Leave it to Hailu Mergia, a musician of high aptitude and unflinching self-belief, to make an album like Lala Belu, a freewheeling odyssey of accordion solos, anthemic sing-alongs, and acoustic piano pieces. Throughout the album, the Ethiopian virtuoso combines a host of musical interests with both vibrancy and skill.
Stripped to the most basic description, Lala Belu could be reasonably pitched as an Ethio-jazz record—its songs are full of vivid hi-hats, twinkling keys, and it emphasizes freestyle expression. But that would be like telling Romeo and Juliet by just running through the first act. Over six songs, the 71-year-old Mergia asserts himself as a master composer and arranger. It’s almost impossible to believe that it’s his first new album in about 30 years. Then again, maybe it takes three decades of storing ideas to put together a piece so packed with creativity.
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A few years ago, Mergia was practically nowhere on the musical map. He was cruising the boulevards of Washington D.C. in his cab, grabbing quick practice sessions on a portable keyboard between fares. Passengers could never have known that half the world away in Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa, Mergia was once a major figure in the music scene.
As a member of one of the nation’s greatest ever groups, the Walias Band, Mergia spent the 1970s behind the keys at The Hilton Hotel, Addis Ababa’s premier inn. For the band it was, essentially, a corporate gig; every night, they’d perform their polyrhythmic funk to entertain guests.
“We had two kinds of crowds,” explains Mergia, speaking over the phone from D.C. “One was like a tourist crowd, a diplomats crowd who were eating dinner from 7 o’clock until 10 o’clock. We’d play—for that kind of crowd—different international music, like blues or jazz, anything. Then after 10 o’clock, we’d play, until closing, a dancing program, which was soul music, different Western music, and also American songs. The experience I had with the Walias Band was great. Of course we played long hours, but we were happy to do it.”
“I think six days [a week], we’d play a long set, but we enjoyed it,” adds Alem Kebede, who was never an official member of the group, but enjoyed a short stint playing alongside the Walias Band and later reconnected with Mergia in D.C. “Those guys, in those days, were the best in the country. The Walias Band, I was so happy to join them.”
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Following a 1974 revolution, Ethiopia was controlled by the oppressive and often brutal Derg government. Most of the popular music groups of the day were operated by the state: the Police Orchestra, Imperial Bodyguard Band, Ethiopian Army Band, Hager Fikir Theater Band, National Theater Band, City Hall Theatre Folkloric Group, and others. Meanwhile, the Walias Band blazed their own path by organizing their own contracts and maintaining control of their instruments. Along with their hotel residency, they recorded 45s with some of the nation’s most popular singers of the day, including Getachew Kassa and Alemayehu Borobor. Mergia was also laying his own music down on tape. When he wasn’t performing more Western-infused music to satisfy paying guests at the Hilton, Mergia was “doing his own instrumental…classical music,” Kebede says.
After a decade of thrilling Addis Ababa’s nightlife, the band voyaged to the U.S. to accept a residency at Washington, D.C.’s since-closed Ibex Club. They also embarked on a national tour, performing for Ethiopian diaspora communities that had fled a bloody civil war that broke out in 1974 and lasted until 1991.
“The tour came up with one of our friends who invited us to have [one] in the United States,” Mergia says. “We were really excited to go for a tour because we played in Addis [Ababa] for a very long time. So when we got this chance, we had to take it.
“We came to Washington, D.C. to perform for almost two years,” he continues. “We didn’t have any reasons, we just had to take the contract, and that’s how we came.”
The Walias Band fractured after those two years. Some members returned to their homeland, while the other half decided to etch out new lives for themselves in the U.S. Mergia eventually signed up for classes at Northern Virginia Community College and studied music at Howard University. In 1985, he recorded a dreamy solo record called Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye. His musical activity eventually slowed to a trickle, presumably as life got in the way.
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An Immediate Understanding
As fate would have it, an opportunity for an artistic resurgence came together when Awesome Tapes From Africa head Brian Shimkovitz picked up a copy of Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument during a trip to Ethiopia. Initially founded as a Brooklyn-based website in 2006, Shimkovitz used Awesome Tapes as an outlet to share old music he had dug up on cassette tapes. In 2011, he transitioned the site from a blog to a fully-functioning record label.
Searching for cassettes in Bahir Dar, a city in northwestern Ethiopia, Shimkovitz stumbled upon an old copy of the album. “I went to a music and electronics shop and I found that they didn’t sell cassettes but they had a few left in the back,” Shimkovitz says. “And so, he went to the back and brought some and he played some of them for me. This was one of the ones that he only played for a few seconds and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s great, throw it in the pile that I want to buy.’”
Packed with the rest of his haul, Shimkovitz brought the cassette back to Berlin, where he was living at the time. Once home, he spun the cracked, popping magnetic tape two or three times without stopping. Mesmerized by the grooves, the young indie impresario jumped online and soon came across a personal Blogspot page that Mergia had made. On his profile was a cellphone number. “I just called him then and there,” remembers Shimkovitz.
That initial unsolicited call instantly opened up the possibility of Awesome Tapes From Africa reissuing the record and Mergia returning to the stage to promote it. According to Shimkovitz, he “didn’t make any big promises,” but the pair forged an immediate understanding.
“I had only been doing the label a year and a half maybe, but it sounded exactly like the kind of music that was part of my mission with Awesome Tapes from Africa, which is surprising but relevant things from all over Africa,” says Shimkovitz. “So I was really surprised that his music sounded very Ethiopian but very otherworldly and completely distinct from anything else I had heard during the months I was in Ethiopia listening to music very closely.”
Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument was reissued in 2013. It was followed by the Ethio-jazz record Tche Belew, an instrumental album first released by Mergia in 1977, and Wede Harer Guzo, from 1978. As his resurgence began to pick up pace, the story of the elderly, cab-driving Ethiopian legend had enough of a hook to gain traction among media outlets. The New York Times reviewed Mergia’s very first post-resurgence show, which took place at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Washington Post picked up his story, too. True to that initial conversation with Shimkovitz, the surge of interest in Mergia’s music—this time from Western kids thirsty for old African reissues—led to tours of the U.S. and Europe.
“He embraced this opportunity,” says Christoph Linder, Mergia’s booking agent. “He was very much waiting for this opportunity and he totally embraced it. It took a while for him to gain self-confidence in terms of playing in front of audiences. Tony [Buck], the drummer, said on the first tour we had to almost force Hailu to play a 16-bar solo. On the next tour, it was hard to stop him playing a solo after six minutes. So he really found his role again very quickly.”
Mergia had been accustomed to being flanked by hoards of musicians. The Walias Band would frequently be stacked with a rhythm section, keyboards, horns, singers, guitars—all kinds of stuff. But for financial and logistical reasons, his new touring band was cut down to just three members—drummer Buck and double bassist Mike Majkowski. As Linder puts it, Mergia was “a bit skeptical about [the smaller setup] in the beginning,” but began to enjoy the challenge.
“He’s not the greatest showman alive,” Linder says. “He’s a very shy, very humble person, but the quality of the music is just outstanding.”
As far as more reissues from Mergia’s canon being released in the future, Shimkovitz thinks it’s possible. “I haven’t heard all his records,” the label head says. “He’s still digging tapes out of his closet.”
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A Combination of Everything
Mergia knew what he wanted when he set foot in the studio to record Lala Belu. According to the star, the idea to create a new album was partially powered by Shimkovitz and Linder, but only one man was truly behind the controls. Lala Belu builds on Mergia’s much-loved reissues while still sounding fresh and forward-thinking.
“From all the albums that I had before, this has a different sound,” says Mergia. “This has a mix of the acoustic sound and brass and synthesized sound, accordion, harmonica, choir… It’s a combination of everything. So this one is a little bit different than all the things I’ve done.”
“He just went in and did it how he and the band wanted to do it,” adds Shimkovitz, who claims his only real input into the record was assembling the tracklisting. “When I asked him what the general conceptual thrust of the record is—and what he wants his next record to also be—in both cases he wants diversity and a holistic breadth to his sound.”
He continues, “This is very different music than what he was making 20 years ago or 30 years ago. That’s a sign of a person who’s vital and is evolving and still has something to say, which is neat.”
No track connects past and present like “Tizita.” A traditional song with a 75-year history, Tizita is also the name of a scale, comparable in the West to the blues. Mergia has been performing the number for years, but recording this version, he added a new swing section. “I wanted to keep the old system, which is the old rhythm and old accordion, but at the same time, when I used to play with The Walias Band, we used to play this song with only two rhythm section, which is the slow part and the funk part,” he says. “Now, I just added up the swing section, which is a new idea. And now when you listen to this music, you have three kinds of rhythms in one song. To me, it’s a new idea to put it on this melody.”
The title song is a new composition that features the rare sound of Mergia on lead vocals as he unleashes a catchy chant. It might be the most anthem-style number in his whole catalog. “When I composed [it], I put it like a song without lyrics—anybody can sing that song, anywhere I go,” Mergia explains. “That was the main idea, ‘OK, let me compose one song without lyrics that I can play with anybody—with a choir, with a crowd, anybody.’”
The album closes with “Yefikir Engurguro,” a beautiful solo piano piece that Mergia has carried around with him for quite some time. “It’s a love song,” he says. “When you miss somebody, you’re mourning, you think of it.” The beautifully caressed keys are a reminder that as much as his composition and arrangement skills are highlighted throughout Lala Belu, tinkering on the keys alone were for many years Hailu’s sole form of artistic expression.
Today, he still drives a cab, but it’s more of an occasional job now, regularly broken up by tours of Europe and the U.S., which will soon start up again with the release of Lala Belu. It’ll be another ripple in an unlikely late-career return. Yet Mergia thinks there’s a lot more to come. “I have a plan for the future,” he says. “It’s going to take a long time, but first I want to know the reaction of the listeners for this album, then I’ll see. I always have new material anyway.
“Since I came back into the music business, I’ve really enjoyed doing it every time. For me, to [meet the fans] and see the people enjoy the music and enjoy the show, wherever I am, I’ve really appreciated the last five years.”
–Dean Van Nguyen