In the 60s and 70s, Hailu Mergia was a famous musician in Africa. But famine
in the 80s forced him to move to the US. Now he’s poised for a comeback.
As a young man living in Addis Ababa during the swinging 60s, Hailu Mergia was a superstar.
The Ethiopian capital city was a bustling cosmopolis where art and culture
flourished amid the country’s uneasy quest for independence.
His jazz and funk band, The Walias, performed for the domestic and international
elite at the then-prestigious Hilton Hotel’s music club, which granted residencies to
Ethiopia’s hottest bands. Crowds of dignitaries and foreign diplomats,
Hollywood movie stars, famous musicians like Duke Ellington and Alice Coltrane, and
important African figures like Manu Dibango would flock to the hotel to dance and jam until sunrise.
“When we played in the Hilton Hotel, the audience was full of people from around the world, so everybody had requests for different kinds of music. Sometimes we’d play Indian melodies, sometimes we’d play Arabic music. We’d pick up American soul, blues and jazz melodies and then improvise on them in our own music,” Mergia remembers.
Born in the Ethiopian countryside in 1946, Mergia spent much of his childhood working as a shepherd, but began learning to play music as a boy scout at age 14. When his band rose to prominence in the 60s and 70s, they weren’t just kings of Addis Ababa nightlife, they were a beacon to Ethiopia’s revolutionaries. Under the Derg regime, constant warfare, famine, and brutal political oppression plagued Ethiopia.
The Walias’s seminal album Tche Belew features the single “Musicawi Silt,” one of the most famous songs of all-time in Ethiopia. It conveys messages of heroism through well-known references to Ethiopian battle songs. “Ethiopian music is like most art: in every piece there’s a message. Everyone is trying to explain what they know through music. Tche Belew is a hero’s song. It means ‘go for it,’” says Mergia.
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