After finding a Hailu Mergia tape in a shop in Ethiopia, then Googling a phone number to get in touch, Brian Shimkovitz reissued the dreamy, hypnotic 1985 solo album, Hailu Mergia And His Classical Instrument back in 2013 on his label Awesome Tapes from Africa. With it, he introduced the snake charmer synths and psychedelic-kitsch accordion sounds of this legendary Ethiopian bandleader and jazz musician to a whole new young, hip audience. It was followed up by reissues of Mergia’s 1977 beautiful Ethio-jazz albums Tche Belew and last year’s Wede Harer Guzo, built on moody ancient scales and standards.
Mergia, who was working as an airport taxi driver at the time, loved the out-of-the-blue comeback and the opportunity to tour the world, and now at 71, is keeping the momentum up with new writing. In February, Awesome Tapes released Lala Belu, Mergia’s first new album in over 15 years, recorded in London and mixed in Washington DC, near his home in Maryland.
In the 60s and 70s, Hailu Mergia was a famous musician in Africa. But famine in the 80s forced him to move to the US. Now he’s poised for a comeback.
As a young man living in Addis Ababa during the swinging 60s, Hailu Mergia was a superstar. The Ethiopian capital city was a bustling cosmopolis where art and culture flourished amid the country’s uneasy quest for independence.
His jazz and funk band, The Walias, performed for the domestic and international elite at the then-prestigious Hilton Hotel’s music club, which granted residencies to Ethiopia’s hottest bands. Crowds of dignitaries and foreign diplomats, Hollywood movie stars, famous musicians like Duke Ellington and Alice Coltrane, and important African figures like Manu Dibango would flock to the hotel to dance and jam until sunrise.