It is easy to understand the return of the Hailu Mergia to the world of music as one of the most unlikely comebacks of the last few years.
The keyboardist was a major star in 1970es Ethiopia, presiding over the country’s leading instrumental ensemble Walias Band, which worked restlessly on the Addis Ababa hotel circuit and jamming with luminaries like Duke Ellington and Manu Dibango. In 1981 a good part of Walias including Hailu used the first ever US tour of an Ethiopian music group to escape the dictatorial Mengistu regime. Since then Hailu has been a resident of the Washington DC area, spending most of his recent years as a cab driver at the capital’s Dulles Airport and playing only privately.
Enter Brian Shimkovitz, operator of the acclaimed blog-turned-record label Awesome Tapes From Africa, who came across “Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument”, a somehow obscure 1985 cassette, in a music store in Ethiopia, tracked down the old maestro and reissued it: This charming tape has both a nostalgic feel (in its attempt to revive the accordion, once East Africa’s leading instrument before electrified “western” rock style instrumentation took over) as well as a futuristic dimension (recorded by the exiled Hailu all by himself in multi-track it features a host of synthesizers and drum machines). On the back of Shimkovitz’ reissue, Hailu started to play live again in 2013, exploring the deep, liquid and hypnotic qualities of his music, while not forgetting to throw in some defty bits of funk now and then.
Hailu Mergia’s recent concert history includes festival appearances at Field Day in London, Villette Sonique in Paris, Austria’s sympathetic Konfrontationen and Hamburg’s Überjazz as well as club shows pretty much all over Europe from Lisboa to Helsinki.
In October 2014, Awesome Tapes From Africa reissued Walias Band’s “Tche Belew” (1977), the much sought after holy grail of Ethio Jazz which has been selling on eBay for astronomical sums up to 4.000 US $. This album became revered by record collectors around the world particularly due to stand-out track “Musicawi Silt”: With its unique groove and angular melody, this is one of the most seminal tunes in the Ethiopian popular music canon and has been covered numberless times.
An other so far obscure gem from Mergia’s vast back catalog has seen the light of the day again in June 2016 with the heavy organ jams of Hailu Mergia & Dahlak Band’s “Wede Harer Guzo”, initially from 1978!
Band features Ethiopian bass wizard Alemseged Kebede and the Trinidadian master drummer Kenneth “Ken” Joseph.