Album Review: Hailu Mergia – Lala Belu [Awesome Tapes from Africa, February 2018]

January and February are the times when we reconsider last year’s resolutions a bit more seriously. For master keyboard player and living legend Hailu Mergia, 2018 is his year. February is the time for a heartfelt resolution to happen worldwide, and after 15 years since his last release, everyone is going to be turning the volume up for this one. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Hailu Mergia’s new album Lala Belu (Awesome Tapes from Africa), delivered to you by Awesome Tapes from Africa, the label that reissued Mergia’s instrumental compilations of Tche Belew (1977) in 2014 and Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye (1985) in 2013.

Former accordionist and keyboardist, along with Mulatu Astatke in the Walias Band – one of the most active Ethiopian bands from the early ‘70s until the early ‘90s, Hailu Mergia is one of the fathers of Ethio-jazz, highly esteemed in Ethiopia and beyond. Whilst driving taxis around Washington D.C. in the last decades, Mergia has nourished instrumental conversations delineating wholehearted promises to his portable keyboard always present in the back of the taxi. Lala Belu represents the coming back of the boomerang, where Mergia puts out flaming interpretations, kindling the contemporary global jazz bonfire. This album explores the meandering vital sound of accordion, electric and piano, superbly teamed with Mike Majkowski’s propelling bass lines and Tony Buck’s pervasive percussion loops.

Intro track ‘Tizita’ is the actual exemplification: the album’s first 10 minutes amplify Ethiopian pentatonic first-class melody on accordion and piano with synth effects and up-tempo rhythms. ‘Addis Nat’ follows with its funky downtown grooves wiping off any trace of dust from old reissue-related expectations. A natural spring arrives with ‘Gum Gum’, where the soulful elaboration of Mergia’s old sound on new Ethio-jazz waves welcomes us into the hallway of the album’s second half.

In ‘Anchihoye Lene’, the trio unravels meandering organ and piano pathways, leading the album over the Ethiopian high – and low – lands. It offers relentless percussion and bass power, and the groove goes on in ‘Lala Belu’. Synth effects expand beautifully on the merry melody and joyous vocals. Lastly, there’s ‘Yefikir Engurguro’, a piano solo ending coda wrapping up all the unbound devotion Mergia plays with. It is Hailu Mergia’s gem of a resolution, delivering us the whole album as his own promise of reverence for music. Signed up for Field Day Festival (London, 1 Jun – 3 Jun 2018), Hailu Mergia comes back to our ears in great mesmerizing style.