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Hailu Mergia: A beloved Ethiopian musician of a generation ago now stays quiet in D.C.

Image Source: Washington Post (courtesy of Hailu Merigia )
Image Source: Washington Post (courtesy of Hailu Merigia )

(Washington Post)He’s carried his music around the planet, but if you want to hear him play it, you have to go to his house.

In his living room, there’s an upright piano where he coaches his fingertips through jazz standards for 30 minutes each day.­

In his dining room, there are framed photographs where he’s sporting bell-bottoms and broad smiles alongside his seven bandmates in Ethiopia’s beloved Walias Band.

And in his garage, there’s a graphite gray Washington Flyer taxi cab where he spends his workweek dashing to and from Dulles International Airport — if his passengers happen to be from Ethiopia­­, the ID hanging from the cab’s sun visor might catch their eye.

“Hailu Mergia the musician?” they ask, pivoting from delight to disbelief.

“Some of them say, ‘I grew up listening to your music! . . . How come you drive taxi?’ ” Mergia says on a recent Saturday afternoon. “I tell them, ‘This is what I do. I am perfectly happy.’”

But with Mergia’s 1985 solo album, “Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument,” being re-released this month, the 67-year-old has been wondering how it might feel to play music outside of the Fort Washington home he shares with his wife.

“Of course, I want to go back to [performing], but it depends how,” says Mergia, who hasn’t stepped on a stage since the early ’90s. “If you ask me to play organ in a restaurant by myself, I’m not going to do it . . . . I grew up in a group.”

That group first landed at Dulles in the final days of 1981. After soundtracking Addis Ababa’s night life for more than a decade, Mergia’s storied Walias Band was in need of a change. So the octet came to America to accept a residency at Washington’s now-shuttered Ibex Club at the corner of Georgia and Missouri avenues NW, as well as embark on a coast-to-coast tour, performing for diaspora communities that had fled Ethiopia’s protracted civil war.

It was a blast, then a grind, and after two years, the musicians linking arms in the black-and-white photos on Mergia’s dining room wall had split apart. But their music didn’t vanish.

“Walias Band was a very influential band,” says Thomas “Tommy T” Gobena, the local Ethio­pian-born bassist of Gogol Bordello. “They backed legendary Ethiopian singers and had distinct, killer grooves. . . . ‘Tche Belew’ has to be one of my all-time favorite tunes.”

That song, a woozy instrumental from the ’70s, captures Walias Band at its hypnotic heights — American soul grooves and traditional Ethio­pian rhythms woven together with meticulous melodic trills that still flow from Mergia’s fingers when he practices at the piano in his living room.

He first learned his way around a keyboard at age 14, as a boy scout in the Ethiopian army. By 18, Mergia had left the military to sing in the streets, hoping someone might hire him for a paying gig. “The competition was very high,” he says. Mergia points to another picture on his dining room wall, “See that guy sitting with me?”

It’s a blown-up snapshot of Mergia and Tilahn Gessese, a tenor from Ethiopia’s “golden age” of pop music, a singer so revered, his nickname was “The Voice.” “At that time, everybody had to be like him,” Mergia says. “So I switched to accordion.”

He entered Addis Ababa’s cutthroat music scene where players jumped from band to band, forever in pursuit of higher pay. But in his early 20s, Mergia joined what would become Walias Band, a troupe that retained its core members and wisely socked away its nightly earnings.

At the time, venue owners in Addis Ababa held power over their musicians by owning all the gear. Walias Band decided to kick that idea over. The first thing they bought with their savings was Mergia’s organ.

“Playing with a group is much better because, one, we can make the band tight,” Mergia says, locking his fingers. “And two, we know each other. . . . Everybody has equal share, everybody is paid equal. . . . We were a very smart group.”

The image of camaraderie the band projected earned it a loyal following, and Walias Band eventually landed a residency at the Hilton Addis Ababa, performing for a churning clientele of tourists, diplomats and locals that kept the musicians on their toes. They had to learn waltzes and bossa novas for the dinner crowd, then field requests from an international dance floor until midnight. If the band didn’t know a song, “the next day we [would] go to a record shop and find that music,” Mergia says. “And then we practice.”

The Hilton was routinely crowded — which made Walias Band’s first American gig at Washington’s Warner Theatre in early 1982 feel jarring. Only 200-or-so had shown up to the cavernous theater, with many fans boycotting a concert they’d incorrectly assumed had been organized with the blessing of Ethio­pia’s governing communist military junta.

So the band, all living in the same apartment building at 16th and R streets NW, settled into its weekly gig at the Ibex. Mergia was enjoying his new life. But once Walias started zigzagging across the country in a passenger van, money started evaporating.

“We just gave up because we couldn’t make it,” Mergia says.

In 1983, some of his bandmates flew back across the ocean. Others stayed put. Mergia eventually signed up for classes at Northern Virginia Community College and studied music at Howard University. Having recently picked up an instrument he hadn’t touched in decades, he approached an acquaintance from Howard who operated a small recording studio.

“My plan was this, believe it or not: Just record [some] accordion for myself, just to listen,” Mergia says.

The plan was quickly ditched. The tiny studio had a DX7 synthesizer and a Rhodes electric piano. Mergia couldn’t keep his hands off them. Three days later, he emerged with 11 mesmerizing, largely improvised songs that meshed the sound of a forgotten folk instrument with strange, futuristic timbres.

He mailed the master recording to Addis Ababa, where a record label pressed it to cassette. They soon had a surprise hit on their hands. “People, they started calling me from Ethi­o­pia,” Mergia says. “ ‘What is this music?’ ”

Now, with “Classical Instrument” being reintroduced to the world by upstart label Awesome Tapes From Africa, an album that simultaneously pointed toward Ethiopia’s musical past and future now has Mergia pondering his own past and future. [Disclosure: the label’s owner, Brian Shimkovitz, is a friend of the reporter.]

He may never perform again. But he’d like to. And if he does, he promises he’ll be enjoying himself.

“You have to love it, what you are doing,” he says. “If you have a tension when you do it, you [won’t] know how to play what you know. Music has to be fun.”

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