Hailu Mergia spent the past two decades driving around Washington, DC as a taxi driver. Until Awesome Tapes from Africa rescued the once renowned Ethiopian keyboard player from obscurity. Armed with a new record, the septuagenarian now drives around the world.
When I call Hailu Mergia, it’s 12 September. A beautiful day – for me, but also for him because his homeland Ethiopia is celebrating New Year. “We’re a few years behind, so for us it is 2012 now,” he says from Maryland, a stone’s throw from Washington, DC. Mergia has lived in the USA for 37 years, but continues to celebrate with his brothers and sisters in the Horn of Africa.
“Of course I miss Ethiopia. All of my family members have passed away, but over the past few years, I have tried to go back once a year. If I had enough money. I would love to go back and play music there one day.”
In the 1970s, Mergia cut a dash in Addis Ababa as the keyboard player with the Walias Band, an eight-member gang of all-stars who blended traditional melodies with jazz and funk, and were accompanied by a string of guest vocalists.
“We played at clubs and hotels. We were the resident band of the Hilton Hotel for almost ten years. There were a lot of tourists, and around dinner time we would serve up covers of famous Western songs. Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Gainsbourg. Later in the evening, we would make people dance with soul and funk by artists like James Brown, but we also played Arabic and Indian music, including work by Fela Kuti, as well as traditional Ethiopian songs, of course.”
The ACCORDION of life
The Derg dictatorship imposed a curfew. And so the guests stayed inside while Mergia and co just continued playing. “We sometimes played for twelve hours straight, until six in the morning, when everyone was allowed outside again.” The Derg was a Marxist military junta that overthrew the everlasting regime of Haile Selassie in 1974. For years, Selassie had only permitted military music and state-funded bands, but from the 1960s, Ethiopia went through a cultural revolution.
After a failed coup in 1960, members of the American peace corps landed in Ethiopia and they brought Stax and Motown records with them. Capital Addis Ababa entered its “Golden Age”, with vibrant nightlife and a musical culture that blended Ethiopian pentatonic melodies with western funk and soul.
“The Walias Band performed with singers like Mahmoud Ahmed,” Mergia says. “Until the Derg took power and musicians were no longer permitted to say whatever they wanted. To bypass censorship, we switched to playing mostly instrumental music.”
In 1977, the Walias Band made the album Tche belew with the godfather of Ethiojazz, vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke. “We’re still friends. He sometimes makes guest appearances at our shows.” A year later, Mergia joined the Dahlak Band, which focused more on improvisation. Together, they made the album Wede Harer Guzo, a jazzy collection of instrumentals.
In 1981, Mergia moved to the USA with the Walias Band.
“A concert promoter had offered us a touring contract for two years.” But the great recognition and success never came, and the members of the Walias Band, by then exhausted, each went their separate ways. “Along with a few other members of the band, I decided to stay in the States,” Mergia says. “We formed the Zula Band. We did some touring, but we mainly played at weddings and parties.”
Mergia doesn’t give many reasons for wanting to stay in the USA. “I just wanted to lead a different life.” Away from the violence, away from the regime. He started studying music at Howard University in Washington, DC. While Bob Geldof was trying to do something about the famine in Ethiopia with Live Aid, in 1985 Mergia recorded the nostalgic album Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye all by himself.
It was a bizarre, by turns psychedelic mix of traditional Ethiopian melodies, drum computer beats, Rhodes, Moog, and accordion. “Accordion was very popular in Ethiopia in the 1950s and 60s. I had learned to play it as a fourteen-year-old kid in the youth division of the army, a kind of boy scout organization. I had found one again at university and started playing it. I loved mixing old and new, modern sounds.” The album was the perfect expression of the loneliness and homelessness that he felt at the time.
In the early 1990s, Mergia decided to take his life in a completely new direction. “I didn’t want to play at weddings and in clubs anymore.” He opened a restaurant, but a few years later he became a taxi driver at the airport in Washington, DC. “That was my job until almost a year ago. I liked it. I was my own boss and I always had money in my pocket. But I did of course dream of performing again. And look, now I am a full-time musician and I am touring the world. I am very grateful that that is happening again.”
Mergia owes this change to the American Brian Shimkovitz, whose blog and label of the same name Awesome Tapes from Africa has spent the past fifteen years bringing music gems from the African continent to a new (mostly white) audience. “Brian had found a cassette of Shemonmuanaye in a record shop in Bahir Dar, on one of his trips to Ethiopia. He found my telephone number and called me from Berlin. He wanted to re-release my album, and of course I thought that was fantastic.”
Music was never completely gone in Mergia’s life. During the years that he drove his silver taxi, he always kept a battery-powered keyboard in the trunk of his cab. “Whenever I had to wait for my next customer, I would sit on the back seat and start playing. I still keep a keyboard in my car.” People would sometimes recognize him. “Travellers from Ethiopia who saw my name and photo would sometimes ask if it was really me who was driving them around. And then I played one of the CDs that I always kept in the car.”
Mergia grew up in the countryside between the sheep and goats in Debre Berhan, a village 150 kilometres from Addis Ababa. “I lived with my mother; my father was gone. We moved to the capital when I was ten.” It was there that he joined the boy scouts, from the ages of fourteen to sixteen. “After that, I started singing and playing accordion, and then later, I started playing keyboards with the Walias Band.”
Mergia is now 72 or 73 – he is not sure of the exact year of his birth. At the beginning of last year, for the first time in thirty years, he recorded a new album, Lala belu. It is a modern update of what he did previously: giving the traditional Amhara, Tigrinya, and Oromo melodies he learned as a kid his own new twist. With the accordion but also with swaying synths, futuristic funk, and a touch of Ethiojazz. Like on “Tizita”, a song that everyone knows in Ethiopia.
“It means nostalgia, longing.” Without singing, Mergia is creating his own version of saudade. My Ethiopian is not that good, so he finishes the phone call by telling me what the mysterious title of his new album means: “‘Sing la la la’,” he says with a laugh. “So everyone can sing along.” Okay. La la la! And happy New Year!