Two Ethiopian Music Legends Bring Ethiopian Jazz and Funk to Los Angeles

Left: Ayalew Mesfin [Photo by Hannah Brooks]. Right: Hailu Mergia [Photo courtesy of the artist]
For many people outside of the Habesha community, their first experience with Ethiopian music came from the soundtrack of a Bill Murray movie. That movie, 2005’s Broken Flowers, concerns Murray’s character trying to make contact with an adult son of his who may or may not exist. In the movie, Murray’s character is helped on his journey by his neighbor, played by Jeffrey Wright, who not only plans out Murray’s quest, but maybe most importantly, provides him with a soundtrack in the form of a playlist on a burnt CD consisting mostly of the elegantly fidgety Ethiopian funk of vibraphonist and pianist Mulatu Astatke. The music, funky, with hard drum breaks, soil deep bass lines, hauntingly melancholic brass solos, steady keyboard vamps that break out into wistful sentiments, and the occasional reverb heavy wah wah guitar rejoinder, is an essential element in constructing the mood and emotional ambiance of the movie, so much so that the director, Jim Jarmusch, makes a point to show a large portrait of Mulatu Astatke in the home of Jeffrey Wright’s character.

“It was a revolutionary time for music in Ethiopia,” says Hailu Mergia, a Ethiopian pianist and accordionist, describing the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa during the time period that both he and Mulatu Astatke were making music. “Before the late 1960s, there weren’t too many nightclubs in Addis, but in the late ’60s, a lot more clubs started to open, and a lot of musicians started to come out to play,” Hailu goes on to say, “everybody was trying to play with a band. I call it the ‘Band Era.’’’

What Hailu is too humble to let on is that he and his band, Walias Band, were one of the innovators of that revolutionary time in Ethiopian music along with Mulatu Astatke, who played with the Walias Band off on in the ’70s. Combing the electric instrumentation and musical power of American soul and funk music, and the freedom of American jazz music, with the modes and melodies of traditional Ethiopian music, Hailu, and Walias Band created a sensation in Ethiopia in the early ’70s as the house band for the Addis Ababa Hilton Hotel, often playing all night jam sessions because of a police curfew that kept people locked indoors for a majority of the night until the following day.

But while a cultural revolution was happening in the clubs of Addis Ababa, an armed rebellion was happening throughout Ethiopia, a rebellion that eventually overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, and installed the Derg, a Leninist military junta, into power in 1974. While the Derg tightened restrictions on freedom of expression and human rights in general in Ethiopia, Hailu and the Walias Band soldiered on, until, an opportunity to tour the United States with singer Mahmoud Ahmed presented itself in the early 1980’s. At the first stop in Washington D.C. Hailu remembers looking out into the crowd and seeing “Not too many Ethiopians then, because the community wasn’t as big as it now is, but the few that were around came to the show.” After the show, Hailu, and some of his band mates decided to end the band, and stay in D.C.

After working as a taxi cab driver in D.C. for years, attending Howard University to study music, and recording the beautiful afro-futuristic Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument in the mid ’80s, a record of solo synth, accordion, and drum machine renditions of Ethiopian songs, Hailu is set to release a new record of mostly acoustic piano and accordion music (with some Fender Rhodes, and other various synth accents) in March called Lala Belu. Recorded as a trio, with two non-Ethiopian musicians, Tony Buck on drums, and Mike Majkowski on bass, the album sees Hailu plunging further into American jazz music, while still maintaining a distinctive Ethiopian pentatonic sound. The album will also see Hailu playing his first show ever in Los Angeles, a city with one of the largest Ethiopian populations in the country.

“Music was a way for people to speak about what was going on in terms of like politics and in terms of struggles, and as a way for people to express their frustrations with the government in indirect ways or poetic ways,” says Danny Mekonnen, saxophonist for Debo Band, an American band that takes influence and inspiration from the music made in Ethiopia in the 1970s, when asked about the importance of music in the Ethiopian community.     

Danny, who was born to Ethiopian refugee parents in Sudan, and refers to himself as Sudanese born Ethiopian-American, learned about Ethiopian music from his parents cassette collection, and after studying jazz in college, “started hearing connections between jazz and Ethiopian pop music.”

With Debo Band, Danny is able to recreate and experiment with those funky Ethiopian band songs that Hailu Mergia revolutionized, along with other artists like Mahomed Ahmed. But one particular Ethiopian artist transfixed Danny and his band– Ayalew Mesfin.

On a recent reissue of Ayalew Mesfin’s music put out on Now-Again Records, simply titled Hasabe, Ayalew can be heard channeling and directing the power of a hot Ethiopian funk rock band with a ecstatic grace similar to James Brown, interrupting his cool to push the band forward, or indulge in the Ethiopian style melisma vocal trill that seems to embrace sadness, longing, and nostalgia, something similar to what Ethiopian-Canadian singer The Weeknd can tap into on his best songs.  

Before this compilation, the first to centrally locate Ayalew’s music into a collection, Ayalew, one of the biggest stars in Ethiopia, only had a few tracks available to western audiences to find on the popular Ethiopiques series, a series of close to 30 compilations of various Ethiopian music that focused on collecting music made before the Derg regime took power. Ayalew has a more complicated story though.

During the Derg regime 13 year rule, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians fled the country to escape political oppression and economic hardships, but Ayalew stayed, recording music and playing concerts well into the mid 1970s. Eventually the Derg cracked down on Ayalew’s music. He was arrested and his musical and studio equipment was confiscated. Yet, he still stayed, opening up a record store in Addis, and a nightclub.

“He understood how important that was,” says Danny,  “I heard from a musician in the Bay Area that when he owned the nightclub, that many Ethiopian musicians are indebted to him for helping sustain their careers…  He owned and maintained all his master tapes on reel to reel tape [as well]. He managed to protect his own music [as well.]”

After the overthrow of the Derg regime Ayalew stayed in Ethiopia until 1998, eventually establishing himself in Denver as a pillar of the Ethiopian community there, and establishing another record store in town.

Now, after a hiatus from performing, Ayalew had planned to embark on a short tour, his first ever in the United States, with stops in Denver, Berkeley, and L.A., backed by the Debo Band, when news came from Waldiya last month that at least five, possibly seven, people were killed at a religious festival by Ethiopian security forces when people reportedly started shouting anti-government slogans.

“Ayalew was heartsick,” says Cam Schaefer of Vinyl Me, Please, who helped both put out the reissue and organize the tour. “It’s a part of Ethiopian culture that if something like that happens you don’t go celebrate, or sing. Ayalew was really conflicted of putting in that position, he thought it was a necessary time to mourn the deaths of fellow Ethiopians in general.” At the same time the musician was realized that these performances could be used to highlight what’s currently happening in Ethiopia in a way to just raise awareness. So rather than just not performing at all, the decision was made to have a shortened set of Ayalew singing to fit into kind of with this idea of mourning and protest about the violence happening. So he’ll be singing one song, and the Debo Band will be playing a full set afterword to celebrate his music. The band’s lead vocalist will perform some of Ayalew’s songs in place of the artist himself.

“That love of country is why he’s only going to be doing one song,” says Danny Mekonnen, “I think his decision to not perform is a real reflection of who he is. This music is for the people. Music, is for the people.”

Ayalew Mesfin with perform with Debo Band at The Echoplex on 2/13, for tickets click here. Hailu Mergia will perform at Zebulon on 2/23 (Sold Out).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *