Last night at The Ark, the ears of many Ann Arborites were graced by soft, twangy folk melodies of Michigan’s Seth Bernard and May Erlewine. The concert celebrated the Oct. 28 release of their latest album, New Flower, born from a recent pilgrimage to Ethiopia. Their energy was infectious — beneath Bernard’s bushy brown beard he never stopped smiling — and only grew as Erlewine sang. Despite the wild range of influences from tunes reminiscent of a dark night of Ethiojazz (Ethiopian jazz) to the melody of a summer morning in northern Michigan, there was one constant — their audible happiness.

But Bernard and Erlewine are more than musicians. They are pillars of advocacy for their community, in everything from social justice — encapsulated in local food initiatives — to water rights and after school arts programs.

Throughout their relationship, it has been impossible to pinpoint where their “community” begins and where it ends. Based out of northwestern Lower Michigan, Bernard and Erlewine were originally solo artists, traveling around the country and playing anywhere they were allowed. Just over seven years ago, the two met and began making music together while partnering with many local organizations that encourage community-based sustainability. Their strong musical partnership quickly fed into a lasting relationship and a recent marriage.

The creative couple spent three weeks in Ethiopia last January in a collaborative project with On the Ground, a nonprofit group that raises money to aid sustainable development in farming regions worldwide.

“Chris Treter (the founder of On the Ground) convinced us that we had to go, help and bring a piece of Ethiopia back to Michigan,” Bernard said.

On the Ground’s initiative, “Run Across Ethiopia,” consisted of 16 people from the U.S. and Ethiopia completing a marathon every single day for 12 days.

“(May and I have) always dreamed of going to Africa together,” Bernard said. “After listening to Ethiopian jazz music we just fell in love with it and became excited about it.”

Though Bernard and Erlewine were not runners themselves, each day they would get up early with the runners, send them off with a blessing and a song and then travel by bus to the community at the end point of the day’s marathon.

“Once we got there, we’d go to the school and play music while the kids in the village created artwork as a collaboration with Art Aid International,” Bernard said.

Art Aid International (not affiliated with On the Ground) is a nonprofit group based in Ada, Mich. that raises money to provide art supplies for children around the world, according to Bernard.

Bernard and Erlewine used their time in rural Ethiopian communities to incorporate involvement with Art Aid International into the project.

“Later on in the evening the runners would arrive and we would all have a big Ethiopian feast together,” Bernard said. “That night, if we had the opportunity to, May and I would play music with local musicians for everyone in the community.”

In the middle of the trip, Bernard and Erlewine spent two days at a hotel in southern Ethiopia working on music inspired by the trip.

“The hotel was on this big lake, and we just wrote (songs) the whole time,” Bernard said.

Though each track of New Flower is tied to the couple’s Ethiopian expedition, some of the songs, like “When We Run” and “Talkin Coffee,” are more transparently connected to their experience.

While some of Seth and May’s songs are performed together, “Talkin Coffee” features Seth alone. It focuses on the creation and importance of fair trade coffee through the musical style of talking blues, which was made famous by artists such as Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

“The talking blues form is dear to my heart,” Bernard said. “The form is traditionally American, where you just talk about the news of the day, whether it’s the word on the street or an opinion. I talked about coffee because it’s the third largest traded commodity in the world and I wanted to relate to the coffee regions throughout the world through music.”

Other songs, like title track “New Flower,” holistically embody experiences and themes they found in Ethiopia.

“A lot of our inspiration came through a lot less educationally and more inspirationally,” Bernard said. “It’s about hope struggling and surviving. We were trying to take what we learned and experienced from the Ethiopian people and put it out there with all of our heart.”

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