Berhana enchants San Francisco with genre-bending grooves

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

The frustrations of the two-hour commute disappeared as Berhana stepped onstage at The Independent in San Francisco last Wednesday. Holding a microphone cradled in a bouquet of flowers, the singer hopped onto a treadmill, walking in place to a mellow track. 

Throwing the flowers into the audience, Berhana launched into the irresistibly funky “Gone (Abebe Bikila)” — and from that moment, the crowd was transported to a world all its own.

The R&B artist first drew attention with his self-titled debut EP in 2016. The catchy “Janet,” a laid-back story of longing based on the “Fresh Prince” actress, went viral. FX’s television comedy-drama “Atlanta” featured the summery “Grey Luh” in 2018.

Berhana’s most recent album, the 12-song, 26-minute “Amén (The Nomad’s Dream)” (2023), is a sweeping narrative as full of genres as it is innovative grooves. A Tiny Desk Concert performance this February seemed to solidify his route to upcoming stardom. 

The singer-songwriter often shows love to his Ethiopian heritage in his music. The first track of the night opened with, “Gone off the goose / Gone off tequila / Abebe Bikila, I lost both my shoes,” referencing Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila who won the country’s first Olympic gold medal while barefoot. Its infectious instrumentals and powerful vocals made the song a perfect opener for a journey through Berhana’s eclectic, lyrically-complex but grounded discography. 

Each Berhana song tells its own story. It’s fitting that the concert wove them together into an overarching narrative of finding the beauty in a mundane day. Throughout the show, Berhana returned to the treadmill and donned successive items of clothing from a rack on stage. He ended with a full suit, adding another bit of narrative through line to the performance.

The artist, who told PAPER Magazine last year that the concept of genre “feels pretty dead to me,” traversed tones and tempos easily. Mid-concert, Berhana interrupted his mellow, reflective melodies with the uptempo, electric guitar-heavy “G2g,” from the artist’s 2019 album “HAN.” 

“You don’t come to a Berhana concert expecting to get hype,” the singer said. “But for this one, I need you to jump with me.”

The change of pace was unexpected, but welcome. The energized crowd bounced together as Berhana stomped across the stage, transforming for a few moments from a sympathetic singer to a rockstar. In several songs, the singer jumped down into the crowd, igniting the surrounding fans with a frantic excitement.

I hadn’t heard “G2g” before the concert, but the gorgeous alignment of voice and instrumentals, which even includes a surprise bass solo, haven’t left my mind since.

Berhana’s live performance was a testament to his raw talent and stage presence. He sang with steady, emotive vocals, flowing through textures and into high notes with a rich fullness every bit as strong as his recordings.

The small club came alive for “Tanuki” as a beam of light illuminated a disco ball hanging above the crowd. The dazzling light transformed the venue into an intimate, magical room. “But you’re not the one,” Berhana sang out to the crowd in refrain, arms raised in unison, one finger lifted.

The concert ended with the album’s final song, “Going Home,” a cinematic track that nicely capped off the concert’s cozy, homey narrative.

Openers Asha Imuno and Yonas Michael provided fitting complements to Berhana’s relaxed but danceable performance. Imuno, a Moreno Valley-based rapper, showed real star potential with a clear sound and ear-catching beats, each significantly different from the last. By the end of his set, the audience was hooked on selections from his album “PINS & NEEDLES” and snippets of unreleased songs. Michael followed, playing a mix of genres with an undercurrent of bass-heavy groove that led well into the headlining set.

If San Francisco wasn’t already sold on the captivating talent of Berhana, it is now.