Hailu Mergia :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

"The sound is good…  the sound is modern and old fashioned. The melodies are very nice melodies, so because of this, everybody had some kind of…. nostalgia."

That's how Hailu Mergia describes the sound of his album Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument, the most recent release on the Awesome Tapes From Africa label. In short, Mergia is a keyboardist, arranger, composer, and veteran of the Addis scene. "Nostalgia" is an apt word–it's the rough translation of the Amharic word "tezeta," which is also used to describe a distinct style of Ethiopian song (articulated in the Ethiopiques series as "blues and ballads"). Like nostalgia, there's something magical about Mergia's music on this record that is hard to put a finger on, difficult to grasp… it's beautiful, familiar, but bearing the disconnect of something past being remembered.

Perhaps that magic has something to do with how Mergia is the sole performer on this entire record. The original cassette of Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument came out in 1985 as Shemonmuanaye, during the early days of drum machines, synthesizers, and affordable home recording gear. The gossamer beauty of traditional Amhara, Tigrinya and Oromo melodies are thickened in a swirling arrangement of accordion, Rhodes piano, and Moog Synthesizer by a lone performer. Now that this album has been reintroduced in the digital age, it's initial conceit of sounding "modern and old fashioned" has grown even more complicated–Shemonmuanaye documents the past, future, past-future, and, as well as the present day. As piece of "past-future," the album jives neatly with Awesome Tapes' aesthetic, the old (bygone cassette music) given a new life (easily downloadable via their blog).

However as a solo, "proto-bedroom" rendition of Ethiopian popular tunes, Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument isn't quite representative of Mergia's legacy as a musician. He performed and recorded throughout the Halie Selassie era and into the more authoritarian reign of the Communist Derg government before eventually emigrating to the United States in the 1980s. Walias Band, Mergia's best-known, funky ensemble held down a badass, nightly gig at the prestigious Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa for nearly eight years, providing full evening programs of "international" music for the cosmopolitan jet set in Ethiopia. AD caught up with Mergia in his taxi in DC, where he operates his own airport car service and continues to makes music. Over the phone, the legendary keyboardist reflected on his lengthy career, innovation and competition in Addis' nightlife, and how his music has played throughout so many episodes in his home country's narrative.

Wallias band :: Musicawi Silt
Hailu Mergia :: Hari Meru Meru

...interview after the jump

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