“The more you understand me, the more you understand my music.” Meet Ethiopian electronic artist Mikael Seifu

By Chris Kelly

“I feel like I should get to know you first before we do the interview,” Mikael Seifu tells me. “We should get to know each other first.”

It was an unusual request at the start of an interview, but not an unreasonable one. Sipping beers and chatting over Skype, Seifu and I were separated by seven hours, 7,000 miles and probably much more. On July 1, Seifu will release his Yarada Lij EP via Washington, DC’s new 1432 R imprint, and it represents a debut for both the artist and the label. A seamless fusion of Ethiopian folk music with the rhythms and sonic touchstones from a variety of electronic styles — from house to garage and beyond — the EP is the first dispatch from a unique artist with a singular vision. [Preview the EP below with our premiere of ‘Drkness Iz’]

Our 90-minute conversation was punctuated with a handful of refrains — “You wouldn’t understand…” or “I don’t know how to explain” — but, despite his protestations, Seifu never struggled to illustrate the difference between the cultures in Ethiopia and the United States in his rich baritone. After giving my elevator pitch biography, he asked for more: “I’m still interested in your story, man, because the more I understand you, the more you’ll understand me.” After sharing more of my background, Seifu opened up about his own.

Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Seifu studied at the French school Lycee Guebre-Mariam, surrounded by a mix of people from across Africa, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. “People understand the boundaries between cultures,” he says, “but there was still a gap in communication.” The culture clash at school was a microcosm of Addis Ababa. “It’s one crazy city. It’s like a melting pot for Africa,” he says. “It’s a bunch of cultures clashing with each other or trying to understand each other, which always was — and still is — a hard time for a kid growing up here.”

Seifu is 26 years-old, a fact he delivers with some deliberation. “It’s such a mysterious process in Ethiopia. If you ask a person how old they are, they might not know,” he explains. “Age is kinda mystical around here. The older you are, the more respect you’re given in our society, more credit for anything you have to say.

Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Seifu studied at the French school Lycee Guebre-Mariam, surrounded by a mix of people from across Africa, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. “People understand the boundaries between cultures,” he says, “but there was still a gap in communication.” The culture clash at school was a microcosm of Addis Ababa. “It’s one crazy city. It’s like a melting pot for Africa,” he says. “It’s a bunch of cultures clashing with each other or trying to understand each other, which always was — and still is — a hard time for a kid growing up here.”

Frustrated by the lack of opportunities for non-professionals in the city, and driven by a life-long desire to move to the States and experience “the beauty of America,” Seifu enrolled at Ramapo College, a small school in New Jersey about 45 minutes outside of Manhattan. He knew he wanted to get into music down the line, but he spent his first year trying his hand at business and English classes, without much success.

“One thing you have to understand: Ethiopian parents want you to be the best you can be, and by the best, I mean an engineer, a doctor, or something of that sort,” he laughs. Thankfully, telling his parents that he had decided to focus on music full-time went smoothly. “They told me, ‘At the end of the day, as long as you’re successful with what you choose to study, that’s all we want for you.’ It was huge.”

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