Photo: Avery Leigh

Hailu Mergia On 'Tezeta' & the Future of Ethiopian Music

We sit down with the Ethiopian icon to talk about the re-release of his classic album alongside Walias Band and his hopes for the future.

If there's one thing that's been a constant through Hailu Mergia's six decades of music-making it's his need, no, his desire, to keep his skills sharp. "I never stopped practicing," he tells OkayAfrica, over the phone from his home in Maryland. "Every day, it's constant." Even though his compositions have made him one of Africa's most beloved musicians -- first with the legendary Walias Band, who he performed with in his home country Ethiopia and then his solo albums — he's always been working on his craft. Even when, for a short while, he made his living as a taxi driver in the US.

Earlier this year, in July, Mergia re-released his seminal 1975 album with the Walias Band, Tezeta. Originally released on cassette, the previously impossible-to-find album was the group's first proper full-length release and was originally made available under its own Ethio Sound label. Recorded at the Hilton International Hotel in Addis Ababa, where the group would back big-name artists as the house band, it features nine instrumentals recorded during off hours from performing. At the time of the recording, the band's lineup featured Moges Habte (saxophone and flute), Mahmoud Aman (guitar), Yohannes Tekola (trumpet), Melake Gebre (bass guitar), Girma Beyene (piano), Temare Haregu (drums), and Abebe Kassa (alto saxophone), alongside Mergia's unmistakable organ. Merging jazz and funk and improvising together, they moulded Ethio-jazz in front of the audiences they performed for.

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Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns via Getty.

10 Songs That Tell the Story of Ethiopian Music

Featuring tracks from Aster Aweke, Mulatu Astatke, Alèmayèhu Eshèté, Seyfou Yohannes, Hailu Mergia and more.

This selection of Ethiopian music encompasses new and old: the now world-renowned Ethio-jazz sound of the '70s and '80s as well as subtler, understated sounds and music born from Ethiopia's enduring relationship with its neighbor Sudan. Given recent events that have tested this relationship, it's an important reminder that cultural boundaries need no borders, soldiers, no incursions, no conflict.

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