While Mulatu Astatke is the musician most widely associated with the creation of Ethio-jazz, fellow keyboardist Hailu Mergia is among other significant figures. Astatke is best known overseas because he was the most outward looking of Ethio-jazz's first generation, studying at London's Trinity College of Music and Boston's Berklee College of Music and making his first records in New York in 1966. Mergia by comparison has always looked in the main to Ethiopian traditional music for vocabulary and form. In this respect he resembles his contemporary, the tenor saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya, whose excoriating style, which could make Albert Ayler sound like Candy Dulfer, was developed in total isolation from Impulse! or ESP releases and indeed jazz of any stripe.
Mergia relocated from Addis Ababa to Washington DC in the 1980s, but this did not immediately increase his overseas profile. Instead of seeking access to the US music scene he worked for many years as a cab driver, self-producing solo cassettes for the expatriate Ethiopian community and performing only at family gatherings. Lala Belu (Awesome Tapes, 2018) was his first studio album in 15 years. By the time it was recorded, Mergia had inevitably been exposed to a raft of American jazz and the albuman exquisitely beautiful affair on which he was accompanied by drummer Tony Buck, a founder member of The Necks, and double bassist Mike Majkowskireflected those relatively recent influences.
Yene Mircha has stronger infusions of rock, reggae and funk than Lala Belu and its back-up band is workmanlike rather than striking. Mergia would appear to be reaching out to a crossover audience, and good luck to him, but the mostly laid-back album does not transmit quite so much magic. If Lala Belu was the aural equivalent of dropping acid, Yene Mircha better resembles kicking back with a couple of Mandrax. Whatever turns you on.
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