Last night at Lincoln Center, Meklit came to conquer. Rocking a sassy kente cloth skirt and black top, the ex-Brooklynite Ethio-jazz belter bounded and whirled across the stage, singing in both English and Amharic, leading a tight six-piece band through a passionate, fiery, subtly relevant mix of mostly new songs from her forthcoming album When the People Move, the Music Moves Too. Freed from behind her acoustic guitar – at least for most of the set – she’s found new vocal power in her low register, and commands the stage like never before. It’s hard to believe that the artist formerly known as Meklit Hadero – her full name – got her start in the cautious, sedate world of singer-songwriters.
While her work has always drawn on her Ethiopian roots, her newest material goes deeper into that nation’s joyously cantering, brassy dance music from the 60s and 70s. “Ethio-jazz in 2017!” was the mantra throughout the night’s most explosively kinetic number, I Want to Sing For Them All, a shout-out to influences ranging from the golden-age hip-hop she grew up with and found kinship in, to Coltrane and Mulatu Astatke, among many others. Drummer Colin Douglas and percussionist Marco Peris Coppola negotiated the song’s twists and turns with a steely precision as bassist Sam Bevan bubbled behind the searing, thrilling, trilling chomatic harmonies of tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley and trumpeter DeAndre Schaifer. It was a visceral validation of George Clinton’s observation about how freedom begins in the lower extremities.
In between songs, there was silence, and Meklit let it linger, choosing her thoughts like she chooses her spots as a singer. “Welcome to my living room!” she beamed as the second line-tinged groove of You Are My Luck got underway, an irrepressibly shuffling shout-out to the power of love as fuel for the struggle. She bookended her roughly hourlong set with a couple of bracing Ethio-jazz numbers, the first with a trick ending and a tantalizingly brief Wiley solo, the closing number a careening, pulsing take of the first Ethiopian number Miriam Makeba learned for her initial trip to that country in the 1960s.
They reinvented an Erykah Badu pop hit as Ethiopiques, with a still, suspenseful intro that gave way to spine-tingling microtonal horn riffage. One of the new songs, Supernova was akin to the Sometime Boys tackling Ethiopian funk, with Meklit’s most powerful, dramatic vocal of the night. “In case you’re ever feeling ordinary, remember you were born in a supernova,” she mused beforehand.
Musically speaking, the high point of the evening was an insistent minor-key anthem, part Ethiopiques, part Aretha, with a long, feral, microtonal Wiley solo that began with aching sirening effects and eventually picked up with volley after volley of chromatics and microtones. Then Meklit plugged in her krar harp for a number she hoped would be as hypnotic to the crowd as it is to her, an argument that held. Then she flipped the script with her own wryly sunny happy-birthday song, a welcome alternative to what you hear blasting from the speakers in East Village Indian restaurants.
The triumphantly crescendoing, anthemic, soukous-tinged This Was Made Here peaked out with a long, riveting, trilling trumpet solo fueled by Schaifer’s circular breathing. “I’m not going to wait, and I’m not going away,” Meklit belted. Throughout the set, Bevan – switching from standup and five-string Fender, and then back – impressed with his ability to be busy but not obtrusive, playing lots of variations on bouncy octaves. Coppola, with a big Indian dhol bass drum slung over his shoulder, handled the tricky metrics in tandem with Douglas and Bevan. At one point the drummers left their posts to bang on the bass strings for a solo: this group has as much fun onstage as their bandleader. The next stop on their current US tour is tonight, April 7 at 8 PM at World Cafe, 500 N. Market St. in Wilmington, Delaware.
The atrium space at Lincoln Center is where most of the most happening shows there take place – it’s an easy place to call home away from home. The next one is on April 20 at 7:30 PM with psychedelic Colombian champeta dance band Tribu Baharu.