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Hailu Mergia/The Walias Band - Tezeta Music Album Reviews

Hailu Mergia/The Walias Band - Tezeta Music Album Reviews
A long-lost recording captures the Ethiopian organist and his band at the Hilton Addis Ababa in 1975, laying down deceptively breezy jazz songs steeped in nameless longing.

In the mid-1970s, the Hilton hotel in Addis Ababa was a refuge, for those who could afford it, from the political turmoil that was otherwise wracking Ethiopia. The Derg military regime seized power over the country in 1974, and soon began imposing restrictions—like a curfew and a prohibition against performing popular songs—that choked out the capital city’s formerly thriving nightlife scene. But the cosmopolitan atmosphere was still strong inside the Hilton, thanks in part to its American ownership and international clientele. Well-connected locals mingled with out-of-towners in the lobby, or relaxed by the pool. The sounds of the Walias Band, led by Hailu Mergia’s effervescent electric organ, drifted in and out like a warm breeze. The Walias held a residency at the Hilton for almost a decade, sometimes performing until sunrise, so that attendees could leave the show without risking detainment under the previous night’s curfew. In 1975, the band released Tezeta, a cassette of instrumentals they recorded at the hotel during off hours from performance. If the recordings are any indication, an evening with the Walias might have been enough to forget the era’s troubles until morning, if you were lucky enough to attend.

Tezeta had been lost to time until a recent reissue by Awesome Tapes From Africa, the label that has helped to spearhead a late-in-life career renaissance for Mergia, who had retired from performance for decades until a 2013 reissue of the 1985 album Shemonmuanaye (under the new title Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument) found him new listeners outside Ethiopia. By the time he made that album, he had moved to Washington, D.C., where few people knew he was a musical pioneer in his home country, and was working on his own in relative isolation, layering an idiosyncratic blend of accordion with electronic keyboards and drum machines. Tezeta, by contrast, is a document of Mergia and the Walias during the prime of their performing career. They were among the earliest acts in Ethiopia to combine the country’s traditional and classical songs with the swing and drive of American jazz and funk, and the very first, according to Tezeta’s richly informative liner notes, to make an album of purely instrumental music. Despite the band’s trailblazing status, Tessema Tadele writes, Ethiopians shared “an overwhelming consensus that [instrumentals] were merely produced as background music,” and Tezeta did not sell particularly well. However, in a country with strict limits on speech, there was a good reason to play music without words, whose ambiguity made it a tough target for censorship.

The Walias were both a band of fearless musical innovators and a cocktail-hour lounge act, playing music that was traditional and modern at once, for privileged audiences who might receive it as unobtrusive atmospheric enhancement or unspoken protest against oppression. Tezeta holds all these contradictions, not attempting to resolve them, but allowing their tension to animate its grooves. It’s true that the music settles comfortably into the background, if that’s where you prefer to keep it. The tempos are brisk but not bracing; the playing is stylish and confident but not brash. There are no jarring dissonances or dynamic shifts. Most tracks vamp on a small handful of chords—sometimes just one—across understated refrains and compact solos. It’s very easy to imagine the crowd at the Hilton, sipping drinks and making polite conversation, maybe even doing a little dancing.

Tune in a little closer, though, and you’ll find music of much depth and invention. Mergia unspools a series of infinitely nested curlicues on the keys, never content to step from one note to the next without spiraling across a cluster of others in between. (He apparently drew this approach from the fluid melodic embellishments of Ethiopian folk musicians on instruments like the krar and masinko). His restlessness never threatens the music’s overall composure. The effect, for me, is like water flowing through a creek: The water is always moving, but the creek stays still. Mergia is the clear star, and the only soloist on many tracks, but the other players also find ways to reach out toward the listener. When guitarist Mahmoud Aman takes the lead during the back half of “Zengadyw Derekou,” he barely steps out of the pocket, but the swagger and spaciousness of his simple lines are electrifying nonetheless. With a repeated lick at the end of his solo on “Tezeta,” flautist Moges Habte strains gently but insistently against the chord, testing its boundaries without breaking them. That approach—committed exploration within the limits of a well-defined framework—is indicative of the album as a whole.

In addition to being the name of the classic Ethiopian ballad the Walias tackle to open the set, the title of Tezeta also refers to the feeling of longing for memories past, and to an entire compositional form meant to evoke such nostalgia. According to the liner notes, many of the Walias’ instrumentals found unlikely second life as bumper music on Ethiopian television, until music from newer groups supplanted them. “Only then did those of us feeling a certain sense of loss started inquiring about ‘that music from TV’ at record stores,” Tadele writes, describing an avenue of nostalgia that Mergia and the band surely didn’t have in mind as they recorded this music. Similarly, in anecdotal experience, I’ve noticed music by Mergia and tezeta-minded contemporaries like Mulatu Astatke popping up with unusual frequency on the vibe-curated playlists of certain stylish restaurants recently—echoes of the Hilton lobby—or when an unrelated album ends on Spotify and the algorithm wants to keep me drifting into daydreamy oblivion. The songs never fail to cut through the circumstances of their presentation, tugging me toward sensitivity and alertness even when they’re used as aural wallpaper. Their very unobtrusiveness, I think, is one reason for their lasting adaptability, the way they can make you feel deeply without calling much overt attention to themselves, and in places so far removed from where they were made. Tezeta may be background music, but in the hands of an artist like Mergia, background music is a powerful thing.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Hailu Mergia/The Walias Band - Tezeta Music Album Reviews Hailu Mergia/The Walias Band - Tezeta Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Friday, July 09, 2021 Rating: 5

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