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Meklit Hadero: How Can We Find Joy In Everyday Sounds?

Nov 16, 2018

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Where Joy Hides.

About Meklit Hadero's TED Talk

Meklit Hadero hears joyful music everywhere: in laughter, nature, language, and even the sounds of cooking. She believes her job as a musician is to uncover joy and create music from it.

About Meklit Hadero

Meklit Hadero, known by her stage name Meklit, is an Ethiopian-American musician. Her music blends jazz, folk, and East African influences. She has performed around the world, from Nairobi to San Francisco.

Her 2017 album, When The People Move, The Music Moves Too, was ranked #4 on iTunes World Music Charts and was named one of the 100 Best Albums for 2017 by the Sunday Times UK.

Meklit has been an artist-in-residence at New York University, the de Young Museum, and the Red Poppy House. She is co-founder of the Nile Project, an education initaitive that uses music to heal divisions in East Africa.

She studied political science at Yale, and is a Senior TED Fellow.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

When I say the word, joy, does it bring any, like, words or thoughts to your mind?

MEKLIT HADERO: Well, I guess, for me, I have this funny little fact that the work that I do as a musician, as a songwriter is kind of to mine joy.

RAZ: This is Meklit Hadero.

HADERO: But it's also that we use music to talk about the things that are hard to talk about. So it's very hard to talk about joy because we find ourselves kind of limited by language. So instead, it's easier to make a joyful sound. (Laughter).

RAZ: Yeah, yeah.

HADERO: It's easier to sing a joyful melody. So you know, joy, for me, is not so much about words, or it's not that I can think of - you know, there's all - I can go to a thesaurus, but I'd rather hum (humming, laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Meklit also finds inspiration for her music in the small things, like in the sounds that make up everyday life - the sounds of nature, of laughter, and even of language.

HADERO: It's like a practice. It's like a practice to stop and listen. It's something that we have to remind ourselves to do, but it's something that's available to everybody to remind yourself that you're connected to the world around you and that the world around you can be speaking to you.

RAZ: Meklit Hadero picks up her idea from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HADERO: Every language communicates with pitch to varying degrees, whether it's Mandarin Chinese, where a shift in melodic inflection gives the same phonetic syllable an entirely different meaning, to a language like English, where a raised pitch at the end of a sentence implies a question. As an Ethiopian-American woman, I grew up around the language of Amharic, Amharina. It was my first language, the language of my parents, one of the main languages of Ethiopia. And there are a million reasons to fall in love with this language - its depth of poetics, its double-entendre, its wax and gold, its humor, its proverbs that illuminate the wisdom and follies of life. But there is also this melodicism, a musicality built right in. And I find this distilled most clearly in what I like to call emphatic language - language that's meant to highlight or underline, or that springs from surprise.

Take, for example, the word, indey (ph). Now, if there are any Ethiopians in the audience, they're probably chuckling to themselves because the word means something like, no, or, how could he, or, no, he didn't. It kind of depends on the situation. But when I was a kid, this was my very favorite word. And I think it's because it has a pitch. It has a melody. You can almost see the shape as it springs from someone's mouth - indey (ph). It dips and then raises again. And as a musician and composer, when I hear that word, something like this is floating through my mind. Indey (ph), indey (ph). (Strumming guitar). Or take, for example, the phrase for, it is right, or, it is correct, lickih nehu (ph) - lickih nehu (ph). It's an affirmation, an agreement. - lickih nehu (ph). When I hear that phrase, something like this starts rolling through my mind. Lickih nehu (ph), lickih nehu (ph). (Piano playing).

RAZ: Can you give me an example of what a joyful - of what, like, the sound of joy is? I mean, we're trying to express in words. But, like, can you give me a sound of joy?

HADERO: Let me sink in for a second.

RAZ: Sure.

HADERO: Well, there's so many different kinds of joy, right? There's, like, an anatomy of joy, you could say. Like, imagine that you were, like, face-to-face with a baby.

RAZ: Yeah.

HADERO: And the baby was just smiling up at you. And maybe your expression of joy, in that sense, was more like a hum. (Humming). Maybe it's like that, you know? Maybe it's like a - just you and this one creature fixated on your eyes, staring into your soul, and the sound of your joy is that hum that's just sitting between you. That's one kind of joy.

Maybe another kind of joy is, like, that - you know, I mean, this is the obvious one - the deep belly laugh. (Laughter). Maybe that's one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Do you remember, by the way, there's, like - there's a YouTube video of, like, a laughing yogi. Have you seen this before?

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "LAUGHING YOGA ORIGINAL BY YOGI RAMESH PADNEY")

RAMESH PANDEY: Laughing exercise for the heart and mind.

HADERO: Wait. I think there's a bunch of them.

RAZ: There are a bunch of them, yeah. And they're amazing. You can't - if you watch it, within, like, five seconds, you will be laughing.

HADERO: Oh, yeah.

RAZ: It is somebody laughing.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "LAUGHING YOGA ORIGINAL BY YOGI RAMESH PADNEY")

PANDEY: (Laughter).

RAZ: And laughter is contagious.

HADERO: Oh, yeah.

RAZ: Just - it's one of those things. It's like one of those moments of joy that you get to experience. When somebody is laughing, you can't help but join in.

HADERO: You can't help it. You can't help it. Joy is an invitation. And onstage, I really try to tap into joy and just the sheer joy of singing - just the sheer joy, which has always been my deepest joy since I was a little kid. But part of my job, I feel, onstage is to get so free inside of joy on a stage that I invite everybody in the audience to go there with me. Just like that joy in a laugh is contagious, so is somebody in their joy on a stage or doing what they love, whatever their passion is. And I feel like that's a deep part of my job, of my work - is to dig in so deep into joy that I invite other people in.

RAZ: You - in your - in this TED Talk, you describe how you were cooking lentils. And you were taking the lid off the pot and putting it back on the counter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HADERO: And it started to roll back and forth, making this sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)

RAZ: And then you have the sound of clanking.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)

RAZ: And then you integrated that sound into one of your songs. And...

HADERO: (Singing) Waiting for my...

RAZ: ...Is your life like a musical - like, you just break out in song?

HADERO: (Laughter) Yes.

RAZ: And you're like, clang-clang-clang, clang, clang. And then, like - and then, there's just - and then all these people appear - suddenly appear in your kitchen. And you've got a musical in your kitchen.

HADERO: (Laughter) Well, I make songs out of everything. So you know - and then they run like loops in my head. And then I'm like - OK, let me go record this and see what happens (laughter). But it can be something like - if I say to myself - OK, I'm in bed a little too long. And it's time to wake up in the morning. And the way I'll wake up will just be like - (singing) it's time to wake up. It's time to wake up. It's time to wake up. It's time to wake up.

And then that will become a song. And it's - any kind of phrase will just become a song. So my life really is like a musical. And that's (laughter) - you know, I don't know if I drive the people around me crazy with all of that stuff because it's pretty constant.

RAZ: Meklit, I wonder - do you think that this ability to just find these sounds and to immerse yourself in these moments, do you think that kind of protects you from, you know, all the chaos and the noise, maybe the dark things, around you? Like, I've noticed when you are performing - when I've seen you perform, you're often smiling. Right? Like, when you're singing, you're smiling, and your eyes are closed. And it's like you're in a different place almost.

HADERO: Yeah. It is a different place. I think that, you know, in joy - having joy and sinking into joy in the beauty of small moments does not mean that the world around us is perfect. To be inside of your joy, it doesn't mean that you are ignoring the challenges and the darkness and the injustice of the world around you. This is a thing. You know, sometimes we have to give ourselves permission - even inside of that - to be able to feel joy in the small things - in the connections between people, in the sound of a laugh...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD LAUGHING)

HADERO: ...In the sound of, like, a baby laughing...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD LAUGHING)

HADERO: ...In the sound of a hum, in the sound of you singing a song that makes you feel strong.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON VOCALIZING)

HADERO: Like, this is what we have. This is something that gives you the strength to be out in this crazy world. I mean, it's almost like the simplest recipe for joy that there is - is to stop and recognize what's already around us.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE LAUGHING)

RAZ: Singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero. Her latest album is called "When The People Move, The Music Moves Too." You can see her full talk at ted.com

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE TO LAUGH")

ED WYNN, JULIE ANDREWS AND DICK VAN DYKE: (Singing) I love to laugh (laughter) loud and long and clear. I love to laugh (laughter). It's getting worse every year (laughter).

RAZ: Hey, thanks so much for listening to our show on Finding Joy this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham and James Delahoussaye, with help from Daniel Shukin and Megan Schellong. Our intern is Daryth Gayles. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee.

I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE TO LAUGH")

WYNN, ANDREWS AND VAN DYKE: (Singing) The more we're a merrier we.

(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.