Hermon Mehari: Asmara
Review November 2022
Hermon Mehari’s new album is full of a kind of uncommon grace. It feels like a love letter to his home country, birth country, Eritrea. It probably is. (Asmara is Eritrea’s capital city.) The album opens with a catchy, worldly rhythm on drum. It’s one of grace and restraint, but also lift, as if what was once played with only the hands is now played with sticks. (Gautier Garrigue is on drumset.)
“Asmara” is an album of originals, and this seems to be some of Mehari’s finest work to date. His songs seem intimate: wishes, dreams. But they also seem peopled with memory, like folktales, fairytales, childhood lessons from picture books. There is that tenderness in every note. There's reverence and reverie, the man looking back. Rhythmic and catchy, and also reflective, the album’s tunes are a delight. The melodies seem hopeful, a kind of promise in every run and note. Mehari goes with KC/NYC artist Peter Schlamb on keys, and Schlamb shines on both piano and vibraphone. Sparse and polyrhythmic, perhaps kalimba-like at times, Schlamb seems utterly up to these tunes: their spirit, their distant call. As many know, years ago Mehari came up in the KC jazz scene and could be found regularly at The Blue Room Monday night jam in his youth. That seems long ago. Mehari recruits Faytinga, an esteemed Asmara native singer and activist, for the album’s singular song with lyrics, “Tanafaqit.” In “Pan African Music (PAM),” Mehari says that, like him, Faytinga is exiled from her home country, but “‘Eritrea is in a difficult situation, under dictatorship for over 30 years…People can’t speak freely, and it’s one of the poorest countries in the world. So, this (album) is also a message of hope.’ In the face of ongoing war, especially in the Tigray region, the Asmara album is a love letter to Eritrea, aspiring for a better future.” As fans and listeners, we can support this album, and not only enjoy these uplifting, prescient tunes, but also champion them. We can advocate by simply listening.