Legendary Ethiopian musician enjoys career resurgence

Hailu Mergia
Hailu Mergia Photo by Piotr Gruchala

Hailu Mergia to visit Twin Cities on Oct. 26

Hailu Mergia, a 71-year-old Ethiopian organist and accordionist, is enjoying a career revival of sorts in the U.S. Once a popular figure of the ’70s Ethiopian nightclub scene, Mergia first came to the U.S. as a member of the Walias Band, serving up a heady cocktail of Ethio-jazz with a splash of funk.

After the band dissolved, Mergia remained in the U.S. and settled in Washington, D.C., where he found work as a cab driver. He never lost his love of music, however; he’d still compose in his spare time. Thanks, in part, to the 2013 re-issue of his earlier works by Brian Shimkovitz of the Awesome Tapes of Africa label and blog, Mergia’s career began to flourish again. The renewed interest also led to the release of his most recent offering, the critically acclaimed LaLa Belu.

Mergia is now bringing his sound to the Twin Cities with a live performance at the Cedar Cultural Center presented by the Cedar and the Walker Art Center. We spoke to the legendary musician in advance of his Oct. 26 performance.

An excerpt of the conversation appears below.

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder: You’ve lived in the U.S. since touring here in the ’80s, right? What made you stay?

Hailu Mergia: Yes, I came here with the Walias Band, which is a famous band in Ethiopia, in 1981. Well, after we had a tour in the States and after three years, some [band members] went back home and some stayed here.

Me, Moges [Habte] and Tamiru [Ayele] then formed the Zula Band in 1984 and separated in 1991. Y’know, I was planning to stay for only five years and then go back… But I stayed instead, and I’ve been here for over 30 years! [Laughs]


MSR: And then you found work as a cab driver in D.C.? What drew you to that line of work?

HM: Yeah, I started driving a cab in 1998…  After the [Zula Band] separated, I was involved in the African nightclub business for seven or eight years and then, after that, I went into the taxi business.

My reason to drive a taxi is, for one, I just wanted to have my own schedule. If I want to practice or do some recording, whatever in my private life, as a cab driver I can have my own schedule.

At the same time, y’know, instead of waiting for check payment for two weeks or one week or a month, I can have money every day and I go out any time to make some money. That’s how I started it. It’s a very interesting job, anyway.


MSR: Being an artist and being a cab driver both give you a certain independence.

HM: Yes, yes. By the way, I quit driving a taxi [today]. Now I will focus more time on the music!


MSR: Wow, a scoop! [Laughs] So, Lala Belu was released in March of this year. What does the album title mean to you?

HM: “Lala Belu” in Amharic [most popular Ethiopian language] means “Say la la.” So, the [album] title comes from the [title track] composition that doesn’t have any lyrics. For anybody to sing along to the song, they just have to sing “la la la.”


MSR: So, “la la” is kind of a universal lyric to apply to wordless melodies? Is that right?

HM: Yes, that’s it. Perfect. Perfect.

Hailu Mergia
Hailu Mergia plays both organ and accordion Photo by Avery Leight

MSR: There are elements of funk on this album, like on “Gum Gum”…

HM: It’s [pronounced] Goom Goom. [Laughs]


MSR: Ah! Goom Goom. That song had shades of funk. The album also has elements of jazz. Who or what do you enjoy listening to?

HM: Well, most of the time, I listen to organ players like Jimmy Smith. Also, old big-band era jazz music and African music and reggae. Any kind of music I will listen to, but most of the time, I listen to Jimmy and big-band era music.


MSR: I was struck by the closer, “Yefikir Engurguro.” It’s a very sparse, piano-driven piece, almost a little sad and sentimental.

HM: It is. Well, you know, the title of that song means like a love song. I composed the melody for my friend Tilahun Gessesse to sing with lyrics. He passed away before he sang it. He was very famous in Ethiopia — one of the best singers.

So now I play it on piano in memory of him. Then the label guys Brian [and others] thought it should go at the end of the album.


MSR: Have you ever played in the Twin Cities before?

HM: No, I’ve never played there. This will be my first time.


MSR: What can Twin Cities’ audiences expect to hear, or what do you hope they take away from seeing you live?

HM: Well, one thing, I think they will love the melodies that we play, and at the same time, most of my music is funk and kind of groovy music. We play almost like a dancing kind of music. So, I hope they will enjoy this combination. I hope people just listen to the music and if they like it, just have a good time.


MSR: Anything else you’d like to add?

HM: I’d just like to say thank you to the audience who likes to listen to my music. And thank you to the media for inviting me to discuss my music. I really appreciate the support for the show.


Hailu Mergia, along with the Yohannes Tona Band, will play the Cedar Cultural Center located at 416 Cedar Ave., S., in Minneapolis on Oct. 26 at 8 pm. Tickets are $20-25. For ticket info, visit bit.ly/HailuMergiaOct26.

For more info on Hailu Mergia, visit hailumergia.bandcamp.com or @HailuMergiaOfficial/Facebook.