An innovative Ethiopian keyboardist, accordionist, and bandleader, Hailu Mergia rose to prominence in the early ’70s fronting the Walias Band, an instrumental funk and jazz ensemble and fixture of the Addis Ababa hotel circuit. Immigrating to the U.S. in the early ’80s, Mergia issued a series of homemade solo releases while working as a taxi driver, later rediscovered by the Awesome Tapes from Africa label, whose reissues in the 2010s helped him mount a successful late-career surge that resulted in the 2018 comeback album Lala Belu.
In the early part of his career, Mergia and the Walias Band could be found backing prominent singers and playing lengthy nightclub sets of their own mixture of hard funk, traditional music, and jazz. The group would often play all night in Ethiopia’s capital, catering to a locked-in crowd skirting the revolutionary country’s early curfew. In 1981, they became the first modern Ethiopian group to tour the U.S. and, while major stateside success eluded them, Mergia and a handful of his bandmates opted to settle in America rather than return to Ethiopia under the country’s strict dictatorial regime.
Mergia chose Washington, D.C., as his new home, where he worked as a cab driver, sometimes practicing his scales in between fares on a portable keyboard he kept in the trunk. Over the next decade, he performed occasionally, recording a handful of homemade solo cassettes that charmingly blended jazzy accordion and analog synth leads with electric piano and old drum machines. One of those cassettes, a 1985 release called Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument, was discovered by Brian Shimkovitz, whose archival label Awesome Tapes from Africa reissued it in 2013. Over the next few years, the label unearthed additional Walias and Mergia releases, and the newfound interest led to international tours and the formation of a new Mergia solo band. In 2018, backed by a nimble jazz trio, Mergia cemented his comeback with the release of a new studio album, Lala Belu, which reached the Top 20 on Billboard’s Jazz Albums chart. His late-career renaissance continued in 2020 with another trio album, Yene Mircha. Then, in 2021, the holy grail of Mergia’s canon — Tezeta, his debut 1975 cassette-only release with the Walias Band — finally saw a reissue. ~ Timothy Monger