Album Review: Hailu Mergia – Yene Mircha [Awesome Tapes From Africa; March 2020]

The man with the Moog is back when we needed him most. Following his acclaimed 2018 release Lala Belu, the unassuming elder of Ethiopian music Hailu Mergia returns with his soothing synths for Yene Mircha which translates from Amharic as `My Choice’.

Ever since Buena Vista Social Club and (before) we’ve celebrated the late career blooming of artists rediscovered in time to enjoy a musical renaissance in their senior years. Hailu Mergia enjoyed his revival with the reissue of his 1985 album Hailu Mergia And His Classical Instrument re-released by Awesome Tapes From Africa in 2013. 

At the time Mergia was happily driving a taxi in Washington DC (and continued to do so until recently) with his battery operated keyboard in the trunk ever-ready to practice between jobs.

Many of his airport transfer fares never knew they were being chauffeured by a living legend who with his beloved Walias Band soundtracked the swinging sixties and seventies in Addis Ababa, a golden age of Ethiopian music.

This peaceful humility suffuses the seven songs on Yene Mircha which opens serenely with “Semen Ena Debub”.

Alternating between keys and accordion Mergia trades a typical modal melody with a masenqo (traditional Ethiopian fiddle) as the rock solid rhythm section lock in. The tune vamps out with a Highlife feel evidencing Mergia’s album title, chosen to reflect the many styles Mergia wishes to play. The smoky shuffle of “Yene Mircha” follows, with crisp horns and a minor mode fans of the Ethiopiques back catalogue will love.

Front and centre on each cut is the organ, Fender Rhodes, accordion or acoustic piano, played by Mergia with a deep spirituality. From the enigmatic dubby feel of “Bayine Lay Yihedal” to the jazzy gospel of “Yene Abeba” the runs and arpeggios shimmer and swoosh over that tight trio.

Part of the charm of Mergia’s 1985 cassette were the lo-fi ‘casio’ drum sounds and the fat phased sound of his moog juxtaposed with the classical Ethiopian melodies. Mergia was Afro-futurist before that was a thing. So if there’s anything missing from Yene Mircha it’s these vintage vibes. However you can’t begrudge Mergia choosing a slicker sound. He made that album more than 30 years ago, it just wasn’t widely heard outside of Ethiopia until recently.  

The album closes with “Shemendefer” the sole  track to feature a vocal (the lack of vocals a throwback to the censorship of Mergia’s youth under the Derg regime when instrumentals were a safer bet ) and indeed it’s a great parting song for a blissful album.

In Yene Mircha then, Mergia has again gifted us some beatific music just in time for this season. Let us hope we can hear him play it live soon