Ethiopian musician Hailu Mergia rediscovered after 30 years

World Today

Famed Ethiopian organist Hailu Mergia has been rediscovered by a recording label in the United States. Mergia was a star of the Ethiopian music scene for over three decades before he fell off the radar. CCTV America’s Daniel Ryntjes reported this story from Fort Washington, Maryland.

Ethiopian musician Hailu Mergia rediscovered after 30 years

A famed Ethiopian musician has been rediscovered by a recording label in the United States. Hailu Mergia, star of the Ethiopian music scene for over three decades... before dropping off the music scene.

Today Mergia, 68, is one of hundreds of Ethiopians who’ve chosen to be taxi drivers in suburban Washington D.C. He likes the job because he can be his own boss and decide his own hours.

Those who enter his cab, likely have no idea that their driver is a famed Ethiopian musician, who will soon have a U.S. debut.

For many years Mergia’s only audience has been the occasional Ethiopian customer who remembered the good old days of Ethiopian music.

“They recognize my name they ask ‘Are you Hailu Mergia, the one who plays organ’ and I say ‘yes’,” Mergia said. “And they ask me sometimes if I have some CDs in my car, if I can play them for them. Most of the time I have them, so I will play them.”

Mergia was part of the popular culture in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but dropped off the music scene in the early 1990s, though he continued to play for himself.

In 2013, Brian Shimkovitz, head of New York based record label, Awesome Tapes from Africa, was shuffling through some old tapes in a store during a trip to Ethiopia when he heard Mergia’s 1985 album that was celebrated in Ethiopia, but virtually unknown outside of the country.

When he returned to the United States, he contacted Mergia and signed him to his label.

“All these things, really, I’m glad to have this kind of chance,” Mergia said.

Getting signed has rekindled Mergia’s dedication practice more at home to prepare for tours.

Many of his sales are now coming from a “hipster audience”, who are fans of Mergia’s unique blend of American funk and soul mixed with traditional Ethiopian sounds.

“I switched from that kind of crowd, from a mostly Ethiopian crowd.. to European crowd or American crowd, so that’s a big change in my life,” he said.

The record company has also released the 1976 classic album “Tche Belew,” where Mergia played with the Walias band led to his original fame in Ethiopia.