You have said that ‘all of us are made of many places’, but where do you feel most at home?
I think of home in lighter terms. For me it’s not a place, but rather a state of mind that you carry with you. I have lived in 12 cities on three continents and spent time in many more. I am fortunate to have dear friends and family all over the world. I have a home with all of them, and they have a home with me. That said, the top ones are San Francisco, Addis Ababa and New York.
I am interested in how we can use music and the arts to foster and grow cross-cultural communication
How does your music reflect your political interests?
I think of my music in two ways. On the one hand, I am interested in the pure experience of music, performance, and the arts… There, it’s about joy and expression, and I believe we need this as human beings. On the other hand, I am interested in the impacts of music and arts: how we can use music and the arts to foster and grow cross-cultural communication, and ask ourselves questions about who we are, who we want to be, and what we want our world to look like.
Who or what inspires you?
Right now I am incredibly inspired by the TED Fellows. I just got back from TED 2013 in Long Beach, California, where I’m a Senior Fellow, and the other folks in the group are just incredible. Everyone from a physicist creating an invisibility cloak, to a Nairobi-based photographer and cultural instigator, to a Pakistani political satirist. I’m inspired by people who are pushing themselves, their fields and the world in all kinds of ways.
What is your earliest musical memory?
In 1983 - dancing to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ in the living room of the tiny Iowa City apartment that was amongst our early landing pads in the US.
You were born in Ethiopia but raised in the US. What could Americans learn from Ethiopians? And vice versa?
Well, I think what’s interesting to me is some of the big lessons that I take from both places. As an Ethiopian, you have a sense of yourself in continuum with a long cultural history. There’s an incredible pride in that. There’s also a lot to be said for the sense of community there. People help each other all the time, just because that’s what you do. The fabric of care and kindness is gorgeous. The part of me that’s American was shaped in large part by growing up in Brooklyn, New York, which is, of course, a very culturally diverse part of the States. So for me, I’m most comfortable in groups of people from multiple parts of the world. Though it comes with challenges, I see that as a big social strength and one that keeps you learning all the time.
You co-founded The Nile Project in 2011 – what is it and why is it important?
The Nile Project is a new organization whose mission is to inspire, educate and empower Nile citizens to work together towards fostering the sustainability of the river’s ecosystem. The project was cofounded by myself and Mina Girgis, an Egyptian ethnomusicologist. The Nile is a fundamental ecological unit that unites 11 countries of the Eastern Continent, but though we share the water, we have very little access to each other’s cultures. In our early conversations, we realized the power in knowing each other better.
Where in the world have you enjoyed performing most and why?
There’s a lot of places that I love to play, amongst them are the cities that I called home above: Addis Ababa, New York and San Francisco. My audiences there are filled with dear friends and loved ones, and that’s always special. But there are other places too. I love playing in Montreal and Chicago because audiences there understand music and they are so open to going wherever you take them. Sometimes small towns are special too, because you might be the only musician touring through there that month, so there’s a kind of instant openness with the people.