrangements backing up the evocative imagery—a mixture of folk, jazz, soul, pop, and improv—add further dimensions to the confessional lyrics and no doubt are what have prompted comparisons between her and Joni Mitchell.
What Hadero shares with Mitchell is an ability to compose snaky, discursive songs that at first challenge the listener’s sense of metrical and semantic logic, then hook them in by inviting curiosity as to where they might go. It’s a technique that calls to mind the work of Van Morrison, too, especially on the album-opening “Walk Up”, where the instruments backing Hadero’s meandering lyric—cello, viola, upright bass, oboe, clarinet, and spare percussion—echo the mind-altering improvisatory voyages of Astral Weeks. A similar strategy is displayed to mesmerizing effect on “You and the Rain”, where the song’s narrative takes its own path as Hadero’s collaborators follow and shape the meandering consciousness of the piece. The soundworld on this track is not unlike that on certain exploratory jazz and improvised music, the deep resonances of Amber Lamprecht’s oboe and David Boyce’s bass clarinet meshing beautifully with the textures of Adam Young’s cello and Charith Premawardhana’s viola.
But where Van Morrison only allowed one “The Way Young Lovers Do” onto Astral Weeks, Hadero, who shaped her album around the concept of a single day’s events and reflections, seems happy to interweave her ruminations with plenty of lightness. “Float and Fall”, a love song to Brooklyn born of the nostalgia Hadero felt on returning to a neighborhood in which she had once lived, is borne aloft a jazzy bed of bass and snare drum and accompanied by Darren Johnston’s bright, joyful trumpet. Hadero delivers the vocal with a breathless enthusiasm, breaking down some of the words in a manner reminiscent of scat singing and, more recently, the “anti-folk” of Regina Spektor. Hadero’s wordplay and meandering melodic lines also compare favorably with those of Joanna Newsom. Indeed, she’s an artist whose eccentricities, when singled out, invite comparisons to many artists but, when taken together, signal a singular talent.
This multiple-yet-singular aspect comes to the fore again on “Leaving Soon”, the song chosen to promote Hadero’s album. At various points in this likable pop number, there are echoes of Tracy Chapman, Madeleine Peyroux, Melody Gardot, and a variety of contemporary R&B singers. Johnston’s trumpet shines brightly again. Hadero has said she thinks this song was written for the trumpet, and the instrument is given as much space as her vocal. Again, as Spektor was able to do on “Fidelity”, Hadero manages to utilize the breaking-down of key words in a manner that veers just the right side of the annoying/catchy divide. Adding to the musical drama of “Leaving Home” are the thrilling slivers of background noise that serve as a reminder of Hadero’s artsy improv side.
“Feeling Good”, a version of the song forever associated with Nina Simone (with whom Hadero has also been compared), opens with the sound of the ney, the end-blown flute used in some Middle Eastern music. Hadero claims a desire for critical fidelity when taking on this song, needing to do justice to Simone but also wanting to put her own stamp on it, to find its truth. The ney provides this fidelity, as does the cello with its shudderingly dramatic counterpoint to those famous lines (“Birds flying high, you know how I feel”), though the decision to treat the vocal for part of the song as though it were being broadcast on an old radio or record player arguably only brings the ghost of Nina back. Still, it’s a beautiful version and certainly does a lot more with the material than Muse have so far managed.
“Abbay Mado” is a traditional Ethiopian song associated with Mahmoud Ahmed, the legendary singer whose incredible voice can be heard on a number of the Ethiopiques compilations from Buda Musique (his version of “Abbay Mado” can be found on Volume 7). Darren Johnston provides a spiky trumpet contribution which complements the song’s infectious rhythm. Overall, it’s a catchy version, but it’s neither as good as Hadero’s own work nor as affecting as Mahmoud’s magnificent performance.
The album closes with the beautifully understated “Call”, Hadero singing softly over a sparse arrangement of piano and bass. The soundworld recalls Mitchell again, but also the sense of space found in the late 1960s and early 1970s work of Judy Collins and Roberta Flack, two performers whose repertoires for a while paralleled that of Nina Simone. “Call” would not sound out of place on either Collins’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes or Flack’s Quiet Fire.
Whatever the influences might be, Hadero’s album stands up as the work of an individual and creative artist. While there is clearly an attempt to market her by highlighting her background and her laudable achievements in community arts projects, what makes it really distinctive is Hadero’s skill at manipulating song form. Her inventive writing, arranging, and performing mark her as a talent to watch.