Hailu Mergia’s triumphant tale involves years spent driving a taxi. What none of his Washington, D.C., passengers might have known, though, was their driver was one of the great keyboardists to emerge from Ethiopia’s musical golden age. His Walias Band was a dominant force in Addis Ababa’s vibrant dance scene in the ’70s, anchored by Mergia’s looping melodies and funky grooves.
When the group disbanded in the early ’80s after an unsuccessful U.S. tour, Mergia found himself driving that cab, occasionally pulling the keyboard from his trunk on slow days. He began to teach himself how to play the accordion, too. In 1985, he played all the instruments on his first solo album, Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye. That record, reissued in 2013 by Awesome Tapes from Africa, backs bright melodies with drum machines and pungent synthesizers to create an arresting blend of Ethio-jazz and Herbie Hancock-esque future funk. “I really liked it, the mix of those vintage and modern sounds,” he told the Guardian.
After making that record, Mergia fell silent for almost two decades, or until Awesome Tapes from Africa started reissuing his albums. Reinvigorated, Mergia went back into the studio to record Lala Belu with drummer Tony Buck and bassist Mike Majkowski. Mergia “has radically updated an oeuvre that already sounded like the future, and in doing so, he makes it sound contemporary,” Pitchfork raved. Now in his early seventies, Mergia remains a vivacious musical force and an international treasure.