Oakland singer-songwriter Meklit has belted out funk with James Brown’s saxophonist, covered indie rock hits with sweet soulman Quinn DeVeaux, and collaborated with musicians from across Northeast Africa for the Nile Project, a visionary NGO she co-founded. Her translucent voice finds a cozy home in every far-flung setting, but she’s never sounded as free and grounded as on When the People Move the Music Moves Too, which was released this past June on Six Degrees Records.
A creative breakthrough born out of bandstand experimentation, the album weaves together Meklit’s Ethiopian roots with a propulsive menagerie of African-diaspora grooves. As the album’s title suggests, Meklit captures the way culture and beats evolve as people move across regions and continents. Her lyrics evoke the love and ache for worlds left behind, but tracks like the soaring opener “This Was Made Here” also speak to the ecstatic power of self-reinvention.
Recorded in Addis Ababa, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and San Francisco, the album is a collaboration with Grammy Award-winning LA songwriter and producer Dan Wilson, renowned for his work with Adele, the Dixie Chicks, and Taylor Swift. Rather than trying to fit the uncategorizable Meklit into a neat, pop niche, he expands her textural palette with guest artists Andrew Bird (on violin and whistling), the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and top-shelf session players from LA.
Seminal Ethiopian vibraphonist-composer Mulatu Astatke once instructed Meklit to find her own voice beyond Ethio-jazz. With When the People Move, she’s clearly risen to the challenge, building her new sound on a jazz-steeped rhythm section featuring drummer Colin Douglas, percussionist Marco Peris Coppola (on Balkan frame drum), and bassist-arranger Sam Bevan. She accompanies her lilting vocals with guitar and the six-string krar, an Ethiopian lyre. Howard Wiley’s churning lines on tenor and baritone saxophones provide the band with a big, thumping bottom.
Though Meklit laces the album with Ethiopian cadences, it’s striking when an unexpected sound moves to the foreground, as on the thrumming, bittersweet ballad “Yesterday is a Tizita,” which flows from Meklit’s krar to Tassew Wondem’s ethereal wooden flute (washint). Whether you call it Ethio-East Bay funk, Bay-Amharic boogie, or NoLa Addis-soul, When the People Move is a deeply satisfying project that also suggests half a dozen new directions Meklit might travel in the future.
We’ll be posting our top ten local albums of 2017 everyday through Dec. 22. Check back here to see which other albums made our list.