Threading his grey Ford sedan in and out of traffic along the Capital Beltway, Hailu Mergia's hands are finally still. His phone balances on the taxi dashboard below the neon fare meter, its tinny speaker blasting the songs of his shepherd's childhood in rural Ethiopia. He talks to me at length about the eskista shoulder dancing that often accompanies the music that's playing in the car; growing up, he would sing these songs "with the cows and the sheep." Occasionally he interrupts our discussion to point out major D.C.-area landmarks passing by the window: the National Harbor, MGM casino, Woodrow Wilson Bridge, historic downtown Alexandria. Mergia has taken this route hundreds of times, ferrying along businesspeople and college students and government employees, almost none of whom realize their driver's own significance.
Mergia's left hand steadies the wheel with an ease earned from decades of airport cab-driving. Finally, he can weave no more; the road is just too congested. "You have to be very patient when driving taxi," he tells me, surveying the dammed river of cars in his path. Mergia knows a thing or two about patience. He spent the better part of the 1970s as one of the most famous and beloved musicians in Ethiopia, only to disappear from the stage, forever. Or so it seemed, until recently.
Mergia's house in Fort Washington, Maryland, is filled with clocks. I spotted at least six in my short time there, on a recent Saturday afternoon. The clocks seem to tick on ceaselessly, lending a metronomic backdrop to every room. One, sporting the colors of the Ethiopian flag and the Lion of Judah, welcomes visitors to his basement, where he keeps his electric keyboard and a drum set. The clocks are a far cry from the bejeweled splendor of Addis Ababa's Hilton Hotel, where Mergia and his organ helmed the renowned Walias Band for an eight-year residency, back when playing the Hilton was the pinnacle of success as a musician in Ethiopia. A dour mahogany grandfather, with piano keys in place of numbers, sits near an upright Kincaid piano.
But time and its keepers be damned, the real decorating force in Mergia's home is the photographs that line the walls. There are a few of his wife, who wears a Mona Lisa smile, and a framed charcoal painting of his stepson. And then there are the photos of Hailu himself, often standing next to another musician: There's Hailu with Ethio-jazz compatriot (and one-time collaborator) Mulatu Astatke. Hailu with the head of his record label. Hailu with Feist. Hailu with his hero, the late jazz organ pioneer, Jimmy Smith.
Other photos of Hailu and his bandmates depict the golden nights when he and the Walias Band were fixtures of Ethiopian radio and television, and their cassettes of original compositions and funk-spattered takes on traditional favorites were national best-sellers. Back home, Mergia is still considered one of the most influential keyboardists of all time, revered for his knack for modern, synth-heavy interpretations of old standards. "I was the first guy to play old Ethiopian songs on organ," he tells me, running his fingers over his bald scalp.
A combination of political turbulence and life's vicissitudes led him from stardom in Addis Ababa to the taxi line at Dulles International—the very site he first touched down on in the United States, back in 1981. He lived a quiet cabbie's life for decades, playing keyboard only in the back of his cab while he waited for passengers. That is, until 2013, when Brian Shimkovitz, the Awesome Tapes From Africa blogger-turned-label head, visited a dusty Ethiopian record store, and discovered a forgotten tape that sounded unlike anything he'd ever heard before. "I found the timbre of the bass and the subtlety of the electronic drums really appealing and then Hailu's whole dramatic wash of accordion and keyboards was completely astounding," Shimkovitz told me in an email exchange. "The album was so fascinating and so listenable that I played it twice consecutively. The tape perfectly blends Ethiopian modes with retro futuristic sounds and I never get tired of it."
It was a recording Mergia had dashed off and mailed home in the mid-'80s, and it featured a futuristic rig of accordion, organ, drum track, and electric piano. Shimkovitz's subsequent re-issuance of that album, Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument, along with two others Mergia made in the '70s, pulled Mergia back into the public world of music. For the past few years, he's steadily played shows across North America and Europe, including a stint opening for indie rock darlings Beirut. Along the way, he started writing new material. The fruits of that labor appear on Lala Belu, his first album of new music in decades, which comes out today. The album's jazz trio format is a temperate middle ground between the big band set-up and self-stacking intimacy of his earlier releases; with his band's backing, Hailu seesaws between styles, a confident old hand with little left to prove, but fun left to have.
The most successful period for Mergia and the Walias Band coincided with a particularly difficult time for most Ethiopians. In 1974, the militant Derg regime deposed longtime emperor Haile Selassie, setting off a brutal power struggle that lasted nearly 20 years. During the late '70s, the Dergs carried out the "Red Terror" purges, killing at least 50,000, sometimes thousands in a single night. Tens of thousands more were tortured—dipped in hot oil, raped, sodomized by a heated iron bar, fingernails pulled out, among other travesties, according to Amnesty International. "Honestly, it was a very bad time for Ethiopians," Mergia tells me, his voice a bit softer than usual.
When he was a teenager, Mergia's mother frowned at his leaving school for a career in music; it was considered a beggar's profession. But for a civilian in a civil war zone, musicians like Mergia had it better than many. The Hilton Hotel was a bustling American-owned business favored by international types, which meant the violence and military crackdowns that formed a backdrop around the rest of the city largely left the cosmopolitan palace and its workers alone. When the Dergs instituted a strict curfew, Mergia and other band members received passes permitting them to travel at night without risking jail or death, and the Walias Band was asked to perform at the presidential palace multiple times. Discussing this period, Mergia's mood darkens, and he takes pains to emphasize that he was anything but friendly with the autocratic regime. "I was not involved in politics," he says. "I was a musician. We just do what they told us to do. If someone says be there for this occasion, you cannot say no."
The regime's treatment of prominent musicians was tolerant at best; at worst, it veered into authoritarian territory. Censorship was common, and Mergia recalls a government minister demanding he cut huge chunks of tape from an upcoming release. Though it was a cover of an old song, the minister told him the lyrics were "against the government." In a move of bacchanalian subversion, Mergia began catering his band's show times to the curfew-afflicted, sometimes playing throughout the night until 5 a.m., when the streets re-opened and the denizens of the crowd could return home. And, mild privileges or not, even musicians ultimately couldn't avoid the traumatic fact that they were living in a conflict zone. "On your day off, you see a lot of bad things going on, a lot of dead bodies" Mergia says. "As a human being, I'm not comfortable."
In search of relative comfort and maybe a little more fame, Mergia and his bandmates jumped at the opportunity to tour the U.S. playing shows at the start of the '80s. The tour promised the dual benefit of reprieve from the war and excitement of performing far from eastern Africa. On the eve of a two-year tour, they landed at Dulles International and took off in a white van overflowing with instruments and aspiration.
Not enough has been said about how much Mergia moves. He starts off vigorously itching his nose before briefly interlocking his hands behind his head. Soon, he fiddles haphazardly with a wing nut sitting in an ashtray that reads "Music ... this is the favorite passion in my soul." "I don't call myself restless," he says. "I'm just a person who gets bored doing one thing." The frenzy of his hands is an amusing contrast to the rest of his body, which sits comfortably slumped in his chair. This posture displays the slight gut lump of a healthy older man, one of the only indications that he's 71, aside from the frequency with which a solemn "he passed away" accompanies the descriptions of friends.
Mergia pauses the conversation to get changed before band practice, which he holds in his basement. Until this point, he's been wearing what he calls "shabby dress": an aging, brown half-zip fleece top; fuzzy black sweatpants with a quadricep-sized Polo logo guarding the kneecap; sock feet inside royal blue, star-spangled flip-flops. The V of his fleece pullover is zipped improbably low, exhibiting a thin gold chain with an insignia at the end, possibly an Ethiopian cross. Even after he changes into decidedly less-shabby slacks and a checkered button up, plenty of chest remains visible.
Down in the basement, Hailu rips up and down his Rhodes keyboard, below a shelf of Ethiopian knickknacks—felt cutouts of the country's shape, flat mesob baskets, tiny replicas of traditional instruments. To his left, a cloth calendar from 1982 hangs on the wall, bearing his visage and the word "Hollywood." But '81 and '82, the years of the U.S. tour, weren't exactly red carpet years for Mergia. Many Ethiopian fans boycotted the first show, in D.C., under the erroneous belief that the Derg junta had sponsored it. Over the next two years, the band toiled across the U.S. in a van, playing for unsustainably small crowds of Ethiopian expatriates.
Mergia's practice set is brimming with traditional pentatonic melodies plucked from the attic, and perhaps the pensive stare Hailu wears as he plays is similarly backward-looking. He might think back to the period after the disappointing tour, when most of his bandmates returned to Ethiopia. Mergia stayed in D.C., hoping to cobble together some sort of accomplishment to prove the merits of his journey upon his eventual homecoming. He took ESL classes at a local community college, and enrolled at Howard University to study music, but pay from his weekend shows couldn't support the fees, and he dropped out after a semester.
Frustrated and itching to create, he booked some time in a local recording studio with a friend from Howard, hoping merely to record some tracks for himself. Mergia's palms mime physical stacking as he describes the unusual combination of sounds he put together during the session.The resulting songs were so beguiling that Mergia was convinced to send the tapes back to Addis, where they were released in cassette form by a local shop. And while Shemonmuanaye (later re-issued by Shimkovitz as Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument) became a huge hit in Ethiopia, Ethiopian music publishers didn't pay royalties, which meant he was only paid a small fee upfront. The whole time, Mergia remained in the U.S., where his music was virtually unknown. As Ethiopians played his new songs on the radio, Mergia was busy working odd jobs around D.C.
Rather than the meditative stroll of Shemonmuanaye, the songs being played in the basement—many from Lala Belu—are jazzy and cavorting. Mergia's body seems immune to the otherwise undeniable groove, only his fingers dancing and heels tapping quarter note time beside a ratking of speaker cables. The scene recalls his last ditch years playing in a wedding trio for a few years in the mid-to-late '80s, before he began his decades-long hiatus from public musicianship. He lingered in musical proximity for a few years, running a soukous club in northern D.C., where bright Congolese dance music played for customers from all corners of the African diaspora. A cornucopia of over 50 African flags that once decorated the bar now flanks Mergia's living room with colorful memories.
Soon though, he began driving an airport cab, a way of footing the bills that—as far as jobs go—he continues to enjoy, even post-music career renaissance. He liked being able to make his own schedule, and the money was good. Breaks came when he wanted, and he could spend hours on the keys while he waited in line for his next ride. For the better part of two decades it seemed like the rest of his days might follow this routine, and that was fine. He wasn't on television anymore, but Hailu was happy. "It's not about the show," he said. "I have the music with me. I'm not lost for it." Lost or not back then, he's now been found, or at least resurfaced.
Rehearsing, the drummer (Ken Joseph) and bassist (Alemseged Kebede) keep time across from Mergia, surrounded by an inoperable treadmill and other detritus of basement life. The trio will begin their first tour together at the end of the month, with dates in California and Europe. Mergia will tell you again and again that, despite his lengthy performance break, he never stopped practicing. Watching him play, you can tell. His hands fly faster than ever, finally coherent in their restiveness. A particularly buoyant organ solo peaks so infectiously that Hailu and Kebede break into laughter. The band inquires: Does Mergia play on a certain part of this song? "Sometimes I do," he answers, with a coquettish grin. "Sometimes I don't."
Later, stopping at an Ethiopian restaurant in Alexandria for a late-lunch of injera and tibs, Mergia is greeted like an elder statesman. Several men offer handshakes, salutations, head-nods, and well-wishes. His exit, after the meal, features a similar thronging. He's only eaten there once before, but he's a known entity. As his taxi pulls out of the parking lot, a man in a large coat flags him down enthusiastically, and they chat for a minute through the window. Mergia laughs, driving away, admitting that he's known the guy for years, but can't remember his name. Cruising now, the conversation returns to Mergia's work, where his matter-of-fact optimism flourishes. "Your lucky day if you make money," he says of taxi driving. But "if not today, then tomorrow."