DC has its own abundance of remarkable musicians who seem to lead double lives — working what might be considered “normal” or “real” jobs and then practicing, recording, or performing somewhere in between.
But there might be only one man who for decades grinded away in blue-collar fashion and kept a low profile while being celebrated for helping shape the songs and sounds of his homeland.
Acclaimed keyboardist Hailu Mergia drove a cab at and around Dulles Airport for years. But prior to that in Ethiopia, he’d been an essential member of the Walias Band, a jazz and funk operation that thrived at a pivotal time for the country’s music despite a government heavy on censorship and restriction.
The thoughtful Mergia flourished by way of his instrumental compositions, the band succeeded — recording mostly to tape along the way — and after a tour of the USA in the 1980s, Hailu moved here and enrolled at Howard University.
Though in 1985 he’d record one of the most important offerings of his career, Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument, his path would take him away from the stage and studio. But he kept a keyboard in the trunk of his cab. He’d pull it out during extended waits, and he’d practice at home too, keeping himself sharp.
Still, it would be almost 20 years before he played live again and 30 before he’d follow up with another recording, and that took some coaxing.
He was eventually approached by Brian Shimkovitz, who runs the record label and website Awesome Tapes From Africa and had discovered Hailu’s work on tape in an old bin. Shimkovitz had been in Ghana as a Fulbright scholar studying African music almost exclusively on tape and has since gone on to make a major impact in the space, and he successfully got Hailu’s buy-in for what has been a rewarding return for both him and the many fans he’s grown over the years.
Listen to the latest release from Hailu Mergia, Pioneer Works Swing (Live), via Spotify:
A long overdue local appearance, the night of Dec. 1 at Union Stage in Washington DC presented Mergia the opportunity to festively reconnect with fans from in and out of the District, including many from the area’s close-knit Ethiopian community.
Moseying out before the hollering crowd with a grin and in the form of a no-frills trio, the veteran keyboard and accordion player led one of the funkiest sets of music that anyone has ever likely heard within the walls of Union Stage, or any venue for that matter.
Hailu glowed from behind his Nord Electro 5D and Rhodes electric piano as attendees clapped, swayed, grooved, and cheered, and he’d stand up to play the accordion, too. In between songs and over shouts from the crowd, Mergia would just laugh, offering up a quick thanks and crediting his mates, who masterfully delivered songs from a catalogue that has grown in recent years.
Following up on the 2013 re-release of Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument, he’s put out two more studio albums — Lala Belu in 2018 and Yene Mircha in 2020 — and just last month dropped Pioneer Works Swing, a steaming live trio capture from 2016.
Now in his late 70s, Hailu has said in interviews that it brings him great happiness to see people enjoying his music, including those of non-Ethiopian descent, and he was visibly elated last Friday night in DC as he and his colleagues dazzled a packed house at The Wharf.
Approachable and welcoming to his supporters, he warmly shook hands, hugged, and gladly posed for photographs with attendees who waited with excitement in a long line for the chance to meet this legend and thank him for what he’s done.
Revisit Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument via Spotify:
Here are home-developed, home-scanned 35mm film images of Hailu Mergia and his band along with the night’s opening act, Dunia & Aram, performing at Union Stage on Dec. 1, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Ryan Vock.
Dunia & Aram