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Rightnowish Presents: Immigrantly’s Conversation with Musician Meklit Hadero

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 (Courtesy of Immigrantly podcast)

View the full episode transcript.

On this episode of Rightnowish, we’re passing the mic to our friends at Immigrantly podcast. Host Saadia Khan and her guests examine traditional narratives Americans hold about immigrants and people of color. Through the process, they carefully unravel the nuance and depth of the immigrant experience. Immigrantly explores the everyday miraculousness of immigrant life, like love, food, faith, friendship and creativity through first-person accounts.

Immigrantly’s guest for this episode is Meklit Hadero. She is a vocalist, songwriter, composer and former refugee who is known for her innovative Ethio-Jazz vocals and lively stage presence. Her music blends together folk, jazz, Eastern African influences, and what Hadero calls “everyday sounds.”

She has performed worldwide, and just released a new EP called “Ethio Blue.”  Hadero is also the co-founder, co-producer, and host of Movement, a podcast, radio series and live show that celebrates songs and stories of immigrant musicians.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Pendarvis Harshaw, host: Hey what’s up ya’ll?! Welcome to Rightnowish. I’m your host Pendarvis Harshaw, and today we’re passing the microphone to our friend Saadia Khan, the host of the podcast Immigrantly, which explores the nuance & depth of the immigrant experience. If you’re a real Jazz fan, like myself – this episode is for you!

It features Meklit Hadero the Ethiopian-born, San Francisco-based artist who is best known for her innovative Ethio-Jazz vocals and electric performance style.  So put your headphones on and get ready for some sweet, smooth sounds. We’ll let our friends from Immigrantly take it from here.

Saadia Khan: Hey everyone. It’s your host Saadia Khan and I’m back to play you another thoughtful, engaging, and jazzy episode. If this is your first time with Immigrantly, welcome.  You’ve picked the perfect pilot. Immigrantly, for those of you who don’t know, is a weekly podcast where I sit down with guests from the immigrant community, and talk about the fascinating things they’re doing all in the name of storytelling and subverting narratives.

I am so excited about today’s episode, because let me tell you, music fuels my soul like nothing else. I’m so psyched to have Meklit Hadero, the Ethiopian-born, San Francisco-based artist on today’s show.

She is best known for her innovative Ethiopian jazz vocals and electric performance style. Even if you were to listen for a few minutes, I promise you would notice a genre bending nature to her songs. Her songs weave together jazz, folk, Eastern African influences and what Meklit calls, “everyday sounds.” Yeah, everyday sounds. 

She’s performed worldwide from San Francisco to Cairo to London to Montreal. Oh my gosh. Her latest album released in 2017, called When The People Move The Music Moves Too was named among the best records of the Year by Bandcamp and Sunday Times UK. She’s a National Geographic Explorer, a TED senior fellow and a 2019 Artist in Residence at Harvard University. Meklit is co founder, co producer and host of Movement, a new radio series telling stories of global migration through music, and I wonder what is that Meklit cannot do?

In our conversation, by the way, she shares how she looks to music to express longing, pain, hope and other facets of the diaspora. Her words inspired me and reminded me of the importance of heritage and how traditional music from our homelands can be integrated into present movement and music. So if you are a fellow music lover or not,  get ready to be transported to a world of melodies and rhythms that shape our everyday life. Without further ado, let’s dive into the jazzy world of Meklit Hadero.

Meklit, I am so excited to be doing this interview with you. I was listening to your music yesterday. And can I tell you something?

Meklit Hadero: Sure. Tell me.

Saadia Khan: Your voice is so, so good. Especially your song “This Was Made Here.” And we will talk about that in the show. But let’s set the stage first. Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? When and how did your parents immigrate to the US? Tell me the story.

Meklit Hadero:I was born in Ethiopia. And my family came to the US as refugees in the early 80s. We came via Germany. So we were in Germany first, not for too long, but for a year and change. And then we came to Washington DC. And we didn’t know anybody else in the whole country except my dad’s college professor who said come on out and live with us in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. So we went to Iowa. And we lived in Iowa for three years and then moved to New York. And I spent most of my elementary school years in New York and then we moved to Florida. And then I went to college. While I had been in high school, I had that one auntie who was like, you know, had the house and like the organizing chops, and she brought so much of my family from Ethiopia to Seattle while I was in high school. So when I graduated from college, I was like, oh, everybody’s in Seattle. It’s my first chance to really get to know my family. So then I moved to Seattle and I loved the west coast, but I really didn’t like the rain. So then I moved to San Francisco, really just to give it a try. And now I’ve been here for almost 19 years.

Saadia Khan: When you first came to the United States, how old were you? And do you have any memories from that time?

Meklit Hadero: I was two years old when I came to the US. And my first strong memories are in Iowa. And it’s like snippets of things. So really what I remember, my early memories are years of adjustment to the US, of frictions and living with a sense of missing home of not really having our feet on the ground or not having that kind of stability. And my parents just working and working and working and working and working to find that stability to make home to create our networks to understand a system that was you know, not that friendly to them. So those are my my really early memories are that kind of transitional time.

Saadia Khan: I read somewhere that you didn’t know the language initially, yes, but your connection with America in a way manifested in your relationship with music. That’s right. So music became your outlet? Can you talk a little bit about that? What was your relationship with music like as a kid, and how has it evolved now?

Meklit: My relationship with music as a kid was very visceral. It was always my love. I just I loved music, I loved being surrounded by it, I felt its power. I could feel the emotional journey that singers and musicians like instrumentalists were taking are intended to take listeners on, I could just embody it, I could imitate instruments, I could imitate singers, I would learn the exact phrasing of improvisations. I would listen to songs on the radio of the US radio, if I listened to it around three times, I would know all the words and all the little improvisation. So it was like a lightning focus. But it was all very emotional and physical. And I would, I would also love to sing. And I would stop people in the elevator and ask if they wanted to hear a song, or they would just start performing on buses when I was like four years old. So none of that has gone away. Like it’s just the things get added, you know, so now I have that. But I also have an intellectual side of it too. Like I can understand what somebody’s doing all they’re doing this and that with the phrasing there. You know, the arrangement? This is what the arrangement is doing. What is that sound? Oh, they’re using this and this instrument, you know, you just add layers onto your knowledge, but you don’t lose the foundation, which is about the body, and about the voice and about basic communication around things that matter to you.

Saadia Khan: You know, you bring up such an important and interesting point. And I wonder the intellectual relationship that you have with music has it changed how you consume music? Oh, yeah. In what ways?

Meklit Hadero: Well, what I’ll say is it generally doesn’t happen live because when I’m in a live performance, I’m just in it. I’m like, experiencing it, the vibration of the music is washing over me. I’m feeling it. It’s all that but if I’m listening to like a recording now, I think okay, how did they mix that? I think questions like, Oh, I wonder why they made that arrangement choice, but it’s always around. Now. What do I do with that information? Oh, wow. Did you hear the way they did that? Oh, I wonder I would like to try that. Let me experiment with that a little bit. It becomes all a jumping off place to try new things or to expand. This is why like, for example, on your taxes. If you’re a musician, you can deduct like half they call it half. Like if you have like a Spotify monthly subscription, you can deduct half why? Because listening to music is research. Literally if your profession is is music, than listening to music is research and education as a part of how you grow.

Saadia Khan: I wonder if that learning process can be cumbersome at times. Because for me when I listen to music, I don’t listen to it from an intellectual perspective, right? I am just enjoying it, internalizing it, sometimes crying other times laughing with it. Yes. Since you play close attention to instruments and sounds and lyrics. Does it become cumbersome or burdensome for you?

Meklit Hadero: Well, you have to be able to turn things off and on right? Just like when you’re composing. You can’t be in your critical mind at first, huh? Do you have to start in a place of generation just like when you’re in a group and you want to brainstorm an idea, you say there’s no wrong answers, and everybody can throw out an idea and you just keep going and go it, you have to do that musically, too. And in order to do that, you have to be able to turn off the critic say, okay, inner critic, you might not think that’s a good idea, but you’re not useful to me right now, you will be useful to me tomorrow when I evaluate these ideas. Right now, I just want a bunch of ideas. And so that is a skill that you can use about anything like, Okay, you’re listening to music, and you find your critic is on and you just be like, hey, inner critic, not useful to me right now, I just want to enjoy this concert. Yes, it is burdensome. But it’s not like we’re at the whim of our own mind. We have to learn to engage with the different parts of ourselves, and have an ability to harness them when they’re useful and quiet them when they’re not.

Saadia Khan: Talking about music, let’s talk about the song that I mentioned in the beginning [Music “This Was Made Here”] And you describe this song and I quote, as progressively poetic exploration of displacement, and longing for home, unquote. This is such a profound way to describe music and its raw form that can nurture old roots and lay new ones. Right? Hmm. And you’ve talked about how we cannot talk about America without talking about how refugees and immigrants have contributed to America. In fact, you’ve said, and I may be paraphrasing it, but you create immigrant music, that is American music, basically. But to me, there is a risk to sharing and opening up transcultural instruments to American population, because of how dominant populations normally behave. How do we ensure that we bring the sounds and instruments to America without letting society co-op them?

Meklit Hadero: First of all, there’s a thing that happens in art, where once you make a thing, it’s not yours anymore. It’s still yours. But it’s also belongs to any listener, like any person who’s listening will have their own interpretation will experience it themselves. This is a funny, not funny example. But I’ll just tell you like one time I had this person write me on social media. And they said, I have to tell you that your music helped me and my husband have a divorce, and still stay connected. Oh, wow. And I was like, Whoa, and they had met at one of my concerts. Okay, so it came flu sick, because for that, so I was the connection, and I was part of their separation. Now, did I ever, ever, ever intend to be that? No. But that is actually an incredibly meaningful accompaniment of this couple on their life’s path and their life’s journey. And so it was not for me to say, like, I’m making this music because I’m trying to express the life that I’ve lived, the communities that I come from, that I’m rooted in, but to these folks, it belonged to them in an entirely different way. That was actually very deeply meaningful, and I think appropriate. So that is to say that what we can control is what we create what we put out there. But there is an element of art in general, where like, once it’s out there, I’m not going to control it anymore. I can’t. And my point is that sometimes that’s good. And sometimes that’s bad. And when it’s difficult is like this kind of like a co optation You know, when this kind of thing can happen. That’s also just part of letting the music go, where it’s like, actually, I just have to make it, I have to make it because if I don’t make it like I’m not well, I’m actually just not well, as a human. I make it for myself to feel okay, in having a creative expression that genuinely reflects my life and invites people into a process where I don’t have to be alone in it.

Saadia Khan: Absolutely. But at the same time, I will go back to my point, how do we ensure that originators get the credit that they deserve? You know, we can allow it to evolve and change into something else transition into something else and people can consume it however they want, right? But at the same time, unless we pay homage to the originators, we are not recognizing the beauty and enrichment of those cultures, especially when dominant cultures are already dehumanizing certain cultures, right?

Meklit Hadero: Of course, my work is kind of twofold. One is the musical work which is very tender and raw and personal and my personal journey and then there’s the work that I do as a creator of narratives. And this is more around what you’re talking about, because like, this is why I do the work that I do to bring immigrant musicians together to claim our narratives in public space, to have it broadcast far and wide. And to be able to have those narratives have impact, and begin to be the influencer of dominant narratives. So this is like the work that I do with Movement, maybe to bring it back to like the emotional and the intellectual like this is the intellectual side of what I do, you know, in terms of what it means to acknowledge where the music comes from, what its root is, who the ancestors were, that created it, you know, the foundations of what is being made today, like, that is a project for me, for immigrant musicians. That’s a project for like, pretty much any person of color on this planet.

Saadia Khan: Exactly.

Meklit Hadero: So we can also find community in that. And I think it’s very important that when we do that, we are also speaking with each other, and building solidarity and building community in those processes that can help us to amplify our power.

Saadia Khan: Meklit, talk to me about Movement, because that is one way that you are empowering those stories, and you are in a way reorienting public to storytelling in a way where it’s more holistic. And it is, you know, crediting originators of not just music, but beyond. So talk to me a little bit about Movement. And have there been any surprises along the way?

Meklit Hadero: Oh, well, there’s always surprises. We started the project in 2017, if you can throw your mind back to 2017. And it was Trump’s first year and a few days after the inauguration, we were at the airports protesting on the Muslim ban. And in a lot of ways the beginning of Movement was around that kind of wanting to organize immigrant musicians and immigrant communities at a time when we were under a particular form of attack. I think there’s still a lot of attack right now. It looks different, right. And the project has evolved over the last five years. I think what our intention is, is to bring immigrant musicians to a place where they are shining their stories and narratives on their own terms. We recognize trauma and pain. But we also recognize that we are not only that we are joy, resilience, we are power. We are interconnection, we are strength. And we are very, very broad. We call ourselves an audio archive of radical inclusion. We broadcast our stories to millions of listeners in collaboration with PRX as the world we formally launched as a podcast on April 11, 2023.

Saadia Khan: Listeners, once you finish listening to this, you should listen to Movement.

Meklit Hadero: Yes. Why not? I mean, yes, come on. Come on now. You know, for us also, it’s about intimate human stories. It’s about like, if you Google the word migrant, you’ll see images of refugee camps and mass border crossings. And all those things are real and must be talked about. But also, when I talk to Alsarah, incredible Sudanese, musician, songwriter, composer ethnomusicologist, who lives in New York, and she talks about when she was at the refugee camp, she’s like, that was the most lit place musically she’s ever been in her life because communities were showing up for each other. So there’s always another narrative and you have to actually listen to the people who are experiencing migration in order to really understand to frame and to grounded in what’s really happening for people faxing a story about a border can be a story about two brothers sharing a guitar. We find folks telling us these beautiful stories about the sacredness of water and how that influences their music or a grandmother’s backyard, a song that would bring the rain after a drought, all of these things, intimate human stories that immigrant, migrants, and refugee musicians get to be the ones determining what the narrative is.

Saadia Khan: Absolutely, Meklit. Was there something about your identity that you discovered through this process that you were not consciously aware of?

Meklit Hadero: Okay, this is gonna sound funny, but I’ll just tell you what comes into my mind when you say this. You know, I’ve always been a person that people want to tell their secrets to. Like when I was a kid in high school growing up, people would just tell me things and I was oh, I was like, ‘Oh, this is interesting.’ Like, I will listen, I will listen and be there for, you know the people in my life. But it wasn’t always just people who are close to me. Even people who weren’t close to me would want to tell me things. But I didn’t really consciously think about that skill, or that thing that’s in my life as a part of what this role is as a host and interviewer. But what I found is that we have very, very different conversations than musicians typically have with folks who are interviewing them for their music, and their album releases all this stuff. Number one, because I share a lot of the experiences that they share from the communities that they grew up in, but also because there’s this other little secret sauce going on, but it’s just like, okay, well, that’s what it is. And so wait, that has a greater purpose. Okay, I’ll put that to a greater purpose.

Saadia Khan: Can you share an anecdote with us a story that really stood out?

Meklit: There’s this great moment, we talked to an artist called Odyssey who’s Sudanese and African American both. And we talked to him about his latest album, and we ended up talking about therapy, and about how our communities can sometimes struggle with the idea of therapy, and how we can actually care for our mental health. But then what that opens up for us, with our families and communities. And so this is what I mean, like, this is a conversation that we’re able to have it from a sense of like, just of knowing what each other’s communities are like enough to be able to ask those questions that maybe somebody couldn’t ask or like, another artist and I, we just had this wonderful riff, I mean, wonderful, I’m making air quotes about the word refugee, and like the identity of a refugee, and I came to this country as a refugee. And so had she, and we were able to, you know, really break that word down from like, all these different angles and what it does to you as a young person, and then how, what is the process of reclaiming that and finding the power in it?

Saadia Khan: Talk to me about that.

Meklit Hadero: For me, what really got to me about that word was the implied white savior, right, that’s on the other side of it. It’s like a binary, like, on one side, you have the refugee and on the other side, you have the white savior, and what would really get to me would be like, white people feeling really good about themselves for having, like, saved me, you know, I’d be like, you don’t know, my parents, you don’t know, like, my parents are the what, like, don’t take away their agency, exactly in the situation and understand that like system. And another thing that I had, like really sit with in this process is what does it mean, as a person who’s a refugee who found refuge in this country, like, if you are not careful to find yourself inhabiting a settler colonial identity, you know what I mean? And like, actually, like, okay, understand that we are on indigenous land, and that we have to be in relation to the land. And what does it mean to be a good steward of the land, that is something that we have to learn from indigenous communities. And so when you know, when the project goes to different places, we pay land tax, for example, when we went to Seattle, at the University of Washington, and we made a little ceremony for ourselves to give thanks, and to pay a land tax to understand that we also can’t come in here with you know, that an identity as refugees and immigrants without also acknowledging that we are finding refuge on indigenous land.

Saadia Khan: I love what you’re saying, Meklit. But I wonder if a lot of immigrants, refugees, migrants somehow assume that settler colonial mindset as a tool of survival. Proximity to whiteness becomes a way to be seen as part of the community and not to be others. And the more you can approximate yourself to whiteness, the more acceptable you become. So how do we break that cycle?

Meklit Hadero: If you think about like the origin of whiteness as a concept, it’s about forgetting your European ethnic identity. You ever go to Germany, you’d be like, they’re so German, you know, you go to you go to like, you go to these places in Europe. And you’re like, this is this is like, there’s an ethnic, you go to Ireland. I mean, I’m just saying like, the the idea of whiteness is to forget. And it’s about power, and it’s about everyone but us, and it’s about class and all of this stuff. It’s incredibly intersectional. But what I’m trying to say is that like to remember, is an act of power. And I understand that it’s about survival. And I’m not saying it in like a call out way. I’m saying it in a like, let us go towards greater healing let us go towards greater wholeness.

Saadia Khan: But I think there’s nothing wrong with saying it in a call out way either, because a lot of times as immigrants, especially those who come from privileged backgrounds, we don’t recognize the harm that we are causing. So in a way, it’s important to look inwards and do that introspection, right?

Meklit Hadero: Absolutely. But I’m just trying to say, like somebody who’s coming from Afghanistan, you know, after the fall of Kabul, that’s not the time to have that conversation. You know, like, if they’ve hit, it’s like, it’s like, there’s also a time in place, you know, right, just to bring it back to what you were saying earlier about, like survival, like, it’s all a process. And it’s just something that I wish for us in, like our journey as immigrant communities that we can bring awareness to our participation in, you know, the settler colonial identity and to heal and not to fall under the spells of what that can do to you to remain whole. It’s actually also a relationship to the land.

Saadia Khan: Meklit, what does healing look like for you?

Meklit Hadero: Oh god, I don’t know what healing looks like. Okay, so in one sense, healing, like, there’s a way in which when I was just starting out in music, like I had this really intense realization at one time was like, probably 2005, or 2006. And I was like, Oh, my God, I have to figure this out in front of people. It’s not like other art where I get to practice and practice and practice on my own. And then years later, show what- no, it’s like, when you do music, like, for example, one show is worth 10 rehearsals, because in that show, you’ll figure out okay, what did I really learn? What did I really get? What was I really able to express? Where was my block? You know, where were my blocks? How did it really go, according to my intention of what I wanted to bring out there. And so it’s not just about getting better at your craft in public. It’s also about healing in public. I made these songs and now I have to communicate them from a place of depth in front of people. You realize, oh, wait, I have to heal in public to I wrote these songs for my own healing. And part of the healing is figuring out how to share them. Okay, then when I share them, I realized, okay, where do I break down? Where do I feel my power? And so there’s a part of it that the music itself is the healing process. And then the sharing it is another healing process. For me, it’s really important to meditate. It’s the only way I can have enough energy for my life. I’m a mom of a three and a half year old, and it takes so much energy. So the only way I have enough energy for my life is to meditate but that’s also very supportive of my healing. Spending time with my kid is incredibly supportive of my healing. And I think just staying humble and open and just also trying to not do it all myself, you know, be in community with things and find time to be with my women too, my my dear friends.

Saadia Khan:  Meklit, I want to go back to your music, not your music, per se, but sounds. You talk about this in your 2015 TED Talk as to how there is unexpected beauty in everyday sounds.

Meklit Hadero in clip :I’m going to start today with nature. But before we do that, let’s quickly listen to this snippet of an opera singer warming up. [Vocalising]
Beautiful, isn’t it? Gotcha. That is actually not the sound of an opera singer warming up. That is the sound of a bird.

Saadia Khan:You’ve even talked about wherever you go. You try to be more intentional about listening to different sounds of that, please. And one thing that really grabbed my attention was this comment that you make: that natural world can be our cultural teacher, that we all have to basically pay attention and be active participants in our environment. And I wonder in what ways have you been inspired by soundscape and has it been different in different cities like for instance, New York versus San Francisco? How is the soundscape different?

Meklit Hadero:Oh, it’s very different. First of all, the song that you talked about, “This Was Made Here” earlier, If you listen to that 2015 TED talk I do or there’s a section in it where I talk about the cooking pan lid. That is “This Was Made Here.” That was the origination of this was made here.

Meklit Hadero in clip: It was late one night and it was time to stir so I lifted the lid off the cooking pot and I placed it onto the kitchen counter next to me, and it started to roll back and forth making this sound [pot clanging] stopped me cold. I thought what a weird, cool swing that cooking pan lid has. So I hightailed it to my backyard studio and I made this. [Music- Song “This Was Made Here”]

Meklit Hadero: I use it in my compositions sometimes, like, the other day, my partner was rolling up the window in a weird way. It was like [swishing sounds]. And I just started singing the rhythm, and then it got in my head. And as I’ve sat with that idea for longer, I think it’s about hearing patterns. I think that there’s a lot of music, which is about pattern and repetition. And the way that pattern and repetition becomes like a template that other people can be in relationship to each other, where it’s like, I can sing it, and you can sing it back to me, I can drum it, and you can drum it back to me, and then you can drum it, and I’ll sing over it, and then I’ll drum it and then you sing over it. And it becomes a place where we can instantly go into play, we can instantly go into play mode, relational mode. So I think it’s about this way that we can be permeable to what’s going on around us, but then have that as a foundation for relation and interconnection. So we see ourselves not as separate from what’s around us. But it’s like a template for being able to be in relation to everything around us. And then in terms of different places, having different soundscapes, they absolutely do, and what you find is that it has information about the environment, too. So like in New York, what you find is a lot of echoes, and it’s because of the concrete, the amount of concrete everywhere, everything is bouncing off the surface. And so it’s actually hard to tell where things are coming from, because sometimes it can be bouncing off this and it’s really coming from there. So New York requires like a lot of close attention, San Francisco, it has a lot more open space. I mean, this is the thing about the West Coast, you know, it’s like, we have a lot of old trees, you know, we have, it’s just different. The hills here are a thing, you know, and so those changed the way that sound moves in a city. And you know, if you’re going to a natural place, especially, it’s really nice to just quiet your mind for a moment and just orient yourself to the environment around you. And you’ll find that you’ll be more comfortable, you’ll be more aware. It’s like a way that we can sink into our body to be in relation to the space around us.

Saadia Khan: I wonder if you’ve experienced sounds, say in a place like Cairo, where the soundscape the way I see it would be completely different. I grew up in Lahore, and I can give you an example of that. It’s a very crowded place. There’s a lot of hustle and bustle, you’ll hear all sorts of things going on at the same time. How do you see that soundscape? And how is it different from say, US generally?

Meklit Hadero: Well, the US is quieter, I don’t know, my experience of non-Western systems, and please push back if I’m wrong, is that they’re more human driven and Western systems, it’s more system-driven. So it’s like you can hear that you can hear how like even a place like Italy for example, which is like caught in between you know I love it. You know, like I remember being in Italy, and listening to the people selling food would call out. I remember the man selling olives, singing his olives [singing]. This is more to me, like what happens in the developing world, you know, or like the global South, and he’s not gonna have an Instagram account where you know where he is, every day, he’s gonna sing to you. And you’re gonna find him by listening for his voice. And this is more like what it is in other places in the world. We don’t have that we have like, you look at the website, you call in advance who calls in advance nobody, maybe maybe my mother, I don’t know. But you look on the website, you know, and then you’re like, okay, this is these are their hours I’m gonna go with these hours. So you’re organized by a date you’re organized at a distance by a technology that is told you to this is how you behave. Whereas like in other places people will call to you to tell you as you’re passing by, and it’s like that makes a more vibrant, alive, chaotic soundscape.

Saadia Khan: It is chaotic, indeed. Meklit, a person like me who’s not a musician, who is not consciously aware of a lot of sounds that happen in nature or otherwise. How do I connect with those sounds? Is there a process? You mentioned something like being quiet then paying attention. But I wonder what that connectedness would look like for somebody like me versus somebody like you who’s a musician and who understands even natural sounds.

Meklit Hadero: You know, we all process information differently. And as humans, you might say our default is visual, right? We have a lot of our brain devoted to our visual cortex, all this stuff. But you know, our audio system is also part of an older part of our brain, we are like it’s in there, it’s deep, deep in there. So whether or not it’s the way that you consciously process information, it’s a big part of your biological system. So you have access to it, but it can kind of dial up or dial down depending on your circumstances, or depending on, kind of, your own tendencies. There’s a wonderful story that I feel called to tell you, in 2011, I started collaborating with a person by the name of John Jenkins, who’s with NASA. And he was on the Kepler mission at the time, and now is on test mission, which is a big telescope that looks for Earth sized planets and other solar systems. This is all gonna make sense in a second. So John, and I started collaborating because he started making star sounds, which is turning the data of light from the stars into sounds. Now why did he do that? He did that. Because, first of all, the way that you find Earth sized planets and other solar systems is that you look for dimming in the light, and that’s the planet traveling in front, its sun. Now that’s a pattern that’s a rhythm.

So the light is bright, bright, bright, sun, bright, sun, bright, sun, dim, bright, bright, bright, bright, bright, sun, dim, bright, bright, bright, bright, bright, Sun dim, that’s a rhythm, so you can hear it even in the way that I’m talking about it.

What he started to do was to turn that data that light data into sound, so that he could see can I hear the dimming of the stars. Wow, he did that because his mentor was a blind astrophysicist. So his mentor would go to all these conferences, where they would show charts and graphs, so that there was another part of your mind to help you understand the information, however, that part of your mind was the visual part of your mind, which he did not have access to. So his mentor started a tradition of audiolyzing data, so that another one of his senses that he had access to would be able to interpret it with another part of his intelligence, Jon inherited that tradition of audiolyzing data, and he would make what he would call Sonic light curves, which were star sounds looking for Earth sized planets and other solar systems through their rhythms.

Jon Jenkins in clip: For those of you sonophiles, this is one of my favorite objects. It’s an eclipsing binary. This is time and days. And this is the Fourier domain. So this is a periodic gram. But it sounds really cool. So I’m gonna play it for you. [Sonic sound plays]. So the bass comping is really the eclipses. So that’s not thermo mechanical energy. But the whistling has stuff going on inside…

Meklit Hadero: It’s wild. Like the sounds are 

Saadia Khan: incredible. 

Meklit Hadero: They’re alien. And there, they’re so strange there. And there was just one sound, this beautiful, beautiful, rhythmic sound. And it was like, oh, that’s the one I started playing what I call the star guitar, I was hybridizing the sound of the stars with the sounds of the guitar, the program that I used to use to do that doesn’t exist anymore. It was called the isotope spectron. And sadly, isotope, which is a tech audio technology company, they cancelled the spectrum. And I wrote to them being like, please, what’s the last version you have? And they were like, well, you’re not really going to get it to run on something older than a 2013 laptop, so that I was, you know, that didn’t work out. I did a hip hop space opera called copper wire in 2011, which we put the star sounds in and I put it in Supernova song on my 2017 album, I guess that is to say that your ears are another access to your intelligence and to the intelligence of the world around us. And it’s information in the world around us. So how you do it is just getting quiet. And listen, it’s its own meditation, its own kind of meditation, just listening for the sounds around you.

Saadia Khan: Guess what? I’m going to do this right after the interview. I am trying to do some spring cleaning on my Spotify playlist, and I am really curious to know what’s on your playlist.

Meklit Hadero: Well, right now it’s really a lot of the artists that we’re working with for Movement. So we just had a beautiful interview with Chhom Nimol, who is a Cambodian singer incredible from a family of folk singers in Cambodia. She’s the lead singer of Dengue Fever, the psychedelic Cambodian rock band based out of LA. I’ve been listening to her. I’ve been listening to Odyssey, been listening to Nnamdi, this really eccentric you know oddball genius songwriter who’s Nigerian American, been listening to Little Sims out of the UK, who is also a total genius. And Xenia Rubinos, Cuban Puerto Rican artist who was raised in Connecticut, but lives in Brooklyn. I also listened to a lot of folks who are in my local community in the Bay Area. So Jesus Diaz, a Cuban, Afro Cuban songwriter, composer and arranger. I mean, it’s endless. There’s so much good music out there.

[Music]

Saadia Khan: In the end, Meklit, if you were to describe America, in a word or a sentence, how would you do that?

Meklit Hadero: I would say like, in a process of reckoning in a state of potential.

Saadia Khan: I like in a state of potential.

Meklit Hadero: Well, it’s only one part of it. It’s complexity. Like, I always appreciate when people say like the American experiment, that’s kind of like foundry language, that’s like 1776 language, but it’s not that bad. You know, it’s like, okay, if you’re going to, it’s not a bad way to kind of start to have that at the base. Okay. Didn’t quite go right. Now, now, what’s the next iteration?

Saadia Khan: Yeah, I like that. I like that. So again, as we said, your podcast would have released by now where can people find it?

Meklit Hadero: You can find Movement wherever you listen to your podcasts. You might have to write my name in there Meklit. Movement, Meklit. Or, if enough of you like and subscribe, then it will just come up when you say Movement. But there’s also lots of other podcasts with that in the title. Dig deeper. It’s worth it. We hear, you know.

Saadia Khan: I love it. Thank you so much. Frankly, this was wonderful. I am so glad we were able to do this.

Meklit Hadero: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

[Music]

Saadia Khan: You know what, this was such an amazing conversation and I did go out and listen to sounds. It is such an interesting process and experience and I really urge all of you to sit in a quiet place not even quiet, just quiet yourself and listen to all the sounds around you and you will love it. I promise. This episode was produced by me, Saadia Khan, written by Yudi Liu and me, and our editor is Haziq Ahmed Farid, and music for this episode is by Simon Hutchinson. Until next time, take care.

Pendarvis Harshaw, host: Big ups  to the team over at Immigrantly, if you’d like to hear more episodes that deconstruct immigrant identity through first person accounts, check them out wherever you get your podcasts.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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