Hailu Mergia: The Ethiopian musical genius reinventing music

The story of Ethiopian musician Hailu Mergia is one that moves from the nightclubs of Addis Ababa to an airport in DC. Hailu Mergia, a legend known in his home country, Ethiopia, has practised music for over 30 years and was a member of the acclaimed Walias Band. But he went into relative obscurity after releasing a solo album in 1985.

The keyboardist, army accordionist and synth pioneer spent three decades carving out a national reputation both as a solo artist and a member of the Walias Band, putting out a stream of cassettes along the way, from synth-led Afro-funk to an Ethio-jazz masterpiece.

The Walias Band’s signature track, Muziqai Silt, has been passed between African music heads since the ‘90s, but most of Mergia’s output was largely unknown to the wider world until a few years ago when Brian Shimkowitz, the crate-digger behind the Awesome Tapes From Africa blog, picked up a cassette on a trip to Addis Ababa.

Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument was given a full vinyl and digital re-release in 2013, finally bringing a vital document of Ethiopian musical history to a wider audience.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Mr. Mergia, foreground, led the Walias Band, which gave Ethiopian music a more electrified sound. The group held a residency at the Hilton for approximately 10 years.

Born in Debre Birhan, Showa Province, in 1946 (or 1938 in the Ethiopian Coptic calendar, which is seven or eight years behind) to parents of Amhara and Oromo descent, Mergia grew up imbibing traditional Amhara, Tigrinya and Oromo songbook melodies. Aged three, he moved with his mother to a town near the capital spending his early life as a shepherd. He began playing the accordion at 14 as a boy scout in the Ethiopian army, leaving the military at 16 to kick start his career as a singer and accordion player by fronting various touring groups around the country.

A huge amount of Ethiopia’s popular music stems from its tradition of government-approved bands, or “private groups”, taking up residence in hotels and nightclubs. With the organ as his instrument, Mergia formed the Walias Band at city nightspot Zulu Club in the late ‘60s, recording several albums with the eight-piece ensemble and quickly becoming a staple in the Ethiopian music scene.

The band ascended the ladder of Addis’s night life, eventually becoming the house band at the Hilton hotel, a position which they held for roughly 10 years. The group stayed there even after the Derg, a Communist militia, took over in a coup and imposed a restrictive curfew on the city, pulling all-nighters for club-goers seeking refuge during the curfews that were enforced for 16 years.

A newly cosmopolitan generation of the Ethiopia’s golden age gave rise to a nightclub culture in Addis that embraced the influence of Western pop music and Western instruments, while maintaining its own distinctive nature. Mergia’s contribution to Ethiopia’s popular music was defined by his mastery of the keyboard and the accordion and his talent for re-purposing folk songs into funkier modern melodies. 

Hailu Mergia in 1977.

In 1977, the band recorded “Tche Belew,” an album that became an Ethiopian classic. The album, featuring songs with instrumentals from the ’70s, captures Walias Band at its hypnotic heights, described by the New York Times as “American soul grooves and traditional Ethio­pian rhythms woven together with meticulous melodic trills that still flow from Mergia’s fingers when he practices at the piano in his living room.”

The band, however, broke up in the early 1980s, at the end of its only international tour, and Mr. Mergia, along with half of the band’s members, settled in Washington DC. As the years went on, gigs became scarcer, and in 1991 he stopped playing music professionally altogether.

Until recently, Mr. Mergia was hardly known outside of his home country, where he is seen as a musical pioneer. For most of the past 20 years, he has lived in the Washington area and driven a taxi, a graphite gray Washington Flyer taxi cab in which he spends his workweek dashing to and from Dulles International Airport, and if his passengers happen to be from Ethiopia­­, the ID hanging from the cab’s sun visor might catch their eye.

Ethiopian music legend, Hailu Mergia. Photo: Andreas Vingaard

“Some of them say, ‘I grew up listening to your music! . . . How come you drive taxi?’ ” Mergia said to The Guardian in an interview. “I tell them, ‘This is what I do. I am perfectly happy.’”

In the years he’s spent driving travellers home from their holidays, he has never stopped making music. In idle moments, he hauls out the battery-operated Yamaha keyboard he carries around in the boot of his car whenever he can grab a break  and sits alone in the back seat, his eyes closed, improvising on his music.

Mergia was already living in the US when he recorded the 1985’s Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye. The accordion (the “classical instrument”)’s reedy grooves delivering Ethiopian nostalgia over a bed of drum machines proved irresistible to small independent label, Awesome Tapes From Africa founder, Brian Shimkovitz, who stumbled on it during a trip to Ethiopia. Mr. Shimkovitz immediately went ahead to reissue the album, which was long out of print.

Mr. Mergia had long given up performing publicly before the 2013 reissue of Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument turned him into a cult celebrity among music obsessives across the globe, and set him off on tours of the United States and Europe.

He has kept up a consistent schedule of international performances ever since.

Mr. Mergia keeps a keyboard in the trunk of his cab, sometimes improvising during down time. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Hailu Mergia’s new album Lala Belu released February this year, is the Ethiopian piano luminary’s first collection of new music in two decades. And it will be his first ever aimed largely at a worldwide audience with the Awesome Tapes label also behind the release of the six-track LP featuring Ethiopian traditionals and Mergia originals. 

“The idea of Lala Belu is, it’s a composition you can sing with everybody,” he said to The NewYork Times, referring to the new album’s title track. “It’s simple. No Amharic lyrics, no English lyrics. Just ‘lala.’ Whenever we have a show, we just play that song, and everybody’s singing with us.”

The album features a 10-minute cover of “Tizita,” an old ballad which eventually dissolves into an intensifying surge, and the song after which the album is titled nodding towards Ethiopia’s tradition of solitary folk. The LP closes with “Yefikir Engurguro,” an original played alone on the piano, sounding off melancholic notes.

This is the first album Mr. Mergia has recorded with all non-Ethiopian accompanists (the bassist Mike Majkowski and the drummer Tony Buck are from Australia), but it’s not a hard departure from the approach he and the Walias Band established in the 1960s and ’70s.

Hailu Mergia at home. Photograph: Sait Serkan Gurbuz for the Guardian

“You have to love it, what you are doing,” he says. “If you have a tension when you do it, you [won’t] know how to play what you know. Music has to be fun.”

In Ethiopia, Mergia’s music has never been forgotten. The Walias Band certainly made its mark on Ethiopian music and in it you could hear the funk of the Meters, the Afro-Latin rock of Santana, the Afrobeat blowing over from Nigeria and Ghana.

Mergia still visits Addis Ababa regularly. “When I go back people don’t always recognise me, but as soon as they realise who I am they usually show me respect,” he says, “and that makes me happy.”

And what about the next generation of Ethiopian musicians who have grown up in his shadow? “I like their melodies, and most of the time they use the synthesiser, which of course I like. They work very hard and they’re trying their best to improve Ethiopian music, so what’s not to love?”