From Ethiopia with love, funk and more

A-lister Hailu Lulessa Mergia, a pioneer of Ethio-jazz, plays Tel Aviv’s Zappa Club tomorrow.

MULTI-INSTRUMENTALIST Hailu Lulessa Mergia: You can take an accordion with you wherever you want (photo credit: Courtesy)
MULTI-INSTRUMENTALIST Hailu Lulessa Mergia: You can take an accordion with you wherever you want
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As many of us know from our own aliyah experience, it can take quite a while to start to feel at home in this, our new, country. Some of us adapt more quickly than others. Then again, it can also take the host society a while to absorb and accept us.
The Ethiopian community probably falls into the latter category. However, over the last decade or so, artists who either were born in Ethiopian or have Ethiopian-born parents have come into their own. Musicians, dancers, stand-up comedians and writers from that sector of the public have increasingly made their mark here.
That cause has also been helped by bringing over some top-class acts from Ethiopia to perform here at various events and venues all over the country.
When it comes to proffering an Africa taken on jazz, multi-instrumentalist Hailu Lulessa Mergia sits easily in the A-lister section. Mergia is hailed as a pioneer of Ethiopian jazz, aka Ethio-jazz, and will bring his trio to these parts when he performs at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv, on Wednesday, November 7 (doors open 7:45 p.m., show starts 9:30 p.m.), to mark the end of the Sigd holiday celebrated annually by the Beta Israel community.
Mergia, whose instrumental arsenal includes electric piano, organ, melodica and accordion, which he augments with vocals, will do musical battle here with bass guitarist Alemseged Kebede-Anissa and drummer Kenneth Courtney Joseph.
NOW 71, Mergia first trod the boards over half a century ago. That was a time when a certain mop-topped Fab Four were taking the world by storm. The Merseybeat sound also made its way to northeast Africa.
“Oh yes, I heard The Beatles,” he says. “We also listened to The Rolling Stones, [soul icons] James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett – all those guys were our favorite groups and singers back then.”
Teenaged Mergia’s developing ear for music was largely shaped by those acts from foreign climes, and still feature in the Ethiopian’s playlist to this day. “I still listen to those soul musicians,” he says.
The blues and, more importantly, jazz soon kicked in.
“I started listening to that music in the mid-sixties,” he recalls. “I remember I listened to [legendary bluesman] BB King and the jazz big bands, and also [organist] Jimmy Smith.”
There was also an emerging scene in Ethiopia at the time, and that and the American and British hits coming at Mergia over the radio airwaves neatly dovetailed. “When I listened to all that music [from overseas] it was hard for me to hear the difference between modern Ethiopian music and blues or jazz or funk or R&B, all that stuff.”
“All that stuff” not only found its way into Mergia’s growing musical consciousness, it also became the bedrock of his own craft as he became a professional performer.
After serving in the Ethiopian army, in a music unit, where he honed his evolving skills, he debuted as a singer before taking up the accordion. Mergia says it was a natural progression. “The accordion was very popular back then. You could make so many sounds on it; because of that I started playing the accordion. Also, there were no organs in Ethiopia then.”
Practicality also came into the equation. “You can take an accordion with you wherever you want. You can play all kinds of music on an accordion,” he adds, “the blues and all kinds of European, Western music.”
The versatility of the squeeze box came in handy for Mergia’s early gigs. “I was playing at a club, and I didn’t concentrate on playing the blues. We had to play all kinds of music for the audiences there. And I could sing while I played the accordion, too.”
Mind you, when the performance in question happened away from the main rural areas, Mergia and his fellow musicians could take musical matters into more local ethnic directions. “If we were playing in the countryside, or at a local bar, sometimes we played traditional Ethiopian instruments. We might use a [single-string bowed instrument] masinko or a [6-string] krar.”
Mergia was happy to go with the stylistic flow, and the demands of performing commercial-oriented, non-Ethiopian music turned out to be an enduring boon. It eventually led him to Ethio-jazz. “When we played in clubs, we played different kinds of music. We played Amharic songs, and funk and soul, and pop. That experience guided me to play this kind of music.”
Improvisation came naturally to Mergia. “I learned to improvise on chord changes,” he explains. “In Ethiopian music most of the music is based on a pentatonic scale. So I improvise on that, too.”
AFTER IMBIBING the rhythms and melodic bases of Western music, Mergia took his musicianship to another level, in the mid-sixties, when he expanded his textural purview into electronic lines of exploration. “Almost every place then had an organ. So I started playing that and I dropped the accordion. When the organ came in, the accordion was no longer popular. I was following the times.”
While there may have been some, presumably of the older generations in Ethiopia, who were not too enamored with his move into electronic instruments, there was nothing like the howls of disapproval Bob Dylan was subjected to, around the same time, when he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival playing an electric guitar.
“The club owners wanted me to play organ,” says Mergia. “They wanted us to play modern music.” Even musicians have to eat sometimes.
Mergia was keeping abreast of technological developments, and in due course he took the next step, boosting the possibilities of sonic expression manifold in the process. “I started playing synthesizer sometime in the late seventies.” That was a revelation. “The synthesizer was really popular then, and it became an important tool. You could play so many things on it. You could play like an orchestra.”
That also enabled Mergia to cut down on his musical entourage and, for a while, he became a one-man band. His 1985 release Shemonmuanaye, for example, after making his mark with his celebrated seven-piece Walias Band jazz and funk outfit, has Mergia laying down sumptuously stratified textures on Moog and DX7 synthesizers, Rhodes electric piano and rhythm machine married with the rich harmonic layering of his accordion, and creating elegantly arranged instrumentals with more than a modicum of psychedelia.
The album, released on cassette, referenced traditional as well as modern Ethiopian music, seasoned with the jazzy, bluesy sentiments he absorbed in his youth.
Mergia has added the melodica to his act, and the accordion also makes an appearance or two at his gigs. He still sings, although he says the march of time has left a pockmark or two.
“I wish my voice sounded like it did when I was younger,” he laughs.
“But I think it’s still OK.”
The Zappa show repertoire will feature a spread of numbers from across Mergia’s half-century-and-counting career to date, including some cuts off Lala Belu, which came out last year. Typically, it covers broad tracts of stylistic avenues, taking in Latin rhythms, swing, funk and more.
Wednesday’s Zappa patrons would be well advised to open their ears, minds and hearts, and just go with the joyous Ethiopian flow.
For tickets and more information: *9080 and https://www.zappa-club.