Hailu Mergia was born in the Shewa Province of Ethiopia and moved to Addis Ababa at age 10. He taught himself the accordion at age 14. His mastering of the accordion, as well as the keyboard and his talent for re-purposing folk songs into funkier modern melodies, defined his contribution to popular music in Ethiopia. In the 1970s, Hailu Mergia was the keyboardist in the Walias Band, a jazz and funk band with a hard polyrhythmic funk sound influenced by western artists.
Ethiopian music was typically led by a vocalist: just three instrumental albums were released during Addis’ “golden age” of music, including one of Hailu’s landmark albums with the Walias Band, “Tche Belew” (1977). As a side project, Hailu joined the Dhalak Band around this period and recorded the cassette-only “Wede Harer Guzo” (1978) with them, a jazz-infused album with a dominance of improvisation. Hailu’s organ work for the band was one of the Walias Band’s key characteristics, but during a 1980s tour of the United States, Hailu and several other members decided to stay in the US, effectively ending the band’s career, although their legacy in Ethiopia was strong by this point, especially via their 1977 instrumental “Muziqawi Silt.”
After he emigrated from Ethiopia and built a life in Washington d. C., around 1981, keyboard and accordion player Hailu Mergia’s career followed a humble trajectory. In the US he worked, until recently, as an airport taxi driver. However, he continues to write music in his spare time: “After I drop my customer, I grab my keyboard from the trunk and sit in the car and practice.”
It has been a long, winding road to Hailu Mergia’s sixth decade of musical activity. More recently, with the reissue of his classic works and a re-assessment of his role in Ethiopian music history, Mergia has played to audiences big and small in some of the most cherished venues around the world. “Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument” was re-released in 2013 on the Awesome Tapes From Africa label, after the label’s owner discovered the album in a cassette bin. Two years later, his first new record in over two decades, “Lala Belu” was released on the same label. This was followed in 2020 by a full-band album, “Yene Mircha” (2020). Mergia often says there should be many kinds of Ethiopian music. “You can do anything with Ethiopian music, it shouldn’t be only this sound or that sound. That’s why I called the album My Choice. This is the sound I choose. I believe in sound changing.”
An artist still reinventing his sound every night on stage during his marathon live sets, this 74-year-old icon refuses to make the same album twice.