From being a major musician in swinging Addis Ababa to a taxi driver in Washington DC, Hailu Mergia has seen many changes after settling in American in 1981. Reissued by the label Awesome Tapes From Africa, Hailu Mergia has this year released a new album, Lala Belu, 30 years after his first ethio-jazz adventures.
For the first time, one of your albums will be distributed internationally from the very start. How do you respond to that?
I feel good about it. This is the first time one of my new releases will be distributed by Awesome Tapes From Africa. It is also the first album I have created since I started touring and performing again in the US. I love the way it is, musically. I love the way it sounds. Everything about it is different to what I have done before and I really enjoy listening to it back as well!
Another first with Lala Belu is that you recorded it with non-Ethiopian musicians. Was there a reason for that?
Brian Shimkovitz from the label and Christopher, my agent, put me in touch with two musicians they knew. Tony Buck, a drummer, and Michael Majkowski, a bassist. I met them when I was touring in 2013 and we travelled together, playing in different places and collaborating. It was great to do a record with them, but it happened simply because that was the dynamic we were involved in.
“Nobody knows what will happen in life”
Before Brian called you about the album proposal, did you expect something like this to happen in your life, such a big new adventure?
No! I didn’t expect it. I try to orientate myself towards uncertainty – I don’t know what is going to happen in the future and so I never allow myself to develop a dependency for the place I am in. I always maintain some kind of freedom … usually not international freedom like this but who knows what will happen in life? I always say that nobody knows what will happen in life. Good things are sometimes followed by bad things … but that is not the way I think about it.
A good example of that might have been your tour of the US in 1981. Along with the rest of the Wailas Band, you decided to stay instead of going back to Ethiopia. Was it easy to integrate?
It wasn’t easy, no. But once you leave your country and your home, you have to try to integrate in society. So that is what happened. I felt confused at first and a little lonely. But this wasn’t just the case for me. It is the same for everyone. But only at the beginning, of course … after a while you get used to it! I just kept myself busy by doing concerts, playing in restaurants and before long I started to like it.
Were people welcoming?
America is different to Ethiopia. My life changed when I started living in America and I had to find a way to handle it. I had to decide to become American, I had to decide to say there and do whatever I needed to do to make it work. I didn’t want to go back to Ethiopia because of the way I felt when I was there. I also didn’t want to be the only person to come back. So I had to live through it and integrate, no matter what.
Did you stay engaged with Ethiopian news and music developments even though you were in the US?
Oh Yes. I absorbed any kind of media I could because Ethiopia will always be by home. I felt like I had to know the situation there, good or bad. So, I followed up on it every day. I couldn’t help it! Musically, too. I listened to all the Ethiopian music I could. I liked some of it more than others. My preference is normally for country music; Ethiopian traditional music. Modern musicians, of course, do it in their own way, whatever their style is. It was the same for our generation! But whatever they do, I will listen to it. If it is good, it is good. But I am always more interested in listening to the music of the countryside.
“If you don’t create new music, sometimes you your style changes”
You were an innovator of your day. Is that something you want to continue being – do you want to experiment with new music today?
The Lala Belu album is a kind of innovation. Its improvisation, the accordion, its mix of sounds … a new kind of independent research created it. If you don’t create new music, sometimes your style changes. So I will see what happens in the future. It will be the same thing for the next album, I don’t know when, but I will do something different.
In what way did the improvisation represent something “new?”
None of my previous albums are like this one. The improvisation is different because all of the melodies on this album are improvised. I didn’t invent something new but the way I created it was different; the combination of of instruments – the accordion, piano, bass, melodica, organ and, of course, the drums. The composition is also different to my previous ones. On this one the variety of the improvisation is a little bit different. We used to improvise on all kinds of recordings but not on this level. We worked on new harmonies and new compositions mixed with old things as well. I don’t know what to call it but it sounds … jazzier. Also, this is my first time playing the bass and my first time playing in a trio. In the past I have been part of duos, quartets and big bands. So, that is what I did and people loved it. For the next album I will try to create another style.
You have been reinterpreting old songs on the organ throughout your career. When did you learn how to play?
The story goes like this: when I was fourteen I joined the army’s music section. I stayed there for almost two years before I got into regular army service. Before that it was more like the boy scouts. I took some lessons, a bit of piano, then I quit and became a singer in clubs. Slowly, I started playing the accordion because it was a very popular instrument back then. Everywhere you went there was an accordion. No organs, and pianos were too heavy for the nightclub owners who always preferred accordions. They were certainly heavy! Sometimes we played from 10PM to 5AM. That is tough for a young man! But on the back of that I began playing the keyboard, too. When the accordion started to seem old fashioned the organ was experiencing an upsurge I started playing that with the Walias Band. That’s how I got into organ playing. We used to play weddings and private clubs where they want to hear popular songs like “Je t’aime.” But for the dinners, we played Ethiopian music with the same setup. Organ, drums, trumpets … we were playing Ethiopian songs with variety. One time a friend of mine recorded us and played me two or three songs back. I just said “OK.” I always enjoyed playing Ethiopian music with the organ. Back then we used cassettes: it was just the melody, the organ, drums and bass. People loved the recording and that is how it all started.
“I could see her in the audience and I could tell she was proud that night”
What was your mother’s reaction to you becoming a musician?
She was not happy when I dropped out of school! When I went to the army, I wasn’t planning to be hired, but I wanted to listen to music and play soccer there. When she saw me with the army uniform on before I told her what I was doing, she was like “what happened?” I told her it is like becoming a boy scout. I knew she didn’t like it but she was a very nice person and she didn’t take it too seriously. Finally, she was happy with it, especially when I played in the big clubs and hotels and she saw us play at the Hilton. I could see her in the audience and I could tell she was proud that night. I could see that her eyes were unafraid. I could see she was happy when she saw me up there. Of course, as any mother, especially an Ethiopian one, she was not initially happy to hear that her kid was becoming a musician.
But at that time there was a huge scene, so weren’t families happy?
No they were not happy! At that time there weren’t many civilian musicians in the clubs. We were the first guys. I had a bunch of friends who played in different places. All the small clubs were played by the army, the police and bodyguard musician groups. But slowly, we began to cover all of it. Nightclub owners needed civilian musicians because official bands were often occupied and they were losing money. So we were the first generation to infiltrate the nightclub scene. But families didn’t want their members to be musicians. It was almost cultural–if you were a musician, you were an outcast in society. If someone heard that your son was a musician, they would certainly take it in the wrong way. I can’t put it into words … the musician was not the favorite in the family! But it is changing nowadays. Now, families push their children to be musicians because it is a good business! Generations change. Now when when I go to Ethiopia people are happy if their sons and daughters become musicians.
But you haven’t always been a working musician. It is true that you were a shepherd at one stage?
Yes I was born in the countryside. When you grow up in that environment you have to do something. I became a shepherd from the age of 5 or 6 until 10. I was a shepherd as a kid! But I have done loads of jobs besides music. I have been a busboy, cafeteria worker, dish cleaner, bus station worker, bartender … I just did anything that was available at that point in time. If i’d had a problem with that I would never have got to the stage i’m at. So, although it was never for very long, i’ve done everything!
“Competition was higher in America and I had to start again”
You have had quite a few experiences! Was it important for you to do things besides music?
Life is always different and it is never the same. That is what I believe in. When I was in Ethiopia I played music seven days a week. My life was about playing and recording. So, I became slightly depressed in the US because that life was gone. Competition was higher in America and I had to start again. So, even though I played in restaurants and found work, it was only on Fridays and Saturdays. But you have to think about paying the bills. You wake up and suddenly life is different, you are in a different place that offers a different experience. Everyone has to do different things and when you are in a brand new place you have to get used to it, no matter what it is. I am still happy about reacting in this way. But, I have never been one to hang out with famous musicians, anyway.
Didn’t you miss being on stage when you were working these other jobs?
This is what happened: after the breakup of the band some of us went home and some of us stayed in America. The remaining members formed a trio. We toured everywhere until 1991, often playing in the restaurant business. We acquired a premises and changed it into an African club. It was a lot of work and I began playing less and managing more. But it is very hard to run a nightclub. You have to be there every night at open and close, dealing with customers and DJs … at one point I just stopped playing and I can’t remember the exact reason why. After seven years, it was just too tiring so I decided that was it. I got a taxi instead and joined a new business.
Did you miss playing music when you were a taxi driver?
No! From 1991 until 2013 I carried on playing music. People always think I dropped it but I was playing all the time at home. I have a bunch of keyboards in my house and I played with other musicians in duos, trios … but people assume I stopped just because they didn’t know anything about my life. Even the label didn’t have a clue. They approached me with a specific tone: “if we do this will you consider playing again …” Nobody knew anything about my life. I was driving eight hours a day to make money but I always kept a keyboard fixed in the trunk. When we used to do airport pickups, I would pull over and practice until my number was called for the next trip. All the drivers had to wait in the parking lot. Every time I got a new car I would measure it to make sure that the keyboard would fit into the trunk. If it didn’t fit I wouldn’t buy the car. So, I didn’t miss music because I was never out of music.
Did you ever play to the other taxi drivers?
No because they didn’t pay me. If they don’t pay me I won’t be playing (laughs). I used to park my car at the end of the lot, so nobody would pass by and distract me. But when my number was called I had to leave. But they all knew that I spent my time playing.
“Listening is like practicing”
What music did you listen to when you were driving?
Old jazz music from the 50s – the big band jazz era. There was a radio station that played it all the time and it became almost like a friend to me. I do listen to new jazz as well but I love the old stuff. Part of the music life is listening to other musicians, it is the way you upgrade yourself. Listening is like practicing. Even if you don’t have a keyboard with you, it flows through your body. To listen is to experience a change. In this sense, I think of it like changing your life – upgrading. Also, it gives you energy. It helped me and it made me feel good until the end of the shift.
But did you miss being on stage?
Sometimes … I missed playing on stage but the music is always the first priority for me. Even though I missed it, I was not living as a disappointed person! Firstly, that just isn’t my character. If I let something go, it is gone. I don’t regret. I am not that type of person; I am always looking forward. But sometimes … if I went to a club with my wife and I saw people playing I would think “yeah.” My wife would ask me the same question and I would say “Yeah. Just leave me alone” (laughs).
You must have felt that about 10 years ago, when suddenly Ethiopian jazz received more attention and there was an explosion of articles about Addis Ababa in the 70s (partly down to the musicologist Francis Falceto). How did you react to this change in the scene?
I found out about it. I heard that some old songs were resurfacing and it was becoming a phenomenon. It was a great trigger for Ethiopian music. It was great what he did.
And now, when you are touring, many people see you in this ilk. Do you feel like your songs have a bearing on the legacy of Ethiopian music?
Yes. I feel like I am doing something good for Ethiopian music. For myself also. I work for both. For myself and for the music of Ethiopia.