Any Ethiopian person worth his weight in honey wine would know the song "Abbay Mado." A simple Ethiopian folk tune, it's about a farmer who calls to his ox from across the Blue Nile, the majestic tributary that flows into Sudan from Ethiopia's northwestern highlands.
For Ethiopians and foreigners alike, the most well-known version of "Abbay Mado" is probably the one recorded by the legendary singer Mahmoud Ahmed, appearing on his 1975 album Erè Mèla Mèla (later reissued for the epic Éthiopiques series). In his version, Ahmed belts out the song's festive melody as his band lays down a horn-led funk groove that's all but guaranteed to put the listener in a trance.
In more recent years, though, another version of "Abbay Mado" has gained popularity. It's sung by the Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero, and a light, jazzy arrangement appears on her 2010 debut album, On a Day Like This... Over brisk drums and stand-up bass, Hadero trades off with a trumpeter, whose low-key flourishes are fit for a quiet, rainy day.
Hadero, who lives in San Francisco, always brightens up the crowd when she plays the song live. She'll dance with people in the audience, and Ethiopians will clap out the polyrhythms of its traditional 6/8 beat, called a "tchik-tchik-ka." Asked why she decided to sing the song, Hadero has a simple answer.
"Obsession," she says. "It was in my head for two years. What else could I do?"
Hadero offers an eclectic, free-spirited take on music: Her songs incorporate jazz and poetry, and her voice sounds light and versatile, fit for almost any genre. She can be whimsical, too: Last year, she formed the group Copperwire with two other Ethiopian-American artists to make Earthbound, a "hip-hop space opera" set in the future.
Hadero has a strong sense of history, and she finds connections where other artists might not. For her 2012 album Meklit & Quinn, Hadero paired with Oakland R&B singer Quinn DeVeaux to record rich, intimate covers of songs by artists like Stevie Wonder, Talking Heads and Arcade Fire—names you wouldn't normally expect to see on the same track-listing, but Hadero sees them as intrinsically linked.
"For me, that record was really about exploring American music, and the soul roots of the rock music that I love," she says.
Throughout, the duo offer their own take on some classic songs: They slow down Wonder's anthemic "I Was Made to Love Her" to give it a deep, sexy pull. They infuse Patti Smith's ghostly "Elegie" with a cracking, beatbox rhythm and elongated string phrases, making dark, murky triphop. And they turn Arcade Fire's epic "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" into a lovely ballad, offering up angelic, two-part harmonies over quiet piano and guitar.
Born in Ethiopia and raised in Brooklyn, Hadero studied political science as an undergraduate at Yale before taking up music. She still has an interest in social and cultural issues, but she takes an emotional, open-ended approach to songwriting.
"I like metaphors. I don't like to tell people how the world is. I don't like to be didactic or try teaching anybody anything," she says. "The music itself does not have to tell you about an issue in order to have a social impact. It can, but it doesn't have to."
That doesn't mean she doesn't get involved in advocacy. Lately, Hadero has been working on the Nile Project, an organization she founded in 2011 with the Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis. To tackle cultural and environmental issues facing the Nile basin, they're planning projects like the Nile Tour, in which musicians and environmental educators will sail down-river through Egypt in a boat made of recycled water-bottles.
On a recent trip to Egypt, Hadero spent time in educational workshops with musicians from Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda, all countries touched by the Nile. A presentation by two Ugandan musicians proved to be an enthralling and exhaustive process, as they explained their instruments and broke down the way they use polyrhythm to write songs.
"When it comes to a lot of cultural exchange, I think the really easy route is to just be, like, OK, you do your thing, and I'll solo over it. And then I'll do my thing, and you solo over it.' And that's not what we were going for," she says. "We were going for something that has a more integrated way. But in order to do that, you have to get what the other person is actually doing."
The Nile Project isn't designed to be specific to any one country, but to the Nile region as a whole, Hadero says. In a way, though, its origins date back to "Abbay Mado," the Ethiopian folk song that's become part of Hadero's repertoire.
"The song was really part of the genesis of the Nile Project for me," Hadero says. "It kind of let me into a Nile consciousness—the way it exists in Ethiopia."
Meklit Hadero plays at The Loft at UCSD on Wednesday, Feb. 20, and with Quinn DeVeaux at The Loft on Thursday, Feb. 21. meklithadero.com