Hailu Mergia ‘Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye’ (Kaifa, 1985 / Awesome Tapes FROM Africa, 2013)

When searching for pioneers of electronic futurism, how many of us would consider the golden age of Ethiopian jazz-funk to be an obvious port of call?

It was the late 1980s when I first discovered ‘Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument’. How it came to find a home sitting among a collection of R&B cassettes in my father’s friend’s collection, I’ve never understood, but it was certainly a happy coincidence. I guess the same may have been true of Brian Shimkovitz and his US label Awesome Tapes From Africa, whose chance discovery of a copy of the tape in a cassette bin in Ethiopia resulted in a 21st century rebirth for the musician.

Hailu Mergia’s story is a fascinating one. A self-taught accordion player from the age of 14, he circumvented the restrictions of a repressive government in 1970s Addis Ababa to work as a keyboardist playing jazz and funk with the Walias Band at a hotel residency. The band made several albums in Ethiopia and toured extensively in the US in the early 1980s, after which some members returned home.

Mergia formed Zula Band with the remaining musicians and settled in Washington, DC. He recorded the studio album, ‘Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument’, by himself in 1985, and it was distributed on cassette in his home country. He stopped performing in the early 90s and became a restaurateur for several years before ultimately becoming a self-employed taxi driver.

Musically speaking, the album is lo-fi in nature. Despite Mergia’s standing within the Ethiopian music scene and the respect he commanded, there is never anything showy. In fact, the piece could be described as introverted in nature. Many tracks have a similar feel. A drum machine sets a persistent hypnotic pattern, and textures are applied through Rhodes piano and a Yamaha DX7, over which Mergia then solos either on accordion or on a Moog.

The opening track, ‘Shemonmuanaye’, sets the tone. A simple electronic drumbeat introduces a swirl of harmonic layering, immediately invoking a psychedelic feel. ‘Laloye’ follows the template, but to it, Mergia adds handclap time signature variations. On ‘Hari Meru Meru’, minimal loops of vocal accompaniment signpost the track’s Ethiopian folk music heritage.

Central to everything, though, is Mergia’s journey. It’s woven into every beat, bar, chord and melody of this album. It’s a portal between a nation’s analogue past and its digital future, a soundtrack to the possibilities of second chances and, most of all, a shining positive light of Afro-futurism.

I’ve always found music to be at its most gratifying when it takes you on a metaphysical journey, tearing the fabric of a perceived reality and opening a gateway to a reimagining of that same space. In essence, this record is Mergia’s nostalgic effort to recapture a sound from an Ethiopian yesteryear using the instruments of today.

In recent times, I’ve heard the album described as one that Cluster would have created had they been from Ethiopia rather than Germany. I’d perhaps throw in Terry Riley too.

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