“The sound is good… the sound is modern and old fashioned. The melodies are very nice melodies, so because of this, everybody had some kind of…. nostalgia.” That’s how Hailu Mergia describes the sound of his album Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument, his first release on the Awesome Tapes From Africa label. In short, Mergia is a keyboardist, arranger, composer, and veteran of the Addis scene. “Nostalgia” is an apt word—it’s the rough translation of the Amharic word “tezeta,” which is also used to describe a distinct style of Ethiopian song (articulated in the Ethiopiques series as “blues and ballads”). Like nostalgia, there’s something magical about Mergia’s music that is hard to put a finger on, difficult to grasp… it’s beautiful, familiar, but bearing the disconnect of something past being remembered.
Perhaps that magic has something to do with how Mergia is the sole performer on this entire record. The original cassette of Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument came out in 1985 as Shemonmuanaye, during the early days of drum machines, synthesizers, and affordable home recording gear. The gossamer beauty of traditional Amhara, Tigrinya and Oromo melodies are thickened in a swirling arrangement of accordion, Rhodes piano, and Moog Synthesizer by a lone performer. Now that this album has been reintroduced in the digital age, it’s initial conceit of sounding “modern and old fashioned” has grown even more complicated—Shemonmuanaye documents the past, future, past-future, and, as well as the present day. As piece of “past-future,” the album jives neatly with Awesome Tapes’ aesthetic, the old (bygone cassette music) given a new life (easily downloadable via their blog).
This past October, Mergia and Awesome Tapes teamed up for a follow-up release, Tche Belew, a legendary 1977 recording of Ethiopian jazz instrumentals with seminal band the Walias. This holy grail LP trades for over $4000 on eBay and had been awaiting proper reissue for years. Mergia has criss-crossed Europe in the aftermath of that album’s release.
MHA is booking Hailu Mergia for select dates in North America, at festivals, performing arts centers, theaters, and clubs.