One Album, Many Players

UnderCover Presents ushers in a soulful treatment of Lauryn Hill.


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Lyz Luke and Meklit Hadero team up.

Photo by Carl Posey

Starting at Yale as a fish-out-of-water freshman in the fall of 1998, Ethiopian-born, Brooklyn-raised Meklit Hadero found strength, succor, and permission to be herself in The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The era-defining hip-hop/neo soul album debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart in August that year and went on to sell some 20 million copies worldwide, opening up space for new voices in black music along the way.

“My first year of college was totally tumultuous, and this album was my touchstone,” said Meklit, the visionary Berkeley singer/songwriter who co-founded The Nile Project, which has forged unprecedented cultural ties between East African artists. “We played it at every party, and you could hear it blaring out of every window. This was the album that got me through. I have a passionate love for it.”

When Meklit ran into UnderCover Presents director Lyz Luke at the Freight & Salvage production of Paul Simon’s Graceland in April 2014, she started lobbying for the organization to put Miseducation into the queue. Oakland, it turned out, had Meklit’s back. Miseducation turned out to be the top choice of Oakland residents when Luke surveyed her mailing list to find out which albums people would like to get UnderCover’s stylistically omnivorous treatment, where every track is recorded and then performed by a different act. 

Not surprisingly, Meklit’s UnderCover Miseducation, which premieres Feb. 16-18 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, is a potent expression of East Bay soul. Among the artists involved are vocalist Kimiko Joy and the RubADubs (“To Zion”), saxophonist Howard Wiley and Extra Nappy (“Superstar”), former Lauryn Hill music director Kev Choice (“Final Hour”), and venerated Berkeley jazz and blues singer Faye Carol (“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”).

It seems entirely fitting that two powerful women who have dedicated themselves to building expansive creative communities have come together via UnderCover, an invaluable institution “that has become a force bigger than we ever imagined,” said Luke, who has spearheaded the organization since she, sound engineer Yosh Haraguchi, and violist Charith Premawardhana came up with the concept of assembling a stylistically diverse array of musicians to play The Velvet Underground and Nico in 2010. Miseducation is the 13th album she’s tackled, with each production featuring a different guest musical director.

 “I like to throw myself into crazy situations, to give myself challenges,” said Luke, who’s also the Oakland Symphony’s development events manager. “Even thought there’s a basic framework, each album, music director, and artist lineup has a totally different personality.”

What remains the same is the incendiary frisson of bringing disparate artists together under one roof. UnderCover has led to countless collaborations that wouldn’t have otherwise taken place, while introducing audiences to musicians they might never otherwise encounter, which is exactly what Luke wants.

“Audiences trust us,” she said. “They know that they’ll have no idea of what to expect, but love seeing new genres and new bands they would have never found on their own. When you walk backstage, there are so many artists who don’t know each other. They come from such different genres, they may have listened and respected each other, but never got a chance to be on the same bill.”

 

Published online on Feb. 8, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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