When Berhana, the 27-year-old singer born Amain Berhane, finished his film program at the New School, he did what a lot of young artistic people in New York City do: He started working at a restaurant. During his time as a chef and assistant manager at Robataya, a now-defunct Japanese spot in the East Village, the recent graduate undertook a new, informal curriculum in Japanese culture; he was even tasked with learning to speak the language.
For the Atlanta native born to Ethiopian parents, the transition was difficult at first, but Berhana’s tight-knit group of co-workers helped shape the trajectory of his career. “I’m seeing them, like, all week,” Berhana said of his former colleagues when we spoke recently at Hi-Collar, another East Village outpost, owned by Robataya’s former managers. “And they’re putting me on to different books to read, different movies to watch, different music to listen to. That’s kinda how I was exposed to [Japanese] culture.”
Berhana’s kaleidoscopic debut album, HAN, deftly incorporates these different artistic influences. Released Friday, the record builds on the warm and woozy soundscape that defined his breakout single, “Janet,” and his 2016 self-titled EP. Berhana recorded both while working at Robataya, and the restaurant shows up in HAN, too. “The recording you hear at the end of ‘Golden,’” he explained, referencing the album’s first, stellar full-length track, “that’s a small sliver of the chant that they made us do every day when we walked in. I recorded it when I was working.” The audio blends organically into the track not just because of the production surrounding it, but also because of Berhana’s deep attachment to the chapter of his life that it represents.