Hailu Mergia: A Funky Jewel in our Midst

It reads almost like a great comeback story: Beloved Ethiopian musician rediscovered after 30 years of driving a cab after reissue of old recording resurfaces. Moreover, less than a year after the reissue, the same musician is playing his first gig in over 30 years with a band in his adopted hometown of Washington, DC at the Kennedy Center.

Enter keyboardist/accordianist Hailu Mergia. He landed in DC in 1981 with the hottest and most renowned Ethiopian group at the time—Walias Band—a jazz and funk outfit who held an 8-year residency at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa and included many of the lions of the Ethiopian music scene. One of their only records-if you can find it-fetches some of the highest bids amongst vinyl collectors on Ebay.

The band’s sound was at once gritty, funky, and soulful-a la Maceo Parker and Junior Walker-but also rooted in some traditional Ethiopian rhythms, melodies, and scales that sound evocative and exotic to Western ears. Upon the band’s arrival to the US they toured briefly and played to mostly Ethiopian audiences but dissolved after several members returned to Ethiopia. Hailu Mergia stayed in DC, took some music classes at Howard University, eventually started driving a cab, and dabbling in home recording.

In 1985 Hailu recorded and released a cassette of Shemonmuanaye—later titled Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument—which was reissued by Awesome Tapes From Africa in vinyl and digital formats last summer. The release struck a nerve and was one of the most talked about reissues of 2013. Josh Harkavy, the owner of Red Onion Records in DC, said it was one of the store’s best sellers last year. Perhaps the vintage charm of 80’s-era drum machines, Moog synthesizers, and accordion combined with traditional Ethiopian songcraft and Hailu Mergia’s artistry are what make this release so special.

Hailu describes the release himself: “The sound is good… the sound is modern and old fashioned. The melodies are very nice melodies, so because of this, everybody had some kind of… nostalgia.”

Marty Key, who co-owns Steady Sounds in Richmond, Virginia had this to say: “I just love how hypnotic and in some ways, soothing it is. Every time I play it in the shop it tends to get some sort of reaction from the customers, usually they ask who it is.”

I would wager there’s also a stronger reaction when people find out it was recorded in Washington, DC, but ironically, that’s not where the tape was rediscovered.

Brian Shimkovitz, who started the popular blog and label Awesome Tapes From Africa “as a way to make artefacts available from the cassette based music economy I have encountered around Africa,” was immediately taken when he heard Hailu’s cassette. “I came across Hailu’s tape in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, in a music and electronics shop. I didn’t listen to much of it until I got back to home but the night I listened to it, I played it three times and then googled him. Hailu had a blog with a contact page containing his cell number! By far the easiest time I’ve ever had trying to track down a musician.” Mergia was surprised and excited when he got the call from Shimkovitz.

The excitement generated enough enthusiasm to put together a group for Hailu, at which point Shimkovitz turned to an old friend and Brooklyn-based musician, Nikhil Yerawadekar—Antibalas, Sway Machinery—who had his new project—Low Mentality—ready to take on the task. “Brian Shimkovitz and I have crossed paths a few times over the years, and he contacted me last summer to see if I’d be interested in working with Hailu. I jumped at the opportunity to have my group…play with Hailu because one of my main interests in music is making connections between different places and times.”

At first it may seem strange that Hailu would choose to work with a bunch of Brooklyn musicians but not really if you figure the amount of musical cross-pollination that has occurred in that locale in the past 20 years-plus. Indie labels like Truth and Soul and Daptone have been presenting collections of rare and unreleased African funk since their inception. Hearing Fela Kuti’s music in a coffee shop in Bed-Stuy is about as commonplace as hearing Kansas on a classic rock station. Vintage sounds from Africa and other continents have been rediscovered, reissued, and reworked, spawning countless Afrobeat and funk groups who source their sounds from the African music sonic diaspora.

In fact Hailu Mergia and Walias Band’s version of the Girma Beyene classic composition from 1978 Musicawi Silt is often pointed to as the essence of Ethiopian jazz and funk; a gateway song for any Afrobeat revival group to include in their repertoire.

This Tuesday, February 11 Low Mentality will come down from Brooklyn and back Hailu Mergia for the group’s third live appearance—this time on the Millennium Stage at The Kennedy Center.

It will also mark Hailu’s first time on the stage with a group in over 30 years. He certainly never stopped playing though; practicing, playing, and composing from home and on a portable keyboard he brings in the taxi in case he gets any downtime between shuttling passengers between DC and Dulles International Airport.

We caught up with Hailu Mergia for pithy Q&A before he heads off to Brooklyn to rehearse with the group before the Kennedy Center gig.

What are some of your earliest memories of music and what drove you to playing music? Did your family encourage you to play?

I have loved singing since my childhood. I grew up with my mom. When I told her after I joined the army music department as a boy scout, she asked me, “So you want to be a musician?” When I said yes she was not happy about it, but later on she was ok.

What would you consider your high points of of your time together with Walias Band? Would a Walias Band reunion be a possibility?

My time with Walias Band was great. We played the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa for so many years and had the opportunity to play with so many great musicians and back some great singers. We were considered the best band in the city. We even got to meet and play with Duke Ellington and his big band once. Everybody came to the Hilton in Addis. I don’t think about a reunion of Walias Band but who knows? For now I like playing with Nikhil and The Low Mentality band.

To a lot of Western ears, Ethiopian music—the modes and melodies for example—sound at once exotic yet familiar enough to connect to. What do you think that is?

Maybe some nostalgia but also the mix of the modern and old and there’s some nice melodies in there for everybody. It is good the Westerners like Ethiopian music. But we listened to a lot of Western music. A lot of 70’s music like the funky James Brown and Maceo Parker music. Also Wilson Pickett, Tyrone Davis, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, Oscar Peterson. There are so many!

I have heard that the music scene in Addis is more happening than ever right now and that Ethiopian music in general is more popular than ever. Do you listen to the new music from Ethiopia? What do you listen to at home or driving in your cab?

Yes, I listen a lot of new Ethiopian music from Addis. Most of it sounds good. However, my favorite listening is the cultural music. The folk music of Ethiopia is every interesting. I’m more interested in that these days. It’s very rich, very beautiful. Most of the time at home or while driving I listen to big band-era jazz music on the radio or CDs.

Can you name some musicians you admire and who have influenced you?

I like Jimmy Smith since I started playing organ. I like the way he plays.

How has your immediate family reacted to your recent exposure and attention? Do you have any younger family members who were surprised? I recall seeing a Tweet during the excitement of your last show in New York in January that read, “My stepdad Hailu Mergia stay shuttin NYC down at his shows,” which I thought was awesome.

Yes,  my stepson and all my family and friends get surprised about my exposure.

How have you seen the Ethiopian community in DC change in the time that you have been here? How is it now as compared to 30 years ago?

There is a great deal of change in Ethiopian community in the last thirty years. It’s growing from thousand to thousands every year. It’s amazing. When Walias Band first arrived in DC we were the first modern Ethiopian band to come here. There weren’t as many restaurants. A few maybe 3 or 4. The community was much smaller in those days and now more Ethiopians here than anywhere outside Ethiopia. It’s great.

I can imagine you have driven by the Kennedy Center many times. Did you ever imagine that you would be playing there?

Honestly, I never thought of playing at the Kennedy Center…

Hailu Mergia and Low Mentality play The Millennium Stage at The Kennedy Center For Performing Arts at 6PM on Tuesday, February 11 presented by Multiflora Productions, Listen Local First, and The Kennedy Center.

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