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Hailu Mergia: Lala Belu

Chris May By

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Mulatu Astatke is by a long chalk the most widely known exponent of Ethio-Jazz. Propelled on to the world stage by the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch's 2005 movie, Broken Flowers, and subsequently picked up by record labels and festival bookers in Europe and the US, Astatke deserves all the acclaim that comes his way. But, curiously, his international breakthrough has not opened any big doors for other, comparably talented Ethiopian musicians. Prominent among those who are worth checking out is Astatke's near contemporary, the composer and keyboard player Hailu Mergia. Both musicians played key roles in the development of Ethio-Jazz in the early 1970s, before the military putsch which overthrew Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie went on to effectively close down the Addis Ababa music scene (a trauma from which Ethio-Jazz did not recover for almost two decades).

Mergia's relative obscurity is in part self-inflicted. He emigrated to the US in the 1980s and spent many years working as a cab driver in Washington DC, happy to make music at home, for his friends and family, or on a portable keyboard in the back of the cab, while waiting for fares. Lala Belu, recorded in London in 2017, is Mergia's first studio album in 15 years. He is accompanied with soul and precision by drummer Tony Buck, a founder member of The Necks, and Buck's fellow Australian and Berlin resident, double bassist Mike Majkowski. Some of the tunes are Mergia originals, others are his arrangements of traditional Ethiopian folk music. There are sumptuous melodies and trance-inducing vamps, and turbocharged extended-passages driven by drums and bass. Mergia's solos—on organ, Fender Rhodes, acoustic piano, synthesiser, accordion and melodica—are spellbinding, as are the passages of collective improvisation. Lala Belu is a work of flawless and exquisite beauty. And stick around for the hidden tracks: a couple of minutes after the apparent ending of the final track, another ten minutes of extraordinary music follows.

Mergia's return to the public arena is in large part due to the championing of US label Awesome Tapes From Africa, which over the last four years has reissued several of his classic albums from the 1970s. These include 1977's Tche Belew and 1978's Wede Harer Guzo, which set benchmarks for Ethio-Jazz as high as any set by Astatke. Astonishingly, Lala Belu is not just as good as its illustrious predecessors, it might even be better than them.

In an era when five-star reviews get thrown around like confetti, here is an album which really deserves that ranking.

Track Listing: Tizita; Addis Nat; Gum Gum; Anchihoye Lene; Lala Belu; Yefikir Engurguro.

Personnel: Hailu Mergia: keyboards, piano, organ, accordeon; Tony Buck: drums; Mike Majkowski: bass.

Title: Lala Belu | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Awesome Tapes From Africa

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