Until quite recently, Hailu Mergia was, to all but a few committed fans of ‘70s and ‘80s Ethio-jazz/funk, a DC-area taxi driver like any other working out of Dulles International Airport. Since a heyday in which Mergia led one of Ethiopia’s most popular groups, the Walias band (the first private Ethiopian band to tour the US), Mergia’s life had quieted down a bit. He hadn’t played a show in twenty years when Brian Shimkovitz of Awesome Tapes from Africa called him up. Shimkovitz had found a copy of Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument at a music shop in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. Though Mergia’s playing days were long behind him, Shimkovitz easily found his number after a quick Google search. Since that call, Mergia has regained some of his prominence, receiving much deserved respect as one of the masters of Ethiopian accordion playing and a unique innovator of Ethiopian music. In the past four months, Awesome Tapes from Africa have released a reissue of his forgotten masterpiece Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument along with the new remix EP of that record.
Originally released on cassette in 1985, Mergia recorded the record as an ode to the accordion sound of his youth. In an interview with Washington City Paper, he said that Ethiopians have “a lot of memories about the accordion, a lot of memories about the songs.” However, Mergia did not merely recapture the magic of a bygone musical era. He reimagined the classic Ethiopian accordion style with new technology, layering instrumentation from a Moog synthesizer, Rhodes electric piano and rhythm machine on top of the accordion. The result is a fascinating encapsulation of a turning point in time, marking a point of transition from traditional acoustic to electronic instruments.
The new Hailu Mergia Remixes EP (available on iTunes), though only four tracks long, is a welcome addition to the Mergia comeback. Indeed, the fact that Mergia’s nostalgic paean to the Ethiopian accordion sound feels perfectly at home with new production from modern electronic producers only underscores how forward thinking Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument was on it's first release.
The remix EP begins with “Wegene,” the fourth track on Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument. Hailu, playing each instrument himself, creates a laid-back grooving dialogue between the accordion, Rhodes, and Moog. The track is remixed twice, the first time by Norwegian producer Prins Thomas and the second by Mergia’s fellow DC natives Protect-U. Thomas’s cosmic-disco aesthetic fits Mergia’s track well. The remix really lets the accordion shine as Mergia’s virtuosic analog playing stands out from the electronic mix.
Protect-U are made up of former hardcore musicians Aaron Leitko and Mike Petillo. Petillo is co-founder of the Future Times label so it makes sense that their version of “Wegene” emphasizes the futuristic side of the track, transforming it into the kind of cut that might get playing late at night on a particularly chilled-out UFO. The final remix of “Ambasel” comes from El Guincho, the Canary Islands-based producer- and indie darling- also known as Pablo Díaz-Reuxa. El Guincho’s remix is the most uptempo of the three, turning Mergia’s track into fast-paced dub style exotica. We still hold out hope that Mergia will return to recording after his long period away from the limelight, but until that happens, we’re not getting tired of hearing these remixes anytime soon.