- Deborah Sengupta Stith American-Statesman Staff
“May I,” the lead track on “MéVen,” the new release from singer Mélat Kassa, is a sultry variation on the jazz standard “May I Never Love Again,” rendered with a modern feel and a mournful ache. Broken down, looped and laced with reverb and a harmonizer, the track clocks in at less than two minutes. It has feel of an invocation, a scene setter for the gorgeous collection of silky, mid-tempo R&B that follows.
“I’ve gone through these trials personally to kind of get where I’m at,” Kassa, who performs under her first name alone, said over coffee at Patika in South Austin on a chilly, wet morning in early December, a week after the album dropped. “That song with this project kind of made me feel like, ‘If loving you is wrong I don’t want to be right.’ This is what I love. It is what it is.”
Over the past few years, the singer with the haunting doe eyes, endless cascade of white-blonde curls and inexplicably large voice contained in a lithe, 5-foot-4-inch frame, has been slowly bubbling on the alternative R&B underground in Texas and beyond. Her quietly philosophical Twitter and stylish Instagram feed each have thousands of followers. Her 2015 EP, “It Happens So Fast,” earned her national looks from online urban music sources like 2dopeboyz.com and hypebeast.com and, in 2016, Essence Magazine featured her in their “New & Next” section.
With the new album, a fully realized collection rooted in a dark and moody alternative R&B sound that beautifully showcases her smoky pipes, she’s poised to push through to the next level, aiming for a national breakout in 2017.
A graduate of Cedar Park High School and the University of Texas, Mélat was born and raised in the Austin area, but she inherited a transcontinental worldview from her parents, who emigrated from Ethiopia in the 1980s, leaving their homeland to escape a brutal communist regime that seized control of the country.
Like that of many first generation Americans, her life in Central Texas was defined by a split consciousness. She soaked up our city’s “anything goes” musical vibe, which taught her to appreciate rock, pop and jazz. She described a recent performance at the storied blues club Antone’s as a “bucket list” experience. But she was never far removed from her international heritage.
“I did kind of feel like I had two different worlds that I existed in,” she said.
She was an American kid who grew up loving Madonna and Mariah Carey. Though she was too shy to try out for solos in her high school choir, she belted along with Whitney Houston at home. Her father fell in love with American R&B when he first landed in the U.S. and a cousin took him to a Kool and the Gang concert in L.A., but the family never left the sounds of old world behind. Artists like Kool and the Bee Gees were in the mix with Ethiopian pop stars Tilahun Gessese and Teddy Afro when the family cranked up the stereo each week to to help them knock out Saturday chores.
They spoke Amharic, their native tongue, at home, and though they weren’t particularly religious, when the local community grew large enough to support an Ethiopian Orthodox church, they attended every Sunday. Kassa recalls birthday parties where the kids entertained themselves doing kid stuff, while the parents were “playing the Ethiopian music loud, drinking their Johnny Walkers” and reminiscing about the old world.
She grew up with a clear understanding of how the shifting tides of fortune spared her family from the kind of suffering that feels incomprehensible on a rainy morning in Austin, Texas, when traffic woes rank high on our list of pressing problems. Her parents’ plight — forced to leave the country suddenly, silently, in the middle of the night — is a common story among Ethiopian expats. “One of my best friends, her dad was like in an execution style lineup and by the grace of god he got out of that situation and is alive today, but a lot of our parents were in some really difficult situations and fled the country,” she said.
She sees her own existence is an extension of her family’s difficult journey, and the hardship they endured drives her forward.
“My whole life, it’s kind of been like, make their experiences worth it,” she said. “They risked all this and they came over here and they started literally from nothing. It took my dad 16 years to graduate from college and my mom is still grinding to this day.”
Kassa has folded sonic elements of her Ethiopian heritage into her work in the past, but on “MéVen,” she makes a definitive statement with the track “Negn (I am),” sung entirely in Amharic.
“I was crying as I wrote it,” she said. “It took me three different recording sessions to actually be able to get through the whole song without bursting into tears.”
The track is a meditation on destructive forces at work in the world, the wars that tear families apart, leaving children orphaned and communities destroyed. Her aim was to shed light on these issues, but in the process of writing, she had a staggering personal revelation.
“My dad’s mother used to always call me Addis Alem which means ‘new world.’ She was in Ethiopia when I was born. She always called me that. And then my mother’s mother always called me Mewded which means ‘to love,’” she said.
She called the album “MéVen,” a personalization of the word maven, “someone who understands, someone who kind of teaches other people, leads the way.”
“Negn,” a song written in a language most of her fans won’t understand, is the distillation of the message, but the understanding of her elders’ guiding vision, spread into a broader sense of self that came into focus as she worked on the album, resolving a few personal conflicts along the way.
“Maybe I don’t have to change,” she said. “Maybe I don’t have to be a sharky industry person, you know? And if I just continue being who I am and what my grandmothers saw in me, maybe I’ll actually get to the place I want to be.
“Maybe I’m meant to lead into a new world with love. Maybe that’s just who I am.”