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In the 1970s, keyboard player Hailu Mergia performed in one of Ethiopia’s best-known jazz/funk ensembles, Walias Band. But after a tour of the United States, Mergia decided to settle down permanently in the D.C. area in 1981, and he (mostly) left his old band behind. Here, he played with another outfit, Zula Band, with some of his former Walias bandmates, and for several years in the 1980s, he also ran a club on Georgia Avenue NW. The club closed and Mergia moved on. Now, he lives with his wife in Fort Washington, Md., and drives a cab out of Dulles Airport six days a week. As of this summer, Mergia hadn’t played a live show in 20 years.
But as Mergia told Washington City Paper in June, he missed playing out, and he’d happily do it again if the right opportunity arose.
That opportunity came after record label Awesome Tapes From Africa reissued Mergia’s 1985 mellow, accordion-laced solo album, Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument, over the summer. Label owner Brian Shimkovitz, who found Mergia’s tape in a shop in Bahir Dar, says he was looking into booking some dates for the musician.
Shimkovitz came through. Earlier this week, Awesome Tapes From Africa announced that Mergia will head out this winter for his first European tour. The short jaunt begins Nov. 28 in Düsseldorf and wraps up Dec. 8 in Leipzig. In between, he’ll play Berlin and Stockholm, among other cities.
Awesome Tapes From Africa has also just released an EP of three Hailu Mergia remixes. They come from Norwegian disco master Prins Thomas, Spanish producer El Guincho, and D.C.’s own Protect-U. (Disclosure: I’m friends with both members of Protect-U.) Below, take a listen to Thomas’ subtle but effective redo of Mergia’s “Wegene”: It retains the heavy-lidded spaciness of the original, but puts its sleazy bass line up front, and lets the accordion slither around further in back. A particularly commendable choice was retaining Mergia’s chintzy drums, which made Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument such a fantastic frozen-in-time artifact.
The EP is available on iTunes and lots of other places.