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Hailu Mergia spends six days a week driving a Washington Flyer cab to and from Dulles Airport. He’s been driving a taxi for more than 10 years. His customers probably don’t realize the cabbie was once one of Ethiopia’s most popular keys players.
Next week, the blog-turned-record label Awesome Tapes From Africa will reissue an album Mergia released on cassette in 1985, Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument. It’s one of a dozen solo records Mergia recorded over the span of his professional music career, days spent mostly in Ethiopia, where he found fame as an organist and keyboardist in the soul and jazz ensemble Walias Band. Those days are long behind Mergia now; when the group touched down in the United States for its first American tour in 1981, some of the band—-including Mergia—-decided to stick around rather than return to a country in the clutches of a brutal dictatorship.
Four years later, while Mergia played in the ex-Walias Band ensemble Zula Band, he released Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument, an instrumental record dominated by a sound that hadn’t been heard in much popular Ethiopian music for decades: the accordion. Amplified instruments had come along and usurped the squeezebox, which had been de rigueur in the 1950s, Mergia says in a phone call. People have “a lot of memories about the accordion, a lot of memories about the songs,” he says. “A lot of Ethiopians, they love it.” Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument intended to bring the accordion out of retirement. But it wasn’t a total throwback: Mergia recorded it with a Moog synthesizer, a Rhodes electric piano, and a drum machine, piecing together a drifting, meditative, and thoroughly psychedelic interpretation of traditional acoustic Ethiopian music.
Nearly 30 years after Mergia released the tape, in January of this year, Awesome Tapes From Africa founder Brian Shimkovitz came across a copy of the cassette in a music shop in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. “One shop let me listen to a lot, and this was one I liked,” he writes in an email. Shimkovitz set out to locate the artist—-and discovered that Mergia was pretty easy to find. “I Googled him and found his number,” he writes.
After a long stint playing restaurants, weddings, and parties with Zula Band, and about seven years running the Georgia Avenue nightspot Soukous Club, Mergia had mostly retired from music. He guesses that he hasn’t played a gig since 1992 or 1993, around the time Zula Band broke up. Mergia, 67, now lives with his wife in Fort Washington, Md., where he’s been for 13 years. He’ll occasionally park himself at a local piano bar to hear music, but he confines his own playing to “jamming at home or at somebody’s house,” he says. Getting a call from Shimkovitz, of course, was completely unexpected.
Yet Mergia says he misses performing in public. “It’s very hard to let it go,” he says. “I’m practicing almost every day.” Shimkovitz says he’s looking into setting up some live dates for Mergia. Asked if he’d be interested in playing a club in town, Mergia doesn’t pause. “Oh sure, definitely,” he says. “I love it. Why not?” He says he still has plenty of fans in the area—-then his modesty kicks in. “I think I have a lot,” he says, laughing.
The cover of Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument shows a half-smiling, lean Mergia, staring into the camera surrounded by keyboards. He looks like Tom Jones. That was a long time ago, though, when Mergia had more hair. “Mine was, what do you call it, a mini-Afro?” he says, laughing again. Now, he says, “I’m half bald.” He considered shaving it all off, but he decided to hang on to what he still has. He’s not done with it just yet.
Listen to two songs from the reissue below.