Before setting foot in America, Hailu Mergia and the Walias Band had already spent a decade leading revolutionary Ethiopia's nightclub scene. With raucous sets blending funk, traditional music, and prototypical Ethio-jazz, they played to upper-crust crowds in white tuxes and bowties, at hotels that swerved the country's strict curfew with all-night lock-ins. But local acclaim left the Walias Band hungry, and in 1981, they plotted a U.S.
But what if the subject wants to be hypnotized? Lucky for us, many contemporary musicians embrace hypnotic effects in their music. Highlighting aberrant or alien tones is just one method of inducing trances. Ethiopian music systems, with their various five-note scales, or “kiñits,” act as alternatives to the Western standard and a method for inducing sonic reverie through their blissfully hypnotizing songs.
Lala Belu by Hailu Mergia As the keyboardist for Ethiopia's legendary Walias Band, Hailu Mergia was among the most influential musicians of Ethiopia's golden age of jazz and funk. Following Ethiopia's collapse into civil war and dictatorship, Mergia emigrated to the United States, recording music in between cab driving shifts, only to be re-discovered by non-Ethiopian audiences following a series of re-releases by blog-turned-record label Awesome Tapes from Africa. Lala Belu, his first recording of new music in almost 30 years is both a triumphant culmination of his recent re-discovery by Western audiences and the start of an exciting new phase in his music.
Have you heard the one about the 75-year-old Washington DC taxi driver whose latent career as an Ethiopian jazz phenomenon was resurrected by the power of the blogosphere? This is, of course, the legend of Hailu Mergia: a one-time Ethiopian jazz great and keyboardist in the successful Walias Band (whose popular hit 'Muziqawi Silt' became one of the few examples of the genre to find an audience outside of the country, eventually being recorded by Brooklyn's The Daktaris in 1998). In 1981 Mergia was driven from his home country by a combination of famine, social unrest and the emergence of the Derg, an authoritarian communist regime with an oppressive anti-music agenda. For the better part of the next three decades Mergia drove a taxi in Washington, writing new music in his cab between shifts and recording a few homemade cassettes featuring himself on accordion, Rhodes piano, Yamaha DX7 and drum machine.