By Raghav Raj
Arts & Culture Editor
There’s something so spectacular, so sacred, so sublime in watching the great Hailu Mergia work his hands around the keys. The legendary Ethiopian composer, bandleader, and multi-instrumentalist speaks gently, and he moves with all the patience you’d expect from a 77-year-old. Whether he’s playing the organ, accordion, or his melodica, he breathes beautiful life into his instrument, imbuing every crevice with warm streams of light, locking into the grooves of his backing band, sending brilliant little filigrees into the stratosphere as his fingers glide along the keyboards.
Mergia’s story is a long, fascinating one, and it’s worth repeating: in the 1970’s, as the moonlight years of Haile Selassie’s constitutional monarchy gave way to a coup and subsequent military dictatorship rule under the Derg, he was a fixture of the famed Walias Band, which built its reputation playing shows in Addis and had grown into arguably the most popular band in the country. In 1981, the Walias Band went on tour in the United States; instead of returning to the dictatorship in Ethiopia, Mergia stayed with three other bandmates in the US, formed a new group called the Zula Band, and studied music at Howard University before stepping away from performing in 1991.
In the years afterwards, Mergia opened a restaurant with friends in the Ethiopian community in DC, reconnected with an old lover from Ethiopia — his now-wife, who answered the phone when I called him — and later bought a taxi cab, which he drove for over two decades. In 2013, Mergia got a phone call from Awesome Tapes From Africa founder and label head Brian Shimkovitz, who had stumbled upon a cassette that Mergia had recorded with the accordion while studying music at Howard in 1985 called Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye. He wanted to reissue it with Mergia’s permission, and asked if Mergia was interested in playing music again. Mergia said yes, and the rest was history.
The resurgence of his musical career is something that Mergia views with deep, profound gratitude. It was crystal-clear during that blissful Saturday night performance in Oberlin’s Dionysus Disco, as a packed crowd of students, locals, and community members from the greater Cleveland area huddled together to escape the cold and experience the man’s music, Mergia beaming with genuine delight as every song was punctuated with raucous, adoring applause. With his frequent collaborators in tow (Kenneth Joseph on the drums, Alemseged Kebede on bass), Mergia played an invigorating set that spanned the breadth of his discography, drawing from early works like the title track of his fan-favorite 1978 record with the Dahlak band, Wede Harer Guzo (which spurred the crowd into a joyous sing-along), as well as late-career highlights from 2018’s Lalu Bela and Yene Mircha, an album that dropped right as the pandemic arrived in March 2020. A couple days before the show, I had the privilege of sitting down with Mergia over the phone to discuss performing during Ethiopia’s military dictatorship, finding a home in America, the music that inspires him, and more.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You got your start in the Walias Band, which was the biggest band in Ethiopia during those ‘Swinging Addis’ years. What was the nightlife like back then?
It was nice! We had a good time. Every time we had a show, we really enjoyed playing music for the hotel. We were actually playing in different places, the Walias Band, until finally we stayed in the Hilton Hotel for a long time. We always enjoyed playing music, and like any other life, we were having fun.
Whenever we played, we always had a nice crowd. People were coming there to enjoy the music, just like the normal nightlife in other places. We didn’t really have special things, but we were just doing our job, and people really enjoyed it.
During this time, you worked with Mulatu Astatke — what was that experience like?
Honestly, I didn’t really play in the band with Mulatu. He was my friend. He used to come and we used to meet every now and then, and we just did some recordings in general. He was not playing with Walias Band, but we had a good time! We love each other, and we still are in contact even now.
In 1974, the revolution happened in Ethiopia, and the Derg took over. What was that experience like, both in your music and in your life, when all those things suddenly changed?
Well, because we used to play in the Hilton Hotel, we were playing the same kind of music that we used to play before the revolution. It didn’t make that much difference to us, and we still kept playing the latest music because most of our crowd in the Hilton was tourists and diplomats. People came from different countries, and they wanted to listen to Ethiopian music, as well as different kinds of music, so we were always playing standards, blues, soul music, and jazz. Because of that, as I saw it, I didn’t really see that much of a difference, because we were always doing different kinds of music and people were always coming to listen.
Of course, when you have a revolution, there is some kind of life standard that has changed in the country, I know that. By 12 o’clock, everything had to be closed, and everything was going to be changed. But in the music business, we didn’t really have that many changes. We were just doing what we were supposed to do. Life is different, of course, but we have to do what we have to do.
I saw a video with your song “Anchin Kfu Ayinkash” that said in Ethiopia, during the military dictatorship, if you had words in your music they had to praise the government. The video suggested that your music was instrumental in an act of protest. Is that true?
That music came in 1975. When we made that song with Dahlak Band, we were collecting music from different singers we had heard on the streets. By chance, I just picked up that melody from some singer, and then we did what we did with the song, which is how that happened. So there is no special thing about that song that I know of, but it’s just that people love that song.
I definitely do, and that album you recorded with Dahlak Band is one of my all-time favorites. Can you explain how it came to be, what those recording sessions were like?
For Wede Harer Guzo, I was planning to play with Dahlak Band instead of Walias Band because they were too busy for recording. And, at the same time, I just wanted to have different sounds. So because of that, I started organizing the band to play this music, and we had a different sound, the mix was different, everything was different. I was just trying my best to do something with new sounds.
I read in the liner notes of Wede Harer Guzo about how you took a lot of inspiration from azmaris, these musicians playing traditional instruments in the Ethiopian highlands. Could you expound on those influences?
Well, you know, most of the time I used to hang out at local places, not the clubs or something like that, just local places where Azmaris would play. I could listen to good music because everybody was playing their songs. Everybody had a different kind of sampling, and they always had a lot of new songs. Usually, I’d go out after the bars closed, and just listen to different kinds of music. Back then, I just wanted to have fun and enjoy the music they were playing.
What sort of music do you enjoy listening to?
In the early days, I used to listen to jazz, the big-band era. Sometimes I would listen to blues songs. Practically I just need to have different kinds of music. So from all that, most of the time I stay listening to jazz music. I am still a fan of the big-band era, and I certainly still listen to that kind of music now. I love the old songs, and that makes me happy when I listen to that music.
Were you ever familiar with the work of Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrow?
Yeah, I know about her, but I don’t know much about her. I met her one time, a long time ago, in Washington DC. I don’t know much about her, but the only thing I know is I loved the music that she was playing. I always enjoyed listening to that kind of music. She was one of my favorite musicians.
How did you end up in Washington DC?
When I came to America, our sponsor was from Washington DC. He used to live there, and because he was sponsoring us, the whole Walias Band just came to Washington DC.
DC has a really significant Ethiopian population. Can you explain your relationship to that community?
Well, when I used to play in the Washington DC area, I was having places to go out for relaxation, to listen to music, and whatever. I used to play with my trio for four or five years or something like that, the Zula Band, and sometimes we’d play as a quartet or sometimes we’d play as a quintet. That’s how we used to do it.
I still love living in Washington DC. People are very nice, and I still love the people who live around here, even though now I live in Maryland. But you know, I used to work around different places in Washington DC, and I still really enjoy living with my people here.
I know you drove a taxi in DC for around two decades. What have you gained, if anything, from that experience?
Well, you know, the best part of driving taxis is that I used to have my own schedule. I don’t have a boss, and I don’t have to work for a company because I was driving my own taxi. I could take a break any time I wanted to, usually I did it because I was going out for recording. The main part of driving the taxi is that I have my own schedule, and because of the schedule I loved it. I enjoyed it, because I was making money every day, and I never got broke. Whenever I felt like going out, I’d just go out and make money. Whenever I made money and I wanted to stop working, I’d just go home or do whatever I wanted to do.
I’ve seen videos about how you had your keyboard in the taxi, and how you’d sometimes go into the backseat and practice with it. How has that connection to your music followed you throughout your life in America?
The connection between me and my music is simple. You see, I have a piano at my home. I still have it in my house, and I still practice it. When I was driving the taxi, when I used to work at Dulles Airport Taxi and I got a break, I just wanted to use my time to practice music instead of talking with friends or whatever. So I bought a keyboard, and I just wanted to keep myself busy, that’s the whole thing. It works good!
I wasn’t planning to do anything, but I just didn’t want to go out of business, and whenever I had time, I was keeping myself busy by playing the keyboard. That’s what I started doing, and when I came into this trio stuff, I was ready to play because I was practicing every day.
I want to talk about that experience, because in 2013, you were contacted by Brian Shimkovitz for the Awesome Tapes reissue of Shemonmuanaye that sort of began your musical revival. What was that experience like for you?
I don’t know how to start, but let me start this way. The special thing about that music is that it was a one man band. I did the whole thing by myself, and the story is this.
When I used to play while touring with the Walias Band, when we came to America, somebody gave me an accordion and I just picked it up to try it. When I tried it, it worked good — and before that, it had been almost 30 years since I touched the accordion, even though it was my first instrument. After 30 years, I listened to and played the accordion, and people enjoyed it. But then we started touring with the Walias Band, and we couldn’t play too many songs because of the variety, so we just had fun playing maybe two or three songs.
So because of that, when the Zula Band ends up playing music, and I go to the studio, I just wanted to have an accordion part just for memories to put in my music. I just wanted to put it on because it’s a nostalgic type of music, and so I recorded the song on accordion. When I listen to the music, I love the way the song sounds, so it just started from there. Instead of one song or two songs, I wanted to have the whole cassette recorded, so I just recorded the whole thing by myself, like a one man band.
When we put it on the market, people enjoyed listening to the music. The funny part is that, every time I listen to it, the sound is so great, and I’m never tired of it. I don’t know what I did, but I did a good job. *laughs*
When I talked to Brian after 30 years of playing that music, Brian liked it so much that he released it again after so many years. Since then, people seem to love that music. I still listen to that music, and it’s a good collection of what I did. That’s the whole story about it, there’s a lot of things going on there.
By the way, the keyboard and the Rhodes piano, I still have it at home. I still have the accordion. I still have those instruments with me too.
I want to go back to this one thing that you said, which was that it’s very nostalgic music. And that reminds me of this word that you titled an album after, Tezeta, which is Amharic for memory, nostalgia, longing, and also refers to this genre of Ethiopian music. What does that word evoke for you?
Well, “Tezeta” is the best composition that came to Ethiopia. I don’t know, somebody told me that some guy created the song, and he brought it from the countryside. Forgive me, I cannot tell you because maybe I was not born then.
There isn’t any kind of music, no new creation, in my mind, that comes after tezeta. Any kind of music you listen to, you still have a memory of that music. It’s a kind of well-organized music, simple to listen to and play. I mean, I love the composition by the way, it’s just I cannot tell you more than that. I wish I could tell you, but sometimes, I just don’t have a word for that. It’s very nice music, and I love it.
I guess it’s really appropriate, then, that the very first song on your comeback album, 2018’s Lala Belu, is called “Tizita.” You recorded that album in a trio with Tony Buck and Mike Majkowski, and I wanted to ask: how did you get together with them to record it?
Well, when I came back to music, it was 20 years since I was out of the music business. I was practicing, but I was not recording, I wasn’t playing for a club or something like that. I don’t have any reason, but I was not playing in a club, but anyway — when I started playing music, Brian contacted me about this kind of project, and I said okay, you know, and worked on ideas.
How I got in contact with them was through this group in Germany, because they used to live in Germany. We started having practice, sometimes I go there, sometimes they come here. In general, the whole thing was started with just those two guys, that’s how we started it. After we organized and after our show, we set up a recording, and the first recording was done in London. That’s how the album came together.
It’s a really beautiful record, and I think it’s especially interesting when held up against your most recent album, 2020’s Yene Mircha.
Of course, the recording started a little bit before the pandemic came, and the whole thing came in right on time. The whole idea was to have a new album, because it’s my second album after coming back, so we just decided to have a new album with a new idea, and we just did it. I don’t know how it sounds to you, but I love the music.
I love that album too. Something I noticed is that it’s really collaborative compared to the trio arrangement of Lala Belu; on the first song, “Semen Ena Bebub,” you’re going back and forth on accordion with this masenqo, a stringed single-bowed lute that’s very prominent in Ethiopian folk music. What was that like with all the people you were recording with? What were those sessions like?
Simply, it’s a kind of collision of my music. Every time I’m given a canvas, I just want to try to create some kind of new sound. That’s the whole idea. That’s why I put the masenqo and guitar and horn sections too. Sometimes, I just want to have a new kind of sound.
I want to ask: ever since the pandemic, have you started recording or planning out new music or anything like that? What have you spent your time doing?
After Yene Mircha? Well, I have something in my mind, but I haven’t started working. I just have in my mind what kind of music I’m going to do for next time. I didn’t start the project, but I have an idea on how I want to do things. Other than that, I don’t have anything in my hands.
During the pandemic, I was locked inside, I stayed home like everybody else. I don’t go out that much. Maybe sometimes I go to get groceries around here, but I didn’t go out that much from my area, because it was a rough time. Most of the time nowadays, I stay home, and of course, I practice my music.