Capping several successful years traveling the world performing to audiences big and small, Hailu Mergia will release his first new album in over 15 years, Lala Belu, on March 9.
Lala Belu has been a long time coming and builds on Mergia’s remarkable career resurgence over the past few years. Beginning in 2013 with the reissue of his dreamy Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument followed by the enormous success of his seminal Ethio-jazz masterpiece Tche Belew and continuing with last year’s widely acclaimed Wede Harer Guzo, Mergia has received considerable accolades from listeners
and press globally, including The New York Times, Pitchfork and The Wire. His old recordings are cherished revelations for Ethiopian music fans; however, Mergia’s return to the stage has been just as inspiring and electrifying.
Mergia’s vintage recordings are known for an inherently mysterious and worn-in quality, while his new recordings echo his band’s 21st century live show with modern instrumental interpretations of crucial Ethiopian standards and Mergia’s own original compositions. Tony Buck (drums) and Mike Majkowski (bass), who have backed Mergia on tour throughout Europe and Australia, form the bass-drums trio on the recording. Having played venues from Radio City Music Hall and the Kennedy Center to jazz festivals, rock clubs and DIY spaces all over North America, Europe and Australia, Mergia and ATFA want to document this moment in his landmark career with a snapshot of his current sound. Mergia has a strong awareness of how much has changed for him since his last studio record, selfreleased in 2003: “It is a very historical album for me. And I am extremely excited. All of it feels like a big comeback. A different kind of audience, playing with a different kind of band and working with a different kind of record company. The album is very different from all the albums I did after I left Ethiopia.”
The trio recorded the basic tracks in London in 2016 at EMS4 and Mergia completed them, adding overdubs and overseeing mixing in D.C. at Cue Studios with engineer Javon Gant. The album was mastered by Jessica Thompson, who has painstakingly excavated audio and remastered all Mergia’s recent reissues.
Since he emigrated from Ethiopia and built a life in Washington, D.C. around 1981—where he remains working as an airport taxi driver when he is not on tour—Mergia’s career has followed a humble trajectory. He made a few recordings in America but they didn’t easily reach fans back home. He kept making music on his own and with friends but after the early 80’s his gigs in the U.S. mostly dried up. It wasn’t until he began working with Awesome Tapes From Africa and putting together bands with the help of booking agents and musicians in Europe and the U.S., that he was able to chart a new path. With a broad audience of young listeners in diverse venues and distant locales, at age 71, Mergia is enjoying his comeback and is not slowing down.