AMN Reviews: Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument – Shemonmuanaye (Awesome Tapes from Africa)

There are so many deep pools of art and culture into which we are just beginning to dip our toes – in Indonesia and Oceania, Central Asia, Africa. Awesome Tapes from Africa certainly lives up to its name by re-issuing this astonishing, one-off solo gem by Ethiopian bandleader and arranger Hailu Mergia.

From having revolutionized the Addis Ababa music and recording scene in the seventies with his popular jazz/funk Walias Band, Mergia, now in his mid-sixties, lives quietly in Washington, DC, where he settled after the band came to tour in the early eighties. In 1985, he entered a tiny local studio that happened to be equipped with a Moog synthesizer, rhythm box and electric piano. Eager to try his hand, three days later he had conjured Shemonmuanaye, eleven instrumental updates of modern and traditional Amhara, Tigrinya and Oromo melodies.

While familiarity with the originals would of course give the listener an extra kick, the smooth swirl with which Mergia weaves his accordion and piano into the unfamiliar, futuristic instruments reveals an artist uncommon but immediately appealing to any ear. The paisley arabesques of “Amrew Demkew” sway like psychedelic flowers and the groove in which “Belew Beduby” gets permanently stuck is impossible to escape. As a visionary, Mergia´s analogue synths retain a charm far beyond the entertainingly retro and even the pre-programmed, simple beats thump and shuffle along at just the right tempo. Re-issue of the year?

Stephen Fruitman