Haliu Mergia was already known and celebrated for his work with the ethio-jazz band Walias Band. After a life of free lance contributions in pick up bands as a singer and accordion player with one year of touring and a lot of nightclub performing, Hailu formed the Walias Band with some friends down at the Zula Club. Different than other bands, they started to own their own instruments, so they also had a certain independenance. And they also signed a contract with the owner of the Venus Club. They did gigs at several hotels like the Wabi Shebele and the Hilton, which was followed by a tour in the US. By that time they had been a celebrated band who even performed at dinners for the Derg government twice. They were the first private band who went on tour to the US. Some members decided to stay in the US, which meant the end of the band. Also Mergia settled in the States and formed there the Zula Band with Moges Habte and Tamiru Ayele, playing in different restaurants and touring in the States and Europe. In the meanwhile, he also had formed a one-man band recording which took inspiration from his first instrument, the accordion.
Other instruments mixed with it were the Moog DX7 synthesizer, Rhodes electric piano and rhythm machine. The tunes all originate in Ethiopian music (Amhara, Tigrinya and Oromo melodies) with a different touch of improvisations with them.
It is not always the accordion that leads the melodies. Partly that role has been taken over by the keyboards (Moog). The drum machine is mixed in very subtly, with slow rhythms that resemble handclaps or at a certain time (track 6) perhaps even in close relation to a heartbeat, or at least feel like being in tune with a calm inner rhythm. The Moog is also used for the bass section, repeating themes, here and there with adding a higher-toned effect. On one track (5) Hailu sings “Shake Shake”. The beautiful Rhodes piano improvisations are played either rather minimal, with small accents, or improvise upon the melody, always a bit in a jazzy and moody way, here and there is even with a slight funky touch. There is enough interplay and response and layers that make these instrumentals creative and enjoyable in all its calmness of playing, like a form of new jazz-fusion.
After this stint solo adventure, which was released on tape in Ethiopia (I think), The Zula Band continued until 1992. After that Mergia quit performing and ran the Soukous Club for seven years with his partners Moges and Tamiru. Nowadays he's making his living as a self-employed taxi driver at Dulles International Airport while continuing to record his music and practice as often as possible.
It must still be mentioned that at the time when this solo recording was done, it had also been the moment when Ethiopian music was shifting from acoustic-based performances to recordings that uses more and more synthesized elements. In this, still new and experimental stage, you can feel that this area was still like a new creative explorative area, where Hailu was translating consciously the folklore elements into electronic (and keyboard) solutions, while also succeeding to keep the ethio-jazz element intact. Here it is not something like using a cheaper formula as before, but more like a carefully balancing out the new elements with respect for earlier traditions (in folklore as well as in ethio-jazz standards).
PS. It is also good to check out the original ethio-jazz release by Hailu Mergia and the Wallias Band: worth discovering!
Haliu Mergia was a keyboardist and arranger diligently working the nightclub scene in Addis Ababa. He had formed the Wallias band in early 70s, and thanks to his talent to arrange he was lucky to be able to keep the band to remain for so long as an independent band, unless a certain political oppression and a more general dependency on local support, in which they still managed to win more and more fame. They had recorded a few singles with vocalists like Getachew Kassa and Alemayehu Borohor, but were also able to record this full length LP at Radio Voice of the Gospel Studios, just before the radio was taken over by the government for mere propaganda purposes.
The first half of the album gives more attention to the full band sound, which is a few times more rock than jazz, with a small element of funk, which is most dominant on the most catchy and now classic “Musicawi Silt” a tune and track which has become the most popular of all Ethiopian tunes, with its hypnotic attractive one note funky guitar rhythm, saxes and funky grooves in rhythm. The first few tracks show a more apparent use of flute too, in a more jazz-rock fashion. While the organ (Farfisa and Godwin organs) first only play moody accompaniment, (in the first track with some oscillations) it becomes a more dominant lead element in the second half, where the band more accompanies these moody organ leads than that they form something vivid together, such tracks are still equally fine. This is an all-instrumental album that shows the best of 70s Ethiopian scene.
The album became pretty pricy and sought after. It is of course also due to the classic funky tune that’s on it. Much more than the early Buddha Records provided, the album also again proves how much more than compilations full LP’s were perfect listens, islands of independent expression worth re-releasing such originals finally one by one.