In 1977, Hailu Mergia and his band the Walias released Tche Belew, an album of polyrhythmic, funky instrumentals that laid bare the turmoil and political unrest of the times over two groove-driven jazz sides. At the time, instrumental albums were uncommon, but despite the absence of lyrics, it was still censored, with Derg officials demanding a song be removed before its release. The artistic invasion was a portent of things to come. Within months, the radio station where Mergia and his band recorded was taken over by the insurgent government and used to transmit propaganda.
Mergia and his combo made efforts to eschew government patronage, playing in non-government-supported venues. In the early ‘70s, the Walias Band landed what would become an eight-year residency at the Hilton Addis Abba. This was the peak of professional success for an Ethiopian musician at the time, but with it came artistic concessions in the name of commercialism and crowd-pleasing. The diplomats and wealthy tourists weren’t interested in local fare; they wanted jazz standards, soul medleys, or pop tunes from their homelands.
After touring the U.S. in the ‘80s, Mergia and other members of the band settled here. Mergia found work as a cab driver in Washington, D.C., learning to take advantage of the stops and starts inherent in the trade, playing and composing on his keyboard in between fares. Until a few years ago, he hadn’t performed publicly since the ‘90s. He had lived a relatively private life, without recording — for two decades. Until 2018, when his solo return Lala Belu, was released by the stalwart Awesome Tapes from Africa label.
“Lala Belu was my first album after maybe 15 years, or close to 20 years,” Mergia says over the phone, speaking from his home in Fort Washington, Maryland. “So because of that, it was a new kind of coming back sound.”
Since that last recording session, Mergia has kept himself busy. His trio played more than 40 shows in 2019, he practiced keyboard during snatches of free time, and, of course, he composed. For Mergia, there’s always a new composition lying dormant — somewhere between the tips of his fingers and the white and black keys — waiting for a breath of life.
Now, two years later, the great keyboardist and accordionist is set to release a new album of large ensemble jazz and soul-infused tunes. It’s the first time he’s recorded such an album since Tche Belew (Lala Belu was recorded with a trio). It’s another kind of coming back sound. Some of the material is newly composed; some of it’s been languishing in the vault for years, and is just now seeing the light of day. Yene Mircha, released March 27, takes Mergia back to his roots as a bandleader, shaping complex arrangements and inciting interplay between different musical gestures and styles.
“The idea is to bring back the influence of the ‘70s sound and mix that with the new sound,” says Mergia. “I think that’s what I’m working with.” On the self-produced Yene Mircha, Mergia is joined by two other stalwarts of the ‘70s Ethiopian music scene: traditional vocalist Tsehay Kassa and saxophonist Moges Habte, a cornerstone of the Walias band horn section. The opening track, “Semen Ena Debub,” which translates to “North and South,” is a rumination on the different rhythms found in Northern and Southern Ethiopia. Two thirds of the way through, Mergia kicks up the tempo with a fiery accordion solo, rendering, in his seamless blend of the two sounds, the geographic binary obsolete.
Of course, there are more than two, or three, or four Ethiopias; and that is part of what Mergia wants the listener to pick up on. The music deliberately eschews time and place. It flits its way across a spectrum of ordered sounds, like Mergia’s hands across the keyboard, like sound waves entering the ear. Arrangement, instrumentation and genre do not float in stasis, they move and gyrate, changing with the times. The title itself, Yene Mircha, means “my choice” in Amharic. “You can do anything with Ethiopian music,” Mergia says. “It shouldn’t be only this sound or that sound. That’s why I called the album My Choice. This is the sound I choose.”
On Yene Mircha, Mergia is mapping out the lineage of Ethiopian music, how he fits into the order of things, and what direction he thinks it’s headed in. There’s a cover of the song “Shemendefer,” by Teddy Afro, “which comes from the new generation,” Mergia says, and songs dedicated to the old generation: revolutionaries and fallen musical idols. Predecessors who laid the groundwork for what Mergia has been able to accomplish. “Bayine Lay Yihedal” was composed by one of Mergia’s favorite singers, the late great Asnekach Worku. Mergia also brings master masenqo player Setegn Atenaw into the fold for “Semen Ena Debub,” as a hearty nod to the instrument’s re-emergence in Ethiopian music.
“This one is similar to the one I did with Walias, Tche Belew,” Mergia says. “This is almost close to that. Close to that kind of sound. Otherwise it’s very different from that one.” Tche Belew was recorded with the whole band playing in one large room over two days. The sessions were fast and loose; some songs were recorded in a single take. On Yene Mircha, Mergia lays down the basics with his trio, then adds more sounds and instruments, overdubbing with various guest players. Consequently, Mergia says, “the whole album has a full band sound. On Tche Belew album. This one has more clear sound.”
While Lala Belu had a strong acoustic sound, anchored by Mike Majkowski on upright bass, this album veers into an electric sound, with bass guitarist Alemseged Kebede filling out the bottom of the mix. This shake up in instrumentation allows Mergia to add texture and direct his band down new stylistic avenues. “I’m trying to bring in different sound from Lala Belu,” he says. “Because in Lala Belu, like I said, it’s just the trio. But on this one, you have horn section on one whole section and guitar on ‘Yene Mircha.’ So this one has more variety sound from the other one. It’s almost like the sound is a little bit different. Because of the instruments that we use.”
Compositionally, this album departs from the lighter touch of the Bossa Nova-inflected material on the previous album. Strains of reggae dance freely throughout Yene Mircha, coaxed into deep, propulsive grooves by the offbeat rhythms of keys and drums. “The audience has to have different kinds of sound,” Mergia says. “Because you listen for 35 or 40 minutes. So it’s very boring if you listen to the same sound, again and again. So it’s for variety, the sound of variety.”
Now, in a late career renaissance, Mergia is finding his voice again, on some tracks quite literally. The instrumental master harmonizes with Tsehay Kassa on “Abichu Nega Nega” and “Shemendefer,” their voices given added body via a small choir generated through studio effects. In Mergia’s world, performing has always come first. He explains: “When you play, you have to play at least some new material. You don’t play the whole thing over and over again for many times. So you need to compose new material and you have to come up with new arrangements. But so, because of that, to me, it’s performing first and then composition and arrangement is second.”
As a bandleader, Mergia, like his musical hero Jimmy Smith, uses his organ to anchor the group’s sound and set the tempo. The large rock in the stream that other players flow around. Like its musical predecessors, Yene Mircha is awash with pentatonic melodies, sturdy basslines, arrays of horns, and vocal harmonies. Mergia propels the music forward at his own pace, soloing, crafting bridges, or backing off completely — a skilled moderator of sounds and moods. On his return to full band recording, Mergia demonstrates the quiet assuredness of his creative genius and his steady position in the rising tide of musical innovation.
So, what next? The answer is somewhere in the distance, a blurred figure fixed atop the horizon line. Mergia is in no rush. He’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it. And things will look different from the other side.
“I’m always thinking for the next time what I’m gonna do,” Mergia says. “Right now I’m composing some new material but I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I know I’m going to bring a different kind of sound from this one, but I don’t know what kind of sound. So I have to wait. Until then, I’ll just have to keep on doing what I’m doing. words/h wheless