Monday, July 9, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #209 - Hailu Mergia – Tche Belew

            Hailu Mergia is an Ethiopian keyboardist/arranger who worked in various bands and as a solo artist, coming to prominence in early 1970s Addis Ababa as a bandleader after forming his seminal Walias Band. In the wake of the coup d'état by the military Derg that overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974, bands in Addis were mostly either state-sponsored or tied economically to a club or hotel who owned the band’s equipment and merely hired the players to perform nightly. Mergia and the Walias Band were in in unusual situation in that they worked under their own terms - they owned their instruments, they decided where and when they would perform and record, and were not in the position of promoting either a specific club or a government-approved music program (though they did run into occasional censorship troubles).
After a string of successful singles, Mergia decided to tap his band’s talents to create an all-instrumental LP - an unprecedented move in the vocal-centered Ethiopian music scene. Mergia was influenced in his keyboard playing by jazz organist Jimmy Smith (Mergia favored the Farfisa and Godwin organs of the day) and his blues-rooted, funky jazz styles, but combined this influence with traditional Ethiopian melodies and scales for a unique blend of contemporary up-to-the-minute jazz-funk spiced with rich, traditional roots. For this record, in addition to his own work, he tapped his band’s talents for writing and arranging (plus the talents of guest vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke who appears on several tracks).
Walias Band
            To get a taste of how this sounds, start right at the beginning with the title cut. The song is propulsively funky, leading with Melakie Gabrie’s prominent bassline, Temare Haregu’s in-the-pocket drums, slightly distorted guitar from Mahmmud Aman, and Girma Beyene’s piano chords before the horn charts come in (accompanied by a wordless chorus (including singers Aster Aweke and Getachew Kassa who’d come to later fame as solo artists)) to introduce the song. After the intro, Mergia takes the front seat with his lightly psychedelic organ solo punctuated by horns and a restatement of the theme. Next comes a sax solo (by either Moges Habte or Abebe Kassa) rendered in Ethiopian scales; meanwhile the churning, rhythmic background never stops, nor do the rest of the horn section’s comments throughout the song. After the theme restatement, Mergia again takes over with another organ solo which is then handed back to the saxophone again until the fade.
Walias Band
If you’re ready to be fully hooked, proceed immediately to the album’s hit single - “Musicawi Silt,” track 4 - to hear both the catchiest and most covered thing here. Maybe you’ve heard it already; it’s been covered by Dutch avant-rockers The Ex and Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria, by American avant-rockers Secret Chiefs 3, by Brooklyn-based band Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and many others. But you don’t need to be avant-leaning yourself to enjoy this one. It’s simply a great dance tune hooked by an irresistible melody. Once you hit the main theme you’ll understand both why it was a huge hit on release and why so many bands have wanted to cover it. Mergia takes a solo with a more straightforward organ sound and shorter phrases than the dreamier lines of the first cut, but there’s an interesting feature in that you can hear the keys of his organ clacking along with the solo - at first I thought this was some eccentric guitar comping or percussive accompaniment, but after many listens I’m pretty sure it’s all Mergia. After another theme statement, Mulatu Astatke comes in for a vibes solo that is unfortunately cut short by the (way too early!) fade of the song. Still - it’s an indelible classic, early fade and all.
Mergia and the Dhalak Band
Things proceed immediately from there into “Lomi Tera-Tera,” a bright, sunny tune featuring a lovely, major key organ solo and a percussive showcase that sounds great for a lazy hot day (like today), a boat ride on a lake in the sun, an early morning drive - anything that’s not exerting yourself too much where you’re just gonna lay back and let the music wash over you! And though everything on the album sounds terrific, I’d also want to bring your attention to track 9, “Eti Gual Blenai,” written (I think) by Astatke and marked by a dramatic intro that segues immediately into a great galloping beat that’s all low drums (props again to drummer Temare Haregu), when it’s not grooving in a loose, jazzy feel up on higher-pitched percussion. It’s almost a duet between Mergia’s organ and Haregu’s drums punctuated by horn statements until Astatke takes it into a spacier middle segment for his solo, but the entire cut is a remarkable demonstration of the versatility and talent of the whole group.
The Walias gigged around Addis Ababa and other parts of Ethiopia for years, but due to the harsh political climate at home, when they took their first tour outside Ethiopia, half the band stayed in the United States during an early 80s tour, where Mergia took a job as a Washington D.C. cab driver. To this day, half the band is in D.C. and half remains in Addis, but with the reissue of this album (plus another 70s group album Wede Harer Guzo and Mergia’s oddball mid-80s Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument which finds him overdubbing himself on drum machine, Rhodes piano, Yamaha DX7, and
Mergia in 2017
accordion) Mergia has started making music again, releasing a very good new 2018 album (Lala Belu) and organizing a tour of Europe and the States in the coming months.  All four of his albums available domestically (released through the auspices of the well-named label Awesome Tapes From Africa) are worth your listens, but this one’s the easiest “in” to his career and very possibly his best.
-          Patrick Brown

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