On this week’s Chattering Class, the story of Hailu Mergia, a Washington, D.C., cab driver who also happens to be behind one of the most popular songs in Ethiopian history. His pioneering work on the keyboard in the renowned Walias Band provided the soundtrack to Addis Ababa’s Seventies nightlife. He later emigrated to D.C., and except for a few home recordings, retired from music.
Indie label owner Brian Shimkovitz came across one of Hailu’s cassettes, became obsessed, tracked Hailu down, and re-released it, exposing a whole new generation to the music.
Hailu Mergia: I used to play in Ethiopia, in many clubs and different hotels with the Walias Band, which is my band.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Can you describe the Walias Band?
Brian Shimkovitz: The Walias Band was playing throughout the seventies at the Hilton Hotel in Ethiopia. Through the seventies, it was the fancy, swanky hotel where diplomats, rich guys from abroad, and fancy Ethiopians were hanging out.
They were playing there two, three times a night, all night long, and then they had the chance to perform in America. They came over, and half of them didn’t come back. At the time, there was kind of a difficult political situation in the country. Things were getting pretty dark, especially for the music scene.
I recently heard from Hailu — we were talking about that era — and there was a curfew, and people would go and start playing around 11:00 or midnight, and the audience would stay at the club the whole night, because you couldn’t leave the club and go out on the street. So, the bands would play until 6:00 in the morning.
Brendan Francis Newnam: If you were going to pick a song from your band back then that really represents what you guys sounded like — maybe one of your more popular songs — what song would it be?
Hailu Mergia: “Musicawi Silt,” which is part of the “Tche Belew” album.
Brian Shimkovitz: The most popular song of Hailu’s career, and arguably the most popular song in all of Ethiopian pop music worldwide, is a song called “Musicawi Silt.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: Brian, tell me how you found Hailu.
Brian Shimkovitz: I was on a trip in Ethiopia, and I like to go around to different cities and look for cassettes, and I found his tape among many other interesting tapes.
I went back to Berlin, where I was living at the time, and I listened to the tape two times in a row, completely blown. I’d never heard music like this. I’d traveled all over Ethiopia and never heard anything remotely quite like this, and I had to find this guy.
So, I Googled him. He had a BlogSpot page that happened to have his cell phone number on it. I dialed him up. It was after midnight in Berlin, but he was still awake in D.C., of course, and I said, hey, you haven’t been playing, right? Let’s try to find a way to do this stuff and reissue these records.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, you get this phone call from this crazy guy in Germany.
Hailu Mergia: Yeah. When I got a call from Brian, I was so … I wondered how he contacted me, and I asked him. He told me that he found my cassette and he wanted to re-release it. I said, “OK, we’ll make a deal.” I was so happy when he called me about it, and that’s how we’re doing this thing now.
Brian Shimkovitz: He’s just really enthusiastic and really happy to play music.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I heard that you said that you practiced almost every day, even when you weren’t playing.
Hailu Mergia: Since I stayed here in the States, I tried to play with a trio for some years. After that, I quit playing music, but I was just practicing in my house or in my car, everywhere. I have a keyboard in my car, so I just practice.
Brendan Francis Newnam: How do you practice in your car? You had a keyboard in your car?
Hailu Mergia: My keyboard works with a battery, like a AA battery. After I drop off my customer, I just grab my keyboard from my trunk, sit behind the seat, and I just practice until the next trip.
Brendan Francis Newnam: While you’re waiting for fares at the airport.
Brian Shimkovitz: Yeah, because it’s a long queue waiting in line for more fares. He sits in the back, in the backseat, because the steering wheel would make it difficult.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Do your fellow drivers know? Have they ever talked to you about the sounds coming out of your vehicle?
Hailu Mergia: Yeah, everybody knows about that because I have a very special place I sit.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You have your spot.
Hailu Mergia: I just sit there and just practice, and when they walk by, they just look at me, and they listen to the music. They ask me, “What kind of music is this?” Because drivers are from different countries.
That’s how I do it, and everybody likes it.