An African Funk Pioneer Gets a Second Chance on a Global Stage
GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO FEB. 20, 2018
Hailu Mergia, an Ethiopian piano luminary, has been working as a Washington cabby, but now he’s releasing “Lala Belu,” his first collection of new music in two decades.CreditJustin T. Gellerson for The New York TimesFORT WASHINGTON, MD. — When Hailu Mergia releases his album “Lala Belu” on Friday, it will be this 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.
Until recently, Mr. Mergia, 71, 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, picking up passengers at Dulles Airport and toting an electric keyboard in his trunk. He still drives the cab for extra cash. In idle moments, he hauls out the keyboard and sits alone in the back seat, his eyes closed, improvising.
Mr. Mergia had long given up performing publicly when the 2013 reissue of “Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument,” a mostly forgotten gem from 1985, 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.
On a recent Saturday, Mr. Mergia sat in an easy chair at his home here, describing how he relates to the audience he’s garnered in the past few years. “The idea of ‘Lala Belu’ is, it’s a composition you can sing with everybody,” he said, 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.”
In Ethiopia, Mr. Mergia’s music has never been forgotten. In the 1960s and ’70s he led the Walias Band, one of the country’s best-known groups and a guiding force in Addis Ababa’s freshly invigorated music scene. The Walias Band welded the slanted minor modes and hovering grooves of Ethiopian music onto a wriggling, electrified sound. In it you could hear the funk of the Meters, the Afro-Latin rock of Santana, the Afrobeat blowing over from Nigeria and Ghana.
The band graduated from Addis Ababa nightclubs to a coveted residency at the city’s Hilton, which it held for roughly 10 years. In 1977 it recorded “Tche Belew,” an album that became an Ethiopian classic. But the band broke up in the early 1980s, at the end of its only international tour, and Mr. Mergia settled in the Washington area, home to the world’s largest expatriate Ethiopian community. As the years went on, gigs became scarcer, and in 1991 he stopped playing music professionally altogether.
But a few years ago, Brian Shimkovitz, who runs the small independent label Awesome Tapes From Africa, came across “Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument,” a woozy, synth-laden love letter to Mr. Mergia’s favorite old melodies from back home. (The “classical instrument” is the accordion, which carries the tunes over a bed of drum machines and sinewy electronics.) Mr. Shimkovitz knew immediately he wanted to reissue the album, which was long out of print.
Awesome Tapes is also behind the coming release of “Lala Belu,” a six-track LP featuring Ethiopian traditionals and Mergia originals. 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.
His playing, full of clustered filigree and loosely rendered rhythms, nods toward Ethiopia’s tradition of solitary folk playing, typically on the krar or the masinko, both stringed instruments. (Performing alone, players can stretch out the tempo or tense it up at will, an effect Mr. Mergia conjures even over a steady rhythm section.)
On the album’s title tune, the bass line jounces from major to minor and then back again, as Mr. Mergia skates above it on organ and synthesizer and Fender Rhodes. There’s also a 10-minute cover of “Tizita,” the lovely, waltzing old ballad, which Mr. Mergia eventually dissolves into a fast, fraying surge. The LP closes with “Yefikir Engurguro,” a wistful original played alone on the piano, chords lapping into one another, making a melancholy tide.
Mr. Shimkovitz’s label is dedicated to reissues, and rarely puts out new material. Still, he said, “with someone like Hailu, who’s so good and so inspiring and so vital, it’s worth it.”
Mr. Mergia did not really learn to play an instrument until he was a teenager. Born in the countryside just north of Addis Ababa, he spent his early life as a shepherd. From time to time, he and his friends would build themselves a makeshift masinko, but otherwise the music they knew was largely sung. At 10, he moved with his mother to Addis, and a few years later, he joined the Ethiopian Army band’s youth division.
In the 1960s, a newly cosmopolitan generation gave rise to a nightclub culture in Addis that embraced the influence of Western pop music and Western instruments, while maintaining its own distinctive canon. Mr. Mergia left the army to become a singer in bars and clubs, and he practiced accordion and keyboard on house instruments whenever the band members were away.
Most musicians on the scene moved swiftly from gig to gig, following the promise of higher fees wherever it led and rarely sticking with a single band. But Mr. Mergia and a core of fellow musicians had a different idea. In 1962, once he had taken up the keyboard, he and four friends started the Walias Band as a collective endeavor. The group paired covers of the Beatles and James Brown with takes on popular Ethiopian songs culled from the radio. Its molten, strutting sound quickly made it a known commodity on the Addis scene.
The group members pooled a fraction of the money from their performance fees and bought their own instruments — rather than relying on clubs to provide them, as almost everyone did then. When the owner of the Venus Club in Addis tried to hire Mr. Mergia away from his gig at the Zula, he responded that the whole group would have to come as a unit.
“The club owner was really happy,” Mr. Mergia said. “It had never happened like that. He said, ‘Who is the bandleader?’ I told him, ‘I’m the bandleader.’”
The band ascended the ladder of Addis’s night life, eventually becoming the house band at the Hilton. The group stayed there even after the Derg, a Communist militia, took over in a coup and imposed a restrictive curfew on the city, dooming most music venues. In 1981, the band went on a long tour of the United States. Ultimately, half of its members decided to stay there, including Mr. Mergia.
He goes back often to Ethiopia, but he hasn’t played a public performance there since the 1990s. “I want to, but I never get an offer,” he said. “If I get an offer, I’ll go.”
A few minutes after we spoke, he descended the stairs to his basement and started his weekly rehearsal with the members of his touring band. With the bassist Alemseged Kebede and the drummer Kenneth Joseph, he worked briskly through the trio’s repertoire, ironing out kinks as they prepared for an album-release show in Los Angeles on Friday.
The rehearsal hit a climax on “Lala Belu,” which the band took at a quickened pace, as if trying to funnel some extra energy into the empty basement. As the musicians played, Mr. Mergia shouted the call-and-response refrain, knowing that soon he’d be onstage again, with a full-throated crowd as his chorus, singing in no particular tongue.
SOURCE : NEW YORK TIMES