by J. Pepper
Master accordionist and veteran bandleader, arranger and keyboardist, Hailu Mergia originally from Ethiopia by day drives a taxi, and at night serves up his brand of world infused jazzy underpinned tunes. Known for his work with the Walias Band, that were wildly popular in the 70s in Ethiopia, a band that also offered refuge with all-nighters for club goers seeking refuge during the curfews that Ethiopia’s Derg government enforced for 16 years, the band was formed by members of the Venus Band, Walias backed up many prominent singers with a hard polyrhythmic funk sound influenced by western artists like King Curtis, Junior Walker and Maceo Parker. In 1977 they recorded one of the few albums of Ethiopian instrumental music in collaboration with vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke, whose role as a bandleader and composer was also a major influence on Ethiopian popular music.
Mergia’s latest offering is out and tearing up the airways. Lala Belu features that same veracious grooving bassline feel with funkified tasty vibes to hit the spot. “Tizita,” kicks things off, with a slow groove that eases you into the album. Mergia’s accordion is front and center and signals the listener to settle in for the ride. “Addis Nat,” is an up-tempo tune with a heavy heaping of band interaction. Flavored with Ethiopian colorizations and funk-jazz explorations, which there is always much debate whether the sounds are African or Middle Eastern, I stand firmly in the belief it is concentric of Ethiopia itself, and such that Ethiopia has its own unique character of sound. Either way, the music is skillfully played and it’s a highly enjoyable tune.
“Lala Belu,” is a joyful sound, it has all the 70s funk qualities that have stood the test of time. The band is playful and interactive, and effervescent. The tune sports an elastic buoyancy with band hits and quantitative stops that give the tune impact and doozie qualities.
Mergia is quoted as saying he jots down ideas while driving his cab to Dulles airport for guests coming into the DC area, he records the ideas then sends them to the band to learn. Thankfully, we can all enjoy the creativity of this hardworking musician, its been two decades since we have been afforded a full-length CD, and it was well worth the wait. At seventy-one years old, Mergia is still on top of his game and as listeners we are the better for it. The album exudes optimism, hope and sheer musicality, all highly regarded qualities within an album, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. You will thank me for it in the end.