When Brian Shimkovitz reissued Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument on his Awesome Tapes From Africa label last year, the Ethiopian keyboard legend was driving a taxi in Washington, D.C., where he’d exiled himself during a mid-’80s tour. But Awesome’s reissue of his 1985 cassette revived Mergia’s career, and he’s gigging again with a new young band.
While Classical Instrument is a solo marvel of minimalist funk produced in the U.S., Tche Belew is a long-lost Ethiopian instrumental classic capturing Mergia and his longtime sextet — augmented by special guest Mulatu Astatke on vibes and percussion — in their prime. Recorded in 1977, Tche Belew is a remarkable epilogue to the so-called “golden age” of Ethiopian music that ended with the 1974 revolution that replaced Emperor Haile Selassie I with the Derg regime.
The Walias recorded Tche Belew in Addis Ababa’s Lutheran-owned Radio Voice of Gospel studio and, thanks to the combination of Girma Beyene’s piano and Mergia’s warbly Farfisa organ, it contains a subtle if probably unintended gospel vibe. Recorded mostly in first takes, Tche Belew consists mainly of Ethiopian pop standards — although Beyene’s powerful and horn-heavy “Musicawi Silt” would be eventually covered by Antibalas, Secret Chiefs 3, the Debo Band and other wise Western combos.
All 10 tracks rumble along in variations on Ethiopia’s ubiquitous triple meter. The sound is both ancient and modern, a smooth-grooving blend of funky folklore and Jimmy Smith-inspired jazz, with occasional wordless vocal punctuations by the estimable Aster Aweke, Getatchew Kassa and Tegest Abate. Astatke’s chiming, clattering vibes add both color and melodic crackle, particularly in his self-arranged “Eti Gual Blenai.” Touches like Mahmmud Aman’s deconstructed rhythm-guitar lines in “Yikirta Lemminalehu” and Moges Habte’s sweet sax solo in “Yikirta Lemminalehu” make Tche Belew a simmering, subtle brew.