The one-man-band futurism of Ethiopia's Hailu Mergu | Bleader

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The one-man-band futurism of Ethiopia's Hailu Mergu

Posted By on 08.01.13 at 03:34 PM

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The latest title from the wonderful Awesome Tapes From Africa label—the imprint run by Chicago-area native Brian Shimkovitz, born a couple years ago from a blog of the same name—was actually recorded in the U.S. Shemonmuanay was cut in Washington, D.C., home to a massive expat Ethiopian community, by keyboardist Hailu Mergia (it was billed to him and "His Classical Instrument")—although it was released back in Ethiopia, where it became a big hit for the Kaifa label. It's a strange album, a low-budget one-man-band project that at once harked back to the golden era of Ethiopian popular music in the 70s, when a rash of state-sponsored bands fueled the nightlife of Addis Ababa, and presaged a future of automated electronic instruments replacing real musicians.

Mergia first came to the U.S. in 1981 as a member of the Wallias Band, a largely instrumental combo responsible for one of the greatest and funkiest tunes in the entire Ethiopian canon, "Muziqawi Silt," which has been subsequently recorded by the Daktaris, the Fela-worshipping pre-Dap Kings band of Gabriel Roth, and Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Merkuria's project with Dutch post-punk band the Ex (check out the original below).

The group had traveled to the U.S. to entertain the expat community that had been fleeing the homeland and the dictatorial reign of Menguistou Haile Mariam and the Derg, the military junta. They found a welcome audience in D.C., but touring the rest of the country proved taxing and costly, and by 1983 they'd split apart, with some members remaining in the States while others returned home. Mergia settled in D.C. and after a few years he picked up an accordion, which he had once played back in Ethiopia. He eventually visited a D.C. recording studio operated by a friend to record some tunes on the instrument, but he was taken with the array of synthesizers and early drum machines. After three days he created a bizarre mix of antiquity and futurism, as warm, old-fashioned Ethiopian folk melodies played on accordion cascaded over raw electronic beats, synthetic bass lines, Fender Rhodes chords, and spacey synthesizer counterpoint. The results sounds like a collision of lounge music, jazz, Ethiopian soul, and future funk. Below you can check out "Hari Meru Meru," one of several pieces on the album where Mergia adds some wordless vocals to the mix.

Today's playlist:

Angelica Sanchez Quintet, Wires & Moss (Clean Feed)
Dum Dum Girls, End of Daze (Sub Pop)
Emily Portman, Hatchling (Furrow)
Collections of Colonies of Bees, Giving (Hometapes)
The Group, Live (No Business)

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