Even if you’ve never heard of Hailu Mergia, you’ll recognise his story: it is one of fame, exile, anonymity, and eventual rediscovery. The multi-instrumentalist made a name for himself as the hot-fingered keyboardist and synth player of the 1970s Ethiopian funk outfit, The Walias Band, before being forced to leave his native country for Washington DC in the 1980s, where he started a new life as a solo artist and cab driver.
Some 30 years later, a music blogger and crate-digger called Brian Shimkovits, who set up the label Awesome Tapes From Africa, found a copy of Mergia’s 1985 solo album Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument. After reissuing the album, the world fell in love with the forgotten sound of Ethiopian funk, and Mergia became a star once again. The story is worthy of a Searching For Sugarman-style documentary and has played no small part in Mergia’s reemergence. But we should not forget that his story is a product of one of the darkest moments in Ethiopia’s post-colonial history, one that saw countless state-sponsored killings and widespread famine.
The details of Hailu Mergia’s story are fuzzy – largely because he himself is starting to forget the specifics. While he’s not entirely sure how old he is – it’s either 74 or 75 – he remembers his upbringing in the countryside just outside Addis Ababa with utmost clarity. It was here that he spent his early years raising sheep and goats with his family. When he was old enough, he joined the military, eventually forming the Walias Band. The group was comprised of eight of Addis Ababa’s premiere musicians, each of whom knew one another from having worked in the city’s flourishing scene for many years. They decided to form a group and quickly established themselves as one of the best live acts on the scene, finally earning enough moment to buy their own instruments. Walias Band was nothing if not democratic. Everyone got paid the same amount, everyone took it in turns to assume the role of bandleader, and everyone had three black and white suits to wear on stage. Their name, as it happens, was taken from the Walia Ibex, an endangered species of ibex native to the Ethiopian hills.
Walias Band’s rise to the top coincided with a period of revolution in Ethiopia. Following the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, a military committee called the Derg was established, the first general of which, General Aman Amdon, began implementing socialist policies for the country, which, at first, were quite popular. At this time, Walias Band were working as the house band for the upscale Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa, where they catered to the international tastes of diplomats from seven in the evening to ten at night, performing covers of everything from Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Je t’aime, Moi Non Plus’ to popular Arabic songs by the likes of Khamis El Fino Ali. Once the globetrotting crowd shuffled off, the real party started. From ten at night until six the following morning, Walias band unleashed their unique blend of James Brown-style funk; suffused with the scales and melodic phrasings of traditional Ethiopian music.
In 1975, Walias band released their debut album Tezeta on the Ethio Sound label. Getting music past the Derg government wasn’t an easy process; the lyrics for the songs on Tezeta had to be run by the censorship board, who had the power to ban tracks that criticised the Derg regime. Mergia and the Walias Band were popular with the Derg. However, the Derg was becoming unpopular with the people. Opposition parties such as the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front and the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party began wage anti-regime campaigns against the Derg. Many ordinary Ethiopians stayed to fight and die, while others fled the country altogether. Thousands of manual labourers, teachers, and students who were suspected of supporting these opposition parties were imprisoned without a trial, tortured, and executed. These state-sponsored mass killings became increasingly common from 1977 onwards, many of the bodies being left in front of public buildings and schools for days at a time to serve as a warning.
Amid the chaos, Mergia released his 1979 album of pro-revolution songs, which he’d written and recorded in the first four years after the fall of Haile Selassie. They proved to be very popular with the Derg, who started giving his album as a gift to diplomats. He was even invited to perform at a state-sponsored dinner. But, beyond the dining hall walls, Ethiopia was entering a new phase of choas. Because of the Stalinist/Leninist policies adopted by the Derg’s new leader Mengistu Hailemariam, the US abandoned Ethiopia, leaving it to suffer one of the worst famines in living memory.
Hailu Mergia and several other members of Walais Band decided to leave Ethiopia for America, where, in 1981, they toured with fellow Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed, often to audiences of Ethiopian refugees. Shortly after the tour, the Walias disbanded, leaving Mergia to embark on a solo career. For the first decade or so, he attempted to combat the intense loneliness of his new life in America by releasing rich and uplifting albums, such as the 1985 cassette recording later found by Brian Shimkovit. But, in 1991, Mergia decided to stop performing altogether and set up a restaurant. Six years later, he bought his first Taxi and became a cab driver around Washington D.C – a job he still has to this day.