Sefanit (Munit) Mesfin ’03, an Ethiopian singer and songwriter, has lofty ambitions for music: She sees it as a means to promote peace, to empower girls and to help heal the scars of colonialism in Africa. But music is also personal. In fact, music brought her and her husband, Jude Champagne, together when she was at Smith, at a party with the Smith African Students Association. “My husband’s from Haiti, and he was driving past with a friend,” she said. “They heard African music playing, did a U-turn and came to the party.” Here, Mesfin discusses the central role music continues to play in her life.
Beyond performing, your career encompasses working with young women who are facing painful social issues, building a sustainable arts economy in Ethiopia and promoting Pan-Africanism. How did this unique career path come about?
When I fantasized about what I wanted to do when I grew up it was always about bridge building. And music opens up your mind and makes connections across boundaries. In Africa there are a lot of borders because of colonialism. But art, music and culture are great bridge builders. They are great ways to connect.
You helped create a radio drama, Yegna, meaning “Ours,” that has been dubbed the Ethiopian Spice Girls. What is it about?
The radio drama uses music to tell the stories of five girls, each with a different burden. The young actresses are the vocalists. Each one plays the part of a girl who is dealing with a different issue. For one it’s violence, for another it’s early childhood marriage and for another it’s isolation—because it’s not safe for girls to go everywhere. There are clubs now in schools and a group on Facebook, so girls can discuss the stories from the radio drama. We’re offering a strong message about unity and friendship.
You are also part of a popular duet, Munit and Jörg, with German guitarist Jörg Pfeil. How did that come about?
I had been traveling and singing backup and jamming when I met Jörg in Ethiopia. We hit it off and started to perform together. I’d never made music a full-time profession before, but I decided I’d give it two years. That was in 2007.
And now you have two albums, you’ve been featured on Ethiopian radio and television and at international music festivals and more. How would you describe your music?
We play Ethio-acoustic soul. It’s got a crispy, dynamic, playful sound. I’m not very good at writing love songs, so the music is about memories and visions of the way I wish the world were. The songs are also about my personal journey and my coming back to Ethiopia and calling to other Ethiopians to come back home, too.
You majored in economics at Smith. Did you also pursue your passion for music?
One of the first things I did at Smith was try out for the Smiffenpoofs. This kind of contemporary a cappella music with a beatboxer was awesome. I was a ’Poof on and off for all four years I was at Smith.
What is the music scene like in Addis Ababa, where you now live?
Our local radio plays half local stuff and half international stuff like Voice of America. In the city, there’s a re-boom of live music and unique styles being born—this is after the suppression and curfews of the 1970s.
What’s next for you?
Right now singing is popular in Ethiopia, but it’s just about singing with passion. There hasn’t been guidance about how to warm up the voice, or about the biology of how the voice works, so I want to start a school for voice. Also, my husband and I have three children who are very musical creatures, so I’ve found myself creating music for them. Jörg and I are talking about making a children’s album. Now I’m looking ahead to when they’ll be old enough to be in my rhythm section.
Tzivia Gover is the author of Learning in Mrs. Towne’s House: A Teacher, Her Students, and the Woman Who Inspired Them
Spring ’15 SAQ