The accordion never sounded so cool.
Brian Shimkovitz is a New Yorker who searches the world for obscured African music. His record label, Awesome Tapes from Africa, helps to present the music to a wide audience. He first heard Hailu Mergia‘s music from an old cassette in a music store in Ethiopia. A drum machine patterned behind a funky, jazzy, yet distinctly African sound with melodic flourishes of accordion. Sound exotic? To the Western ear it sure is.
The collection was Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument, and it was the last album recorded by the Ethiopian keyboard legend. Shimkovitz was hooked. When Shimkovitz located Mergia in Washington D.C. operating an airport taxicab company he asked about distributing his 1985 album. He also started booking him gigs. The album was reissued in 2013. Now he has a growing western following, eager for fresh sounds. The concept of His Classical Instrument was to merge modern music with songs from Mergia’s childhood. Its hypnotic, repetitive movements led to a resurgence in demand for not only his recorded music, but for live performances.
This Saturday, Seaside Sessions at the North Beach Bandshell the Rhythm Foundation celebrates Hailu Mergia’s Miami debut.
Hailu Mergia found musical success in the ’60s and ’70s as the organist/keyboard player for big time Ethiopian jazz outfit the Walias Band (their most famous song is “Musicawi Silt,” covered by a range of artists from the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra to Secret Chiefs 3). They played at venues in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and eventually got a high profile residency. However, coming to the states proved difficult. They made it work for a while but eventually an attempt at touring proved too much and they disbanded in 1983.
He recorded, His Classical Instrument just a few years later after enrolling in music classes at Northern Virginia Community College and Howard University. The album was a hit in Ethiopia but Mergia retired from music nevertheless, settling down with his taxi career and a new life.
Occasionally, a passenger in his cab (in these instances usually passengers from Ethiopia) would recognize his name and ask if it was really him. He was more than happy to play them CDs of his music. He still practiced, but only for himself and at friends’ parties.
When Shimkovitz entered the picture that all changed.
“I’m more towards the music business now,” said Mergia during a short phone interview, “The taxi is more of a part time thing.”
It’s a welcomed return for the aging jazzman who has said in the past that he still enjoyed the idea of performing live. Now, in a trio whose rhythm section includes Mike Majkowski on bass and Tony Buck on the drums, he entrances audiences with his dense melodic lines and powerful, on-point grooves from his musical cohorts.
The band’s sound leans heavily on Western jazz. Mergia said,
“I was more influenced by Jimmy Smith the great Hammond organ player. I listen to almost every kind of music,” Mergia continued, adding that his favorites are the old jazz orchestras of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s.
With the Western flavor now bolder than ever in his live incarnation, his improvisations still pull from a seemingly endless vocabulary of classic Ethiopian phrases and lines. He even still breaks out the accordion to add texture and variety to the live show.
“The Ethiopian traditional music will develop much more in the future throughout the world” Mergia
He still visits his hometown, saying “I go almost every year.” Occasionally he hears his music on the radio there, and people still sometimes recognize him. He even still hangs out with his former Walias Band bandmates.
“I meet with some of [the] Walias Band members here and back home too. I’m not sure if we jam again.” Mergia
Whether or not the Walias Band reunites Mergia has plans for his future. The process hasn’t started just yet, but he is soon going to record an album with more of a “jazz fusion” style as he put it.
Funny how the world works. One day a man can be at the top of the musical pyramid, a few years later he may be in another country driving a cab, and then a few years later he may be a rising star once again. It’s a sure thing, though, that Mergia won’t be taking this musical second coming for granted.
“With God’s willing, I want to play more music throughout the world” Mergia
Mergia performed in London late last year and just last week his band ripped through a handful of tour dates in Australia. The world is still discovering Hailu Mergia and you’re invited to do so as well! This Saturday, embark on a musical odyssey at the Seaside Sessions concert series in Miami Beach, featuring a performances by Aaron Lebos, Christian Scott, and the Miami debut of Hailu Mergia.