Sometimes a story comes full circle in the most unexpected way. Ethiopian keyboard and accordion maestro, Hailu Mergia, has enjoyed a well-deserved renaissance with the reissues of his classic albums on Brian Shimkovitz' label Awesome Tapes from Africa: Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye, Tche Belew and Wede Harer Guzo.
However, Mergia has not been resting on his laurels. He has been on the road with his trio with drummer Tony Buck and bassist Mike Majkowski and has tested new material that now sees the light of day on Lala Belu. It is a fresh sound and a new beginning that still has ties to Mergia's original sound, but with an aesthetic that is closer to jazz than Mergia has been before.
Working in a trio format at first seems like a limitation considering the richness of the funky band sound on Tche Belew and Wede Harer Guzo, but is it turns out, the music on Lala Belu is perhaps the most complete and varied expression of Mergia's musicality. The opening track, "Tazita," is a fine example of the musical metamorphosis that Mergia is capable of. It starts out as a slow blues-shuffle with brushing organ and arabesque accordeon and there's a beautiful passage with bowed bass from Majkowski that suddenly gives way to an up-tempo section with freewheeling acoustic jazz and spacey synthesizer beeps. It all ends in an acoustic bass explosion and fusion-like soloing from Mergia. It's a nine minute plus composition of epic proportions, not only in terms of length, but also development and style.
The album also provides irresistible grooves like "Addis Nat" and the first single, "Gum Gum," with a delicious, swampy Ethiopian organ riff and tasty hi-hat playing from Tony Buck. It is easy to imagine how this trio can build up a party and the invitation to a singalong part also comes on the title track where Mergia chants to a groove that goes straight to the body. Like a true album, the music ends on a more reflective note with a lyrical solo piano piece from Mergia. Any pianist looking for inspiration should check out Mergia's use of the Ethiopian scales that create the same mesmerizing effect as heard in the music of Ethiopian pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guébrou. It is a fitting way to end a wonderful album that shows Mergia at the top of his game.