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released on cassette, the previously impossible-to-find album was the group's first proper full-length release and was originally made available under its own Ethio Sound label.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.
"You know, it's very sad we don't play anymore like we used to," Mergia says, as he comments about the pandemic's impact on touring and in-person performances. And yet, at the age of 75, the composer-arranger, multi-instrumentalist and producer is still keeping busy. Last year, his second album of solo work, Yene Mircha, was released, following 2018's Lala Belu. It built on the philosophy that runs through his work, harking to a multitude of approaches and responses in Ethiopian music, instead of a single sound.
Hailu MergiaPhoto: Avery Leigh
The re-release of Tezeta (which means nostalgia in Amharic) has been a sonic trip down memory lane for some; for others, it's a new introduction to a set of musicians who had been pioneers before their time. As per Tezeta's liner notes, Mergia and the Walias Band were "the trailblazing powerhouse of modern Ethiopian music," known for putting modern spins on old traditional Ethiopian songs, and for eschewing affiliation to a theater house, club or hotel, instead choosing to perform independently. They were also the first to release full instrumental albums (something considered to not be commercially-viable at the time) and they opened their own studio.
At the time of their Hilton hotel residency, the band became a refuge for music fans to escape the tumultuous period around the 1974 Revolution, when the Derg government overthrew the government of the Ethiopian Empire and Emperor Haile Selassie. They would have to play all night, until 5am, to bypass the government-installed curfew. Tezeta captures the instrumentals they'd perform, but it also captures Mergia's ability to draw listeners in with what would ordinarily be described as background music.
"Wherever I used to go, wherever I used to play, it takes me back," says Mergia. "I have a lot of memories of that time. The arrangement is also kind of new to me because it's been so long since I listened to it, so I really enjoy listening to the music." But rather than go into detail about the memories listening to Tezeta brings back up, Mergia prefers to look ahead. "At that time, it was almost the beginning of the revolution time, and then the revolution came after that. And then because of that, I have done a lot of thinking about what happened back then. A lot of things go on in my mind, which I cannot explain to you, the story, there's too many things, because you know the past is already gone. I don't want to go back and think about it. I'm more worried about the music today, and what music I am going to make in the future."
Tezeta's release comes as Mergia's career has been experiencing somewhat of a second life over the past decade or so, thanks in large part to Brian Shimkovitz of Awesome Tapes From Africa. In 2013 he reissued Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument and has been releasing Mergia's new music too. The reissue was the kickstart Mergia needed, after moving to the US in the 1980s, and the few recordings he made then not quite taking off, Mergia began working as a taxi-driver, but his collaborating with Awesome Tapes From Africa saw the start of a new path,with shows around the country and the world.
"Brian did a great job with the promotion," he says. "I have a new kind of crowd, a new generation coming to my show, and they enjoy my music. At the same time, I enjoy a lot of support from the press and the media and I am happy for that."
"The way I play the music, when I take you back to Tezeta, we were always growing back then. We used to play only the melody part of songs, and then some improvisations. But now, with this new crowd, I play a mixed kind of music -- blues and a swing kind of style. I'm trying my best to play different types of music." That's why, he adds, he embraces learning to play a range of instruments, including accordion, organ, piano and keyboard.
When he thinks about the future of Ethiopia, he likes to talk about it in terms of the music the country creates. ("I don't even listen to the news," he says.) Mergia wants to see younger musicians continue to take up the baton he and the Walias Band held back in the 70s, pushing the envelope of what Ethiopian music could be. "We did a lot of experiments at that time," he says. "People, they loved the music and they listened to it because it's a kind of modern arrangement back then, because nobody was really interested to do that kind of thing. And so because of that I'm proud of it. And I still enjoy it."
In the meantime, he keeps an ear tuned to up-and-coming Ethiopian artists. "I hope the new generation is coming to change the music. I wish I can see that change in Ethiopia," he says. And of course, he keeps practicing and looking forward. "I know I've lived very long. To be honest with you, I don't count [the years]. I just think of today, not the past. What can I get from the past? I don't get nothing from that, just memory."