Hailu Mergia is back. And that’s a good thing. The keyboardist spent the late ’60s and ’70s in the Walias band, an r&b/funk ensemble that played with many of the best known Ethiopian performers of that nation’s golden era. Finding the military dictatorship known as the Derg to be increasingly oppressive, Hailu emigrated to America after a tour, spending the ’80s playing the Ethiopian circuit in the States, and eventually becoming the owner of a car service in the D.C. area. In 2013, his career received an unexpected jumpstart from the Awesome Tapes from Africa label, and he is now back on the road, recently playing a stellar NYC show backed by the band Low Mentality. Afropop co-producer Sam Backer caught up with Hailu while he was at work. A later interview with Hailu–as well as a number of his songs–is included in our recent “Afro-Tech” program. And if you want to hear more Hailu, you can get his record here.
Sam Backer: When did you first start playing music?
Hailu Mergia: I started playing a very long time ago. When I was 15, 16 years old.
And what was the first instrument you played?
First, I was a singer. Then I started playing accordion.
I know you said in an earlier interview that there weren’t many pianos around early in your career. How did you switch to piano?
Not–not to the piano. I switched to organ.
When did organs get introduced to Ethiopia?
In the early ‘60s. And of course my first organ was a Farfisa. After that, I changed a lot of organs, so I don’t remember all of them, but the Farfisa was my first.
When organs were introduced, did they really impact the music?
Yeah. Because you know, before that, I was playing only accordion, and it’s not only me–almost all the musicians playing in nightclubs in Addis Adaba were playing accordion, and sometimes a piano in some places. But the accordion was very popular before the organ came.
And then, after that, did everyone switch from accordion to organ?
Why did they switch? Did they just like it better?
No–it’s just that was the latest invention, so everybody had to change to it. It was the latest electronic instrument–every club, everybody had to start playing organ.
So when did synthesizers first appear? Not just electric organs, but synthesizers.
The synthesizer came somewhere in the ‘80s I believe, or the late ‘70s. I don’t remember exactly when the instruments showed up, but I started using it in the ‘80s.
Who were you playing with then?
I played with Walias band then. I recorded with them and was playing in the clubs also.
I was listening to a Best of the Walias Band record that we have in the Afropop collection, and you have some pretty wild sounds in there! So in that band, you started off playing organ and then switched to synthesizers?
No. While I was with Walias band, what I did was primarily playing organ, but for variety I used the synthesizer.
Did the synthesizer change how you were playing, the way the introduction of the organ did, or was it just a growth from that?
It was mostly a growth on that. But actually, I have much more synthesizer on the collection that was released by Brian Shimkovitz, the one that’s on Awesome Tapes From Africa. That one really used synthesizer more than any time before.
It’s really interesting–you recorded that album in America, right, after you had already emigrated?
Yes, well, I had recorded some music back home but, then I was only really recording on organ. But when I came here in 1982, ’83, I did a recording in Los Angeles–a Walias band recording. And that time, I started to really use a synthesizer. And then, in 1983, when I recorded my music again, I used all synthesizer on that album. [Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument]
So why did you get more into synthesizers?
It just happened by coincidence: When I went to the studio, I was trying to record only accordion, because the accordion was a forgotten instrument for a long time. I had stopped playing it for more than 30 years. So I tried to make a record, just to have it for my collection. But then, in the studio, there was a guy who had a Moog synthesizer, and when I tried it, just to put over the accordion, it sounded good. And I just kept it on there.
Why did you decide to do a solo record? Was it connected to your decision to play accordion music?
Yes, that music was just a one-man-band recording. Like I said, I wanted to have some collection of the music, because I was playing accordion for the first time in 30 years with one of our singers, and people liked it. So what I think was that I decided to just record a collection, just to have a collection on cassette. There were no CDs at the time, just tapes. So I went to the studio and then I started to record only the accordion parts, by themselves. But when the guy showed me the Moog and a Rhodes piano, I started playing it, and I liked the sound, and that’s how I recorded the whole thing.
Why did you decide to do it solo? Was that common then, did many musicians in your circle do one man band records?
Not really, I think that was my first time that I did a solo record by myself. Because I used to do recordings with the Walias Band when I was back home. That was my first time. And it was–I don’t know. Maybe a kind of….search.
What do you mean?
You know, what sound is better for this one, which sound is better with this melody. Which sound is better with this one, or that one. If you listen to the music, it has more synthesizers and electric pianos and accordions playing the melodies, so it’s whatever fits best with each melody, I just put that in there.
When did you get the idea to do a one man band recording? Why didn’t you get other musicians to back you up?
Well, you know, like I told you, I went to the studio of a friend of mine just to have the accordion by itself, and to record a collection just for myself. But then when I recorded one melody, I liked the accordion sound, and when I combined it with the Moog synthesizer and the electric piano sound, I liked it more and more. So I thought, instead of doing just one accordion, why not do it this way, and instead of one melody, have a cassette!
So you were really composing in the studio?
Yeah, you’re right! Everything that I did on that album–everything was created in the studio. That’s why the music is just very interesting: I didn’t rehearse, I didn’t practice it, I just created everything in the studio. And the rhythm machine: I went with the rhythm machine originally to make the accordion recording.
So the original accordion recording was always going to have the rhythm machine on it?
Yes. Because at that time, the rhythm machine was a new kind of style. A lot of musicians at that time were recording music from many different places, all using the rhythm machine.
So had you recorded with a rhythm machine before?
Not before that. But after that I used it on three or four cassettes. That was my first time though.
What made you decide to use it?
Well, just to make an economical recording. I didn’t want to have a drummer, so I just wanted to make it with the new machine.
I know that drum machines were very popular in American music at that time, but were drum machines being used in Ethiopian music as well?
Oh yes. A lot of musicians used the rhythm machine for almost everything.
When did rhythm machines first get introduced to Ethiopian music?
I think sometime in the early ‘80s.
So after synthesizers or did they come at the same time?
I think the rhythm machine came a bit later. I’m not really sure. In my case, I first started using the rhythm machine on this recording, when I was working on my own.
Do you remember the first time you heard it in Ethiopian music?
I think mine was the first I heard. I mean–people were using it with a singer, but for an instrumental record, I was the one who did it first.
The cassette you made in the United States–you recorded that in L.A., right?
No, no, the instrumental one I recorded in Washington, D.C. The one I recorded in L.A. was with the Walias band. We did that in 1982, ’83, in Los Angeles.
So the record you made in L.A.–did you use synthesizers on that one?
Yes, I used it for two songs on that album.
When you used the synthesizer in the Walias Band, you seemed to use it similarly to how you play the organ; it seems like it’s mostly an expansion on your technique. But when use the synthesizer on the instrumental record, you play it very differently.
Yes, sometimes I use it for the introduction. Sometimes for improvisation.
Is part of the reason that you used the synthesizer that way because you were recording in the studio? So it wasn’t just the sounds it could make, but how you were layering with it. Is that right?
Yes. That’s true.
Could tell me a bit more about how you were thinking about using it in the studio?
Well, back then I didn’t think about using–that is to say, every time I would play, I would start with the rhythm machine. Then I would want an introduction, and I would write that using the piano or accordion or synthesizers. And I just added from there. I would always use a synthesizer bass line for those songs, because when you use one sound, it attracts you, and you’re just pulled to it.
Did you find that the way you recorded things in the studio change after you did the instrumental record?
Well, I don’t know. The listener is the one who can decide that. To me though, it was a big change. This album is very popular because of the combination of the sounds. This music has been out since 1985. It is popular not because of a special melody, but because it had a nice combination of sounds.
Did you try to get that mixture again in subsequent records?
I tried, but I just couldn’t get it. Because when I recorded that album everything was done right there. But when I go back to it, I don’t know…I’m trying.