An important figure in 1970s Ethiopian music sounded hyper-current in Coventry, proclaims Martin Longley.
Even if you deem yourself an Ethiopian-orientated vinyl-digger, you might not have chanced upon keyboardist Hailu Mergia’s works. Last year’s reissue of 1977’s Tche Belew, and the previous 1985 cassette revival release on the Awesome Tapes From Africa label increased the chances, though. He was a member of the Walias Band during his 1970s heyday, but this Coventry gig was certainly not any kind of retro re-awakening of that repertoire or sound.
Well, possibly the repertoire, although with Mergia’s trio partners of bassist Mike Majkowski and drummer Pawel Szpura, both of them arriving from a free jazz (or free rock) background, there was a definite thrust towards a violent modernisation.
Megia made his name in Addis Ababa, but jumped ship to Washington DC in 1981. It sounds like he spends a lot of time attending out-there jazz gigs, as this new trio flexes right at the edge of a hardened stylistic approach that’s very much an updating of his Ethiopian roots, surging with an avant-fusion aggression, pulsating with angular funk grooves, ramming with a totally unexpected attention to fractured instrumental textures.
The melodic heart of Ethiopian music still beats within, but Mergia is no nostalgically complacent revivalist. With the assistance of his partners, he’s sitting right here in the present moment. Given his age and avuncular appearance, this came as quite a shock.
Mergia moved from electric piano to accordion, investing the tunes with varying degrees of eerie atmosphere, but also flooding out crackling bursts of freethiopian jazz, Majkowski and Szpura adding a breathtakingly tight spring-funk propulsion, keeping the time free, perpetually soloing and engaging in a running battle with their leader, to decide who was going to push the music further, faster and higher.
The innate, old school Ethiopian qualities came through more strongly on the occasions when Mergia started singing. Otherwise, this was an inspired manifestation of fusion, revealing the positive powers of the form.
Venue main man Richard Guy introduced the band, personally moved aside some tables to create a dance space, and encouraged movement in the audience, but surely creating steps to match this music would have been a major challenge, and the floor remained mysteriously empty. The dancing was all in our heads!