Born in Ethiopia and based in Washington since the early 1980s, Hailu Mergia is a legendary keyboard player who was a key member of the extraordinary golden era of Ethio-Jazz that first graced the African music scene between the late 1960s and 1970s. Tche Belew, his seminal record as a leader with the Walias Band in 1977 is fondly remembered as an emblematic masterpiece of the flamboyant style.
In the early 1980s, the Walias Band was one of the first Ethiopian bands to tour abroad. In light of the deteriorating political situation at home, four members from the band (including Haliu Mergia and Girma Bèyènè) defected during a US tour and eventually settled in the Washington area where a strong expatriate Ethiopian community had established.
Now in his 70s and working as a cab driver for the last twenty years, Hailu Mergia had only been performing occasionally. However, the release of the Ethiopiques compilations from the late 1990s onwards and the persistent work of record label owner Brian Shimkovitz of Awesome Tapes From Africa have gradually spurred renewed interest in his music.
Released on 9 March 2018 last on the New-York-based Awesome Tapes From Africa label as a digital download, CD, cassette and vinyl LP, Lala Belu is the musician’s first record in twenty years.
Awesome Tapes From Africa
An ethnomusicologist and DJ turned music producer from New-York, Brian Shimkovitz originally set up Awesome Tapes From Africa (ATFA) in 2006 as a blog dedicated to showcasing a rich archival catalogue of forgotten or obscure African music locally produced and released on cassette tapes. Gathered from regular trips to the four corners of the African continent, visits to record shops in cities with vibrant African communities or from private donations, the cassette tracks were then transposed to a digital mp3 format and published on the blog.
It was during one of those trips that Brian Shimkovitz came across Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye, a cassette originally recorded in the US in 1985 and released on an Ethiopian label. It features Hailu Mergia as a one man band revisiting an Ethiopian folk and popular repertoire on piano accordion, Rhodes electric piano, Moog synthesiser and drum machine.
At that stage, ATFA had already morphed into a record label. As he does with many of the artists featured, Brian Shimkovitz tracked down the musician and a long-lasting friendship ensued. The re-release of Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye on the label in 2013 as a double LP, CD, cassette and download immediately revived the musician’s international career. He has been touring again ever since.
Released on the Paris-based Buda Musique record label and now comprising of 30 volumes, Ethiopiques is a landmark archival series launched in 1997 by music producer Francis Falceto. The meticulously documented world-music compilations have been instrumental in broadcasting the style to an international audience and in introducing Ethio-Jazz to younger generations.
The inclusion in 2003 of the 1977 hit “Musiqawi Silt” in Ethiopiques Vol. 13 certainly cemented the status of the Walias Band as one of the most influential combos on the Ethiopian music scene. The track is taken from the now classic Tche Belew, an out-of-print collectible LP at the time whose second-hand copies were fetching astronomical prices at auctions.
Featuring a 9 piece band (including Hailu Mergia on organ, Girma Bèyènè on piano and legendary Mulatu Astatke on vibraphone) alongside three backing vocalists, the record is an infectious fusion of Ethiopian pentatonic folk music, jazz, Afrobeat and African-American funk. Hailu Mergia and the Walias’ Tche Belew was also re-released in 2014 on the ATFA label.
Recorded as a jazz trio, Lala Belu features Hailu Mergia on accordion, analogue synthesisers, piano and melodica, Tony Buck on drums and Mike Majkowski on double bass.
Echoing his previous one-man band releases and serving as an epitome of the pianist’s career to date, the album is introduced by “Tizita”, a traditional Ethiopian song which sees the musician improvise on the piano accordion, piano and synthesiser over ten minutes and three different time signatures.
Tunes like the self-penned “Addis Nat” or the traditional “Gum Gum” bring back to the fore Hailu Mergia’s inimitable swing and virtuosity on the keyboard (and melodica). Underpinned by a top notch rhythm section, Lala Belu is first and foremost a soulful jazz album replete with memorable themes and polyrhythms.
Closing the album is the exquisite “Yefikir Engurguro”, a moving solo piano original reminiscent at times of the extraordinary piano compositions of Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (Ethiopiques Vol. 21 – 2006). And there are two more hidden tracks on the CD version of this remarkable release. Usually committed to reissues only, this is the first time the Awesome Tapes From Africa label deviates from its original mission and publishes new material. A fitting companion to his compatriot Girma Bèyènè’s 2017 return to the recording studio with Akalé Wubé on Mistakes on Purpose (Ethiopiques Vol. 30).