The release of Hailu Mergia‘s first album in more than two decades—2018’s Lala Belu—is neither a miracle nor some kind of wholly unforeseen Black Swan event. But to call it a pleasant surprise still understates just how unlikely a gift it was. Mergia made a name for himself in the 1970s as keyboardist in the Walias Band, house band for the Addis Hilton, an epicenter of nightlife in the Ethiopian capital during the era. Though Mulatu Astatke pioneered Ethio-jazz with a revelatory album recorded in New York, which he brought back home, his sometime collaborators the Walias made a signature sound, incorporating funk, rock and other styles into their psychedelic jazz groove. Their reputation eventually brought them to the U.S. for a tour in 1981, but only four years later, Mergia settled in Washington, D.C. as a cab driver, not abandoning music but not earning his living by making it either. Only years later, through Awesome Tapes from Africa‘s reissues of Mergia and the Walias’ handful of releases would his music find a new audience—and a new opportunity.
Only two years later, the Ethiopian musical icon returns with a second full-length set of music, proving not only that the spark never left, but that there’s plenty of fuel to burn. The title, Yene Mircha, translates to “my choice” in Amharic, and one could easily read into that a statement of purpose. After all, most of us not only didn’t hear Mergia’s music for decades, but never even had the chance. With a platform to finally make good on some of that lost time, Mergia finds himself back in a groove, leading six eclectic jazz numbers descended from his earlier Ethio-jazz sounds, but carrying the influence of everything from reggae to highlife and soul.
Yene Mircha, much like its predecessor, is a crisper and more modern sounding recording than the lo-fi jazz-funk sounds of his debut Tche Belew, and likewise it has a similarly relaxed air. It’s not necessarily surprising that a musician in his seventies might not seek out the same intensity that burned within his earlier recordings, though there’s more than enough inspiration to spare within Mergia’s latest batch of tracks, all of which still find themselves back to a timeless kind of jazz-funk. The title track is one of the funkiest, driven by bold splashes of horns and more traditional jazz guitar licks, with Mergia’s organ chords grounding the melody in syrupy soul. There’s a spaciously eerie dub approach to standout “Bayine Lay Yihedal,” whereas the energetic pulse of “Abichu Nega Nega” shows that, however far removed from his days as an Addis live mainstay, Mergia’s Walias days are never that far from him.
If Yene Mircha feels less miraculous than its predecessor, it’s only due to circumstances rather than the quality of the material. In fact, I might even suggest this latest effort has a little more muscle and verve to it, each song seemingly building up from the one that precedes it. That it’s less of a surprise doesn’t diminish how triumphant a return this new era is for Mergia, a legend who for too long wasn’t widely enough recognized as such. Yene Mircha‘s arrival still feels good, its music still nourishing and full of life. If this is a new normal, it’s one I can easily get used to.
Label: Awesome Tapes from Africa
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.