Nefasha Ayer’s nation of aural immigrants

Meklit Hadero

By Nirmala Nataraj

We live in an era where the global music village has shrunk to a navigable size. From live overseas Web feeds to international podcasts, eager listeners are tuning their antennae to far-flung aural landscapes. Closer to home, San Francisco ensemble Nefasha Ayer is fully embracing this concept of music without borders.

Headed by Ethiopian-born vocalist and lyricist Meklit Hadero and composer and multi-instrumentalist Todd Brown, Nefasha Ayer (which translates roughly from the Ethiopian language Amharic to mean “the wind that travels”) evokes a medley of locations and ideas — Ethiopian highlands, Chicago nightclubs, and unnamed places that transcend nation. The group draws from tradition while creating new avenues of connection. It envisions a poetics of identity based on what Brown refers to as “the fundamental search for home, which isn’t always a physical place.”

The communal spirit of the group is perhaps one of its greatest draws, but Nefasha is also about expressing “the space of in between,” the glue that sticks its various musical styles together. “The idea is built around being at the crossroads,” Hadero says. “It’s about the complexity of human identity.”

Nefasha Ayer began in 2006, when Hadero, a former director of the Mission arts collective Red Poppy Art House, began making music with Brown, her co-director. Hadero had previously made a name for herself as a smoky vocalist with lyrics that draw from blues, jazz, and traditional Ethiopian music; in the pair’s first song, “Tuhnesu,” she imagined her immigrant father’s return to Ethiopia after 30 years. In 2007, the Red Poppy received a grant from the San Francisco Foundation to commission new works. Hadero and Brown used the money to build on their nascent musical direction, with help from a few friends. The pair have since collaborated with a variety of musicians in venues throughout San Francisco, but Nefasha Ayer’s five core members — Abdi Jabril (percussion), Prasant Radhakrishnan (tenor saxophone), Mohini Rustagi (drums), Keenan Webster (balafon, kora, and mbira), and poet Michael Warr — bring knowledge of traditional music from cultures around the world.

Hadero and Brown insist that there is no single orientation in the group, which uses traditional African instruments, Caribbean and South American percussion, and more modern Western instruments like electric guitar and saxophone. Even Hadero’s lyrics, which shift between English and Amharic, are a sort of instrument. “I start to think in terms of sound,” she says. “It goes past just a lyric into something else.”

Storytelling is integral to all Nefasha shows, and Hadero will often stop between songs to describe the significance of each piece. The narratives she weaves are tales of migration, alienation, longing, and homecoming — accompanied by stirring images, such as wooden pails full of immigrants’ sorrows that water the ground so that flowers can grow.

For this week’s performances, Nefasha will be joined by eight additional artists, including legendary jazz bassist and composer Marcus Shelby. Hadero was especially excited to have Shelby involved, because “aside from being an incredible musician, he’s somebody who puts the historical and political context of his music at the center of the performances,” she says.

The shows, which take place as part of Black History Month, will give the ensemble a unique opportunity to share Ethiopian-inspired music with the audience. “When people think of African music, they typically think of what’s popular, and that’s usually Senegalese, Malian, or Nigerian,” Hadero says. Individual Nefasha fans have expressed their personal identification with the cross-cultural themes the group draws upon. But in the end, “it’s just really good music. At times, it’ll make you feel wistful; at other times, it’ll make you want to dance.” (