Capping several successful years traveling the world performing to audiences big and small, Hailu Mergia's Lala Belu has been a long time coming. It builds on Mergia's remarkable career resurgence over the past few years. Beginning in 2013 with the reissue of his dreamy Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument followed by the enormous success of his seminal Ethio-jazz masterpiece Tche Belew and continuing with last year's widely acclaimed Wede Harer Guzo, Mergia has received considerable accolades from listeners and press globally, including The New York Times, Pitchfork and The Wire. His old recordings are cherished revelations for Ethiopian music fans; however, Mergia's return to the stage has been just as inspiring and electrifying. Mergia's vintage recordings are known for an inherently mysterious and worn-in quality, while his new recordings echo his band's 21st century live show with modern instrumental interpretations of crucial Ethiopian standards and Mergia's own original compositions. Tony Buck (drums) and Mike Majkowski (bass), who have backed Mergia on tour throughout Europe and Australia, form the bass-drums trio on the recording. Having played venues from Radio City Music Hall and the Kennedy Center to jazz festivals, rock clubs and DIY spaces all over North America, Europe and Australia, Mergia and Awesome Tapes From Africa want to document this moment in his landmark career with a snapshot of Mergia's current sound.
Hailu Mergia & Dahlak Band's Wede Harer Guzo is the third release on Awesome Tapes From Africa for Ethiopian keyboard and accordion maestro. In the years since Shemonmuanaye, Mergia has revamped his touring career, playing festivals and clubs worldwide, including a recent tour supporting Beirut. By 1978, Addis Ababa’s nightlife was facing challenges. The ruling Derg regime imposed curfews, banning citizens from the streets after midnight until 6:00 am. But that didn't stop some people from dancing and partying through the night. Bands would play from evening until daybreak and people would stay at the clubs until curfew was lifted in the morning.
One key denizen of Addis' musical golden age, Hailu Mergia, was preparing a follow-up to his seminal Tche Belew LP with the famed Walias Band. It was the band's only full-length record and it had been a success. But his Hilton house band colleagues were a bit tied up recording cassettes with different vocalists. Still Mergia, amidst recording and gigs with the Walias, was also eager to make another recording of his instrumental-focused arrangements. So he went to the nearby Ghion Hotel, another upmarket outpost with a popular nightclub. Dahlak Band was the house band at Ghion at the time. Together they made this tape Wede Harer Guzo right there in the club during the band's afternoon rehearsal meetings, with sessions lasting three days.
Dahlak Band catered to a slightly more youthful, local audience, while Mergia's main gig with the Walias at Addis' swankiest hotel had a mixed audience that included wealthy Ethiopians, foreign diplomats and older folks from abroad. Therefore, their sets featured lighter fare during dinnertime and a less rollicking selection of jazz and r&b. Meanwhile, Dahlak was known more for the mainly soul and Amharic jams they served up for hours two nights a week to a younger crowd.
Mergia released Wede Harer Guzo ("Journey to Harer," a city in eastern Ethiopia) with Sheba Music Shop, which was located in the Piazza district but has long since shut down. His cassette copy is the only known source we could find. Jessica Thompson at Coast Mastering managed to restore the recording to clean up layers of hiss, flutter and distorted frequencies, made worse by years of storage. Although there are some remaining sonic artifacts of the era's recording and cassette duplicating quality, this reissue captures the band's inimitable vibe.
Recalling the audience's positive reaction to Wede Harer Guzo's novel arrangements, he says it sold well and found many fans. However, as no trace of the tape can be found online, there’s no indication as to why the cassette appears largely forgotten until now.
Musicawi Silt is the best known Ethiopian song from Addis Ababa's golden era of 1970s pop music. The insistent drive of the rhythm and the mighty blast of the horns - a sublime, angular burst - are unmistakable. Hailu Mergia's concept for the Walias first LP "Tche Belew" was to include compositions by various band members. Since Girma Beyene, a member of the Walias, wrote this addictive song in the mid-70s and the Walias band began including it in their sets, it has spread around the world, receiving cover treatments by bands of all kinds. The legendary track has never been available in its original form on a 7-inch single until now.
The acclaimed and highly sought-after LP by Hailu Mergia and the Walias, Tche Belew, an album of instrumentals released in 1977, is perhaps the most seminal recording released in the aftermath of the 1974 revolution. The story of the Walias band is a critical chapter in Ethiopian popular music, taking place during a period of music industry flux and political complexity in the country.
Hailu Mergia, a keyboardist and arranger diligently working the nightclub scene in Addis Ababa, formed the Walias in the early 1970's with a core group of musicians assembled from prior working bands. They played Mergia's funk- and soul-informed tunes, while cutting 45rpm singles with various vocalists.
While the Walias performed at top hotels and played the presidential palace twice, their relationship with the Derg regime was complex, evidenced by the removal of one song from the record by government censors.
Decades later, Hailu Mergia was surprised to see the album fetching more than $4,000 at online auctions (it helped that the most popular of all Ethiopian tunes "Musicawi Silt" appeared on the record). Now everyone has the chance to listen again - or for the first time - to this timeless pillar of Ethiopian popular music.
Ethiopian keyboardist Hailu Mergia’s re-emergence on the international scene this year has inspired a slew of musicians and dreamers worldwide. The DC-based taxi driver made his name as one of the key players in the Ethiopian music scene in the 1970s. Following the critically-lauded reissue of his haunting, accordion-and-synth-drenched ode to classic Ethiopian music, Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument / Shemonmuanaye, comes Hailu Mergia Remixes, a digital EP featuring some of Awesome Tapes From Africa’s favorite artists.
Norwegian producer and DJ Prins Thomas’ prolific portfolio of balearic productions and remixes, as well as his celebrated collaborations with LindstrÃ¸m, has captured the world’s attention over the last several years. Slipping his spaced-out perspective into the mellow tempo of “Wegene,” the multi-layered, percussive remix soars while maintaining the mystique of Hailu’s characteristic bachelor pad jazz right-hand wanderings.
Further delving into “Wegene” is the DC-based studio and live duo Protect-U. Aaron Leitko and Mike Petillo (the latter is a co-founder of the critically acclaimed Future Times label), build a cross-generational synth-based affinity with Hailu’s piece, preserving the undulating source groove while transforming the landscape into a futuristic beauty all its own. There is not a harsh toke to be found within the vibe they create amidst the already moody original.
The final remix comes from El Guincho (aka Pablo DÃaz-Reixa), whose continent-blurring XL Recordings releases, production work and remixes for artists including Björk and Empress Of have fascinated Awesome Tapes From Africa for a while now. The Canary Islands native responds to the Amharic standard “Ambasel” with an upbeat wit that pits a subtle dancefloor zone against hissy chill-out room sizzles.
Hailu Mergia is a one-man band.
In 1985 master accordionist and veteran bandleader/arranger/keyboardist released the Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument cassette. In a nostalgic effort to bring back the vintage accordion sound of his youth, Mergia gave Ethiopian music a sonic makeover. Mergia was already celebrated for his work with the groundbreaking, industry-shifting Addis Ababa ethio-jazz and funk outfit the Walias Band, he pressed forward using new tools to retool the popular sounds of the past.
Adding a Moog synthesizer, Rhodes electric piano and rhythm machine, to the rich harmonic layering of his accordion, he created elegantly arranged, hauntingly psychedelic instrumentals. These songs draw from famous traditional and modern Ethiopian songs, as Mergia brilliantly matches Amhara, Tigrinya and Oromo melodies to otherworldly flavors soaked in jazz and blues, synthesizing a lush, futuristic landscape. He balances Ethiopian music's signature melodic shape with beautiful analog synth touches floating upon clouds of hypnotically minimal rhythm tracks.