Sunken Treasure: ‘Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument’

In the rich tapestry of Ethiopian music the name of keyboardist Hailu Mergia is woven large with distinctive golden thread

 

In the rich tapestry of Ethiopian music the name of keyboardist Hailu Mergia is woven large with distinctive golden thread. He was the keyboardist for the Walias Band who were the high kings of the Addis Ababa dance scene throughout the 1970s.

Their hybrid sound was an amalgamation of traditional polyrhythmic melodies and grittier, more modern motifs borrowed from the likes of Maceo Parker and James Brown. The Tche Belew LP from 1977 is the cornerstone of their incendiary sound.

They were one of the first modern Ethiopian bands to travel to the US. Life under the military dictatorship was not easy so Mergia was among several of the group who remained in the US after the 1981 tour. He settled in Washington DC and began studying music at Howard University.

He took up the accordion and for a while he continued to perform live with the Zulu Band but upon their demise real life kicked in and he started driving a cab. From that moment onwards his musical endeavours became a strictly private affair. This is where the story bends to incorporate a fairy tale arc.

In 1983, Mergia decided to write and record an album that merged the sound of his youth with the modern technology that was dramatically altering the musical landscape in the US. It was a step into the unknown.

Here was a virtuoso musician from an ancient traditional form plugging in a drum machine, Yamaha DX7 keyboard and Rhodes piano, strapping on his accordion and concocting a sound of entirely new dimensions.

It’s a deeply progressive meditation on something historical and personal. The hypnotic tunes are soothed by occasional flourishes of gentle songcraft from a voice so warm it could have been stirred up on some savannah breeze aeons ago.

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