Music is My Life: Episode 059

Hailu Mergia on Walias Band, Dahlak Band, and Fleeing Ethiopia

Ethiopian musician Hailu Mergia

Hailu Mergia is a master accordionist and veteran bandleader, arranger, and keyboardist, originally from Ethiopia. He became famous in his homeland in the 1970s, playing with a group called Walias Band. The way that the music scene was in the city of Addis Ababa, the premier place to play was the Hilton hotel. And the Walias Band had a residency there for years. The story goes that because of his love for music, Hailu would sneak over to the Ghion Hotel, which was the second-best-place to play in Addis Ababa, and there he would also play with the Dahlak Band.

In the mid 1970s, big political change came in Ethiopia when Emperor Haile Selassie I was overthrown by the Provisional Military Administrative Council, also known as the Derg. And one of the many many restrictive rules that the Derg put into place was a curfew from midnight to 6, where people had to be off the streets. The solution: Walias Band would keep people off the streets by playing music straight from midnight to 6 and keep them dancing all night long.

Building upon their success in Ethiopia, which happened in spite of the bloody regime of the Derg, Walias Band toured the United States at the dawn of the 1980s. And once in the US, Hailu Mergia and a few of his fellow band members decided it was time to defect.

Since the agreement wasn’t unanimous, the band split up. Hailu did some solo recordings, most importantly, a cassette called Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument. Then he opened a restaurant, and when that didn’t take off like he’d hoped, he took a job driving a cab in Washington DC. While he didn’t perform live for several years, he always kept his keyboard in his trunk, and practiced between fares.

In 2013 Brian Shimkovitz, a blogger, DJ and founder of the Awesome Tapes from Africa label, discovered Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument while digging through crates in an Ethiopian record store.

He tracked Hailu down online: thankfully Hailu Mergia is an easily googleable name. Brian Shimkovitz asked if he could re-release Hailu’s music, and not only did Hailu agree, but he started playing again, and recording new music! He’s also given up driving the cab!