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Artist Features

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Interview: Hailu Mergia

Hailu Mergia is one of the most treasured performers of Ethiopia’s golden era of music, the 1970s-80s. Back then, his synthesizer-based instrumental take on Ethiopian jazz and funk was one that was admired by his community, and now, thanks to Awesome Tapes from Africa’s reissues, by the rest of the world. Since the re-release of his 1985 solo album, Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument, and the LP re-issue of Tche Belew, Mergia has been gaining traction all over the globe. He’s back again with a third reissue, Wede Harer Guzo – an album that highlights his talent for instrumental compositions.

Awesome Tapes From Africa is a Brooklyn born, LA-based website and label that finds and re-issues obscure African releases from all over the continent, showcasing them for new audiences to enjoy. Mergia told us how Brian Shimkovitz (Awesome Tapes From Africa) found him: “Brian found my cassette on his trip to Ethiopia. I guess he liked it and contacted me from Berlin. We talked about the album and he told me about his interest to re-release my recordings.” On the first reissue from Brian, Hailu merged the local with the west, combining his forward-thinking synthesizer melodies with the traditional sounds of his accordion.

On Tche Belew (1977), he had worked with the up-and-coming Walias Band, whose sound catered to the wealthier Ethiopians and the older expat community. Following this recording, he finally got the chance to produce an album that was driven by his personal creative outlook. With the help of the Dahlak Band, they recorded Wede Harer Guzo (1978) in three afternoon sessions at the famed Ghion Hotel nightclub in Addis Ababa. Besides the crowd they attracted, Hailu highlighted the differences between the styles of the bands and how this reflected on the albums. Dahlak was a perfect match for his instrumental arrangements since they played a lot of soul and Amharic jams, which allowed the members to deliver Hailu’s interpretation of soul and traditional Ethiopian music. Remembering how great it was to work with the Dahlak Band, he noted that he still keeps in touch with the band members who also live in Washington D.C., Hailu’s adopted home.

 

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Wede Harer Guzo was recorded during a period of profound change in the music scene. Mergia recalled the intense competition from the late 60s until the 80s due to the new sound developing in Addis Ababa. “Musicians were forming new bands, for example the Dahlak Band and Walias Band, and the music was so different than what was popular at the time,” said Hailu. He remembered how “most of the other bands were playing traditional, national music that had trumpet and saxophone parts, and although they used organs, they didn’t have a synthesizer sound.” Hailu cited legendary organ player Jimmy Smith as one of his biggest inspirations, drawing him to that Western sound.

Hailu still performs and records music as he continues his job as a taxi driver in D.C. As he mentioned his passion for performing to us, Mergia explained that every show feels very special to him in terms of experiencing a new atmosphere and playing to new people. He frequently appears at festivals and concerts in North America and Europe.

Listen below to Awesome Tapes from Africa’s latest reissue of Hailu Mergia’s Wede Harer Guzo.

 

 

– Yasemin Kosereisoglu

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