Hailu Mergia and the Walias, “Eti Gual Blenai”

Andrew Parks

By Andrew Parks

on 09.16.14 in Listen to This

Having played his first stateside show since 1991 late last year, part-time keyboardist/full-time taxi driver Hailu Mergia is now back with an even more crucial Awesome Tapes From Africa reissue than his solo LP Shemonmuanaye. Available October 14 worldwide, Tche Belew is an instrumental record from Mergia’s old band the Walias. It was originally released in 1977 and features vibraphone parts from Jim Jarmusch’s favorite Ethio-jazz player, Mulatu Astatke. The draw here isn’t Astatke, though; it’s the free-flowing funk and soul of tracks like “Eri Gual Blenai.” Listening to its deep, dust-caked grooves, it’s easy to imagine how this rare record generated up to $4,000 in online bids during its many out-of-print years.

“Hailu’s the nicest guy and super-easy to work with,” Awesome Tapes From Africa told Wondering Sound in a label profile last year. “He’s been living in Washington, D.C., since 1981, when he came over with the Walias Band from Ethiopia. A brutal military dictatorship was ruling Ethiopia, so half the band remained in D.C. They tried to make it as musicians, but things got kind of rough, so Hailu’s been driving a taxi to Dulles airport for many years, making a nice living, and just playing music on his own.”

Good news, too: Mergia is playing some rare European gigs next month. The dates and details are here; hopefully a domestic run isn’t that far off?