Meklit & Quinn

Essay by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
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It began for Meklit and Quinn, to hear them tell it, late one night in San Francisco's Mission district. The time was early 2010. The pair were busy building their names as two of the Bay Area's best loved performers: Meklit as a radiant singer whose talents, soon enough, would carry her to her East African homeland and beyond; Quinn as the oaky-sweet leader of an Oakland soul troupe, the Blue Beat Revue, whose mien and sound wouldn't have felt out of place at New Orleans's Dew Drop Inn in 1954.

They met at an old storefront experimental venue, now defunct. It was past closing time, but the owner let them stay. They chatted, and then they sang - and ended up trading tunes, and improvisations, until 4AM. Meklit asked Quinn to open a show, later that spring, celebrating her first album's release. After her set that night, he came back onstage to join her for an encore. And it was then that their musical marriage was made firm, under the sign of Sam Cooke. "We sang 'Bring it on Home'," Meklit recalls. "And that, I think, was that."

Two years later, we have Meklit & Quinn. A "soul record," certainly. A project born of a shared feel for that idiom's sounds. But not a suite of songs by its bold-faced Names (well, maybe a couple - they couldn't lay off that Sam classic, or from making a Stevie tune new). Nor an album of originals (though it does include an estimable trio of those, including the toothsome groove of "Sent by You," damp as the paper napkin they wrote it on). No. This is something else. A record comprised, as Quinn says, of "tunes that we could wear."

Should it give surprise that the first tune they found that fit like clothes, and that their harmonies did, too, was by Arcade Fire, and another by that other great Canadian, Neil Young? That Lou Reed's Bowie-produced ode to watching science on TV should reply as it does, to what their voices give it? That the familiar changes of MGMT's "Electric Feel," slowed down and stretched with behind-the-beat phrasing ("It is a sex tune, after all" says Quinn), could feel so, well, soulful? Should it feel strange that their voices should "reveal the words" - Meklit's phrase - of the Talking Heads, in joyous-fresh ways?

Should it? When for all of us who grew up in the 1980s and 90s, turning on the TV meant winning exposure to both Springsteen and Soul Train? When those great white hopes who made the suburbs symphonic, Arcade Fire, forged a poetics of strip-malls ("like mountains beyond mountains") drawn from Haitian poetry? When a black boy in Oregon - Quinn - found his way to the blues not by osmosis, but by falling for those So-Cal white boys, the Doors, and making it to the Delta from there? When a girl from Ethiopia-and-Brooklyn - Meklit - can grow up on Thriller and hip-hop, but find no more giving model, when she began writing her own songs, than Leonard Cohen? When all our music, in 2012, is as mixed as its labels remain color-coded?

Of course, long before "soul" and "indie rock" became the new black and white (the former's ever-multiplying blue-eyed exponents, and TV on Radio, excepted), we Americans have segregated sound. Perhaps inevitably, given that our modern music's forms and labels were most crucially forged in a segregated world. In the mecca of New Orleans, it was the same holy mix of Congo Square syncopation and Scots melodies, Baptist gospel and Cajun sauce, that made both "rock-n-roll" and "R&B" - with the only thing determining what records got called what, oftentimes, the skin-color of their makers. That's a familiar tale. But where it gets interesting is when we stop to consider, as no less a seer than George Porter, Jr. recently made me do in New Orleans, that the first funk song he ever heard was Huey Smith's white-boy version of "Big Chief". We were sitting not far from where George, who gained fame sewing up the Meters' mighty low end, learned bass sitting in at the Dew Drop itself. "So that's why I always said: screw the label thing," he said. "It's all just music."

Meklit and Quinn would make George smile: they speak his language. And they speak the language, too, of the place where they met, and made this record. A city where Otis Redding, resting by the Bay during a break from the tour that killed him, penned his ode to what its docks can make one feel. Where Betty Davis, too much woman for Miles and Jimi combined, came west to forge a freer funk than old New York could handle. Where Sly Stone, the summer after San Francisco's cops sparked riots by shooting a black boy cold, waxed There's A Riot Goin' On - with a Family Stone consciously comprised of both white and black members (no matter that the 'Panthers hated Sly for it). Where the frisson of inter-racial love, just two years after the Civil Rights Act, was what really made the Summer of Love a freaky time. Where in 2012, a new era of dot-com decadence is pushing the last makers of San Francisco's once-thriving black neighborhoods from the city. But where, still, a Meklit and a Quinn might come to find their voices, and each other. And where the Bay's rare air, one feels, still affords a special space to riff on the racial dramas around which all our music, like our culture, still turns. Which perhaps brings us, sigh, to that old question as stubbornly present as its asking is tedious: What, after all, is soul?

Must we? One is tempted to invoke the reply Sam Cooke supplied, when queried by a radio interviewer in 1963. He hummed eight bars. An unimpeachable answer, given the voice doing the humming. Also not one available, alas, to we mortals who must speak in words. For us, one hopes that at least we've moved past Mos Def's born-tired refrain, from back when Meklit and I met at school, that "Elvis Presley ain't got no soul." Nonsense. You don't have to agree that one hears more of the stuff on any track from Patti Smith's Horses than, say, Pharell has evinced in a whole career (not to hate: 'dude makes us dance). But you do have to credit, if you're not a philistine, your friends' right to feel that way (and you may, too, after hearing what Meklit and Quinn do with "Elegie").

But: enough. Color is our craziness, sound is where we salve it, singers are the mediums. Here are two of the finest I know, joining the conversation, in song. Listen.

— Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

CONTACT
Label: Porto Franco Records Peter Varshavsky peter [at] portofrancorecords.com
Publicist: Press Junkie PR, Ryan Romana, ryan [at] pressjunkiepr.com