A few months ago we had the pleasure to meet Hailu Mergia in Berlin during his 2016 tour through Europe. Now that he is back on this latitude to bring us his musical delight, we rescued from our archives this beautiful and intimate chat we had with him in his hotel lobby in East-Berlin. Get to know this Ethiopian music legend…
W.I.M.: Hailu, how did you get in touch with music in the first place?
When I was a kid and grew up on the countryside, we used to only sing country music – very traditional music. At that time I loved to sing around, and I did not really know what I was actually looking for.
What were your early musical influences in Ethiopia?
When I was 14, I was taking some music classes to learn how to write music and so on, at that time I was at the boys scout department for music. I was too young to be playing as a regular army musician. But I quit that very fast. Actually, I started at a very young age with music. I began to sing with 17, around the time when I was playing in night clubs in the capital for the first times. It was only then when I first got in touch with the accordion, which was very famous back then in Ethiopia. When the organ became popular, I shifted to that one. Since about then, the organ is my main instrument
When did your style develop towards this very yours mix of folklore, jazz and funk?
When I started to perform in the nightclubs after dropping the accordion and singing, I first did not have a regular place to play, I was just hustling from one club to another. Until we found the one spot where we as a band could play more regularly…
It was with the Wallias band were the creativity and my music and sound really developed. Before that, we were just jumping as fill-in musicians between one place and another.
Were you making something new?
With the Wallias band, at the beginning I only performed old Ethiopian songs on the organ… One day, I was playing at a wedding party and there was a friend of mine, and he recorded my songs for the first time. When he showed me the cassette he said: “We love it! Your organ sound is a kind of new stuff”.
The next thing I thought of was to start recording cassettes. That’s actually how I started to be a full instrumentalist on the organ; I was the first guy playing traditional Ethiopian instrumental pieces on the organ. At that time, the rule was to play the piano etc.
From that moment on I just kept on doing what I do until today: I pick up an old song, very popular ones, with their rhythm and harmonization, and I put it on a dancing program. I use the traditional sounds and transform them into something modern. Of course nowadays I also create my own new compositions…
How long did you stay with the Wallias band?
We formed the band in 1962. We became very popular for our modern music (blues, jazz, hip hop etc.) in Addis Ababa. We performed from local nightclubs to international hotels, until about 1981. Then we went to the US for a tour, where we finally separated. Some members of the band went back home to Ethiopia, some stayed.
Why did you stay in the US? Was it for political reasons?
I didn’t have any political reason to stay in Washington D.C. I didn’t like the government and the ideology with which they managed the country, but I decided to stay there because I simply didn’t want to go back. When you have a chance to change your life, you have to change it!
Where you thinking of keeping on with your musical career?
Yes, indeed. Together with a bass player and a sax player I founded a trio. We did not need a drummer since the drum machine was very strong at that time. We played with singers at different occasions. We had shows in Paris, Rome or London, and also in 1991 we went back to Ethiopia with this new band.
I didn’t stop to play after the Wallias band, but after my return to the US from touring in 1991, we opened a nightclub business in D.C., a sort of nightclub restaurant. So we began to play at our own club. When the business was not doing that good we decided to change to an African-music club and I became the manager of the business. I started to play music only for that club, and I stopped to play for the general public, while my band mates played by themselves etc. I run that business almost for 7 or 8 years. And then all of a sudden some problems in the uptown area made us stop the business, and I had to close it. Then I bought a cab and I went into the airport taxi business. I believe in the change – it worked for me, I just adapted to changes…. I didn’t have time to cry it, so I said: let’s do it!
So this is what you were doing when you met Brian (Awesome Tapes From Africa). How did you get connected?
I think Brian once went to Ethiopia for a visit. There, he found one of my cassettes in the province of Ethiopia. After he listened to it, he contacted me from Berlin and he asked me: “Do you want to release it from cassette to Cd?” I said: “Send me the cover of the Cd”. And then I thought: Let’s make a deal- just release it! That’s actually how we met.
Did your life changed since then?
Yes. When he met me, I was out of professional music for like 20 years. So listen what happened: when I bought the taxi, I was not playing for the public anymore, but I always kept on practicing my keyboard – not only at home, I also had a keyboard in my cab! So when I dropped my customers I just took my keyboard out of the trunk and I sat on the backseat and played. That’s what I do today! So Brian asked: “If we give you promotion, will you be able to play in front of a public again?” And I told him: ”Look, I have not played for 22 years in public, but I am ready, I was practicing!” The music is still in my head! In fact, I still released two Cd’s after I had stopped to play in public, nobody actually knows about them. But now, I am my own manager; I don’t have to wait for the job to come. I decide, that’s the secret. It’s my car, I am free to decide upon the time management. After Brian understood that, he and my manger Christopher started to work together.
Why did you keep on playing every day even while working the taxi?
Music is my profession since the beginning. Plus, I didn’t want to loose my ability of music just because I am driving taxi. I know one thing: it doesn’t matter how old you are, you have to practice everyday to be a good musician. The bad side of music is if you don’t practice, it goes away, it’s true! So I practiced, I didn’t want to loose that.
I have always asked myself the question: in Ethiopia everybody knows my music. If I went to somebody’s house, and if somebody asked me to play, I cannot say no! I need to make sure I am ready for any occasion. I never knew that this new business would come – I basically did all the years of practising for myself.
I love music, I grew up with it. It’s hard to leave something you love, in any sense. Music is to me like my wife, I love that lady! Why should I drop it?
Some of your melodies seem to be inspired by Arabic patterns. Is that something that comes from Ethiopian music – or are you adding this nuance?
No, my music always has two pictures. One, is the really Ethiopian traditional melody. We actually use the pentatonic scale, the Arabic one has six notes. And two, I add a bridge and a improvisation part. So, my music is a kind of mix between the Ethiopian plus the blues scale, plus the jazz scale, so when you listen to my music everybody get’s confused! That’s how I do. I give you some kind of westernised style of traditional music.
And finally, what about the melodica?
On the stage, I use the melodica for variety. I sing, since I used to be a singer, so I keep on with that. The keyboard is my main instrument, but I switch between the accordion and lately the melodica because I like to change. Music shouldn’t be static…