Let's start with a little biography. Hailu Mergia is a celebrated Ethiopian jazz musician who was popular and prolific in his home country during the late '70s. He was part of the Walias Band, an absolutely seminal group within the world of African jazz and popular music. They famously collaborated with the father of Ethio-jazz Mulatu Astatke in 1977 for the album Tche Belew, considered one of three instrumental albums that defied the "Golden Seventies" of Ethiopian jazz. By 1983, Mergia had left his former band and immigrated to the United States, where he studied music at Howard University. It was while there that he became reacquainted with the accordion, and instrument that he learned to play during his childhood. It was his reintroduction to this unassuming instrument that prompted him to record his best-known work, His Classical Instrument, a melding of new and old styles, combining compositions he had written for the accordion with modern technology such as synthesizers and drum machines. His Classical Instrument was released on cassette in Ethiopia where it met with considerable success. In the intervening years, Malatu's career in music waned, and he turned to driving a cab around Washington DC to keep a roof over his head. In 2013, Awesome Tapes from Africa label owner Brian Shimkovitz discovered the album while in Ethiopia and contacted Mergia about re-releasing it in the United States. Mergia's music career has been revived as a result, but if you google him today, his occupation will still be listed as "taxi driver."
Yene Mircha (translates to "My Choice" in Amharic), is Mergia's latest studio LP, and follow up to his 2018 album Lala Belu, which received its due from Pitchfork with a score of 8.0 (what can I say, sometimes even they get it right)! The new album sees the seasoned musician reuniting with his old Walias bandmate Moges Habte on saxophone, while Mergia returns to his beloved accordion. If you never thought of accordion music as relaxing or nourishing for your soul, you're in for a bit of a surprise. Opener "Semen Ena Debub" has a swaying rhythm and lovingly conversation interplay between Habte's sax and Mergia's accordion. "Bayine Lay Yihedal" is a piano-led corridor, dripping with suspicion and intrigue. "Yene Abeba" finds Mergia back on the keys, taking us on a jaunty, bluesy William Onyeabo-esque stroll. And last, but not least, "Shemendefer" has a Brian Eno quality to its skipping petaly groove. We should really be so lucky to continue to have new music from this humble legend. You will do yourself no favors by sleeping on this beauty.
Grab a copy from Awesome African Tapes, here.