The Ethiopian jazz legend Hailu Mergia who jams in his taxi: The Guardian

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Hailu Mergia at home: ‘The Lady Is a Tramp – I love that one! My favourite is old jazz.’ Photograph: Sait Serkan Gurbuz for the Guardian

He fled his native country with his group, the Walias Band, in 1981 and now drives a cab in Washington DC, in which he also composes. But, despite his lo-fi setup, ‘if you have a good bassline you can create anything’

On a Monday evening, Hailu Mergia is driving through suburbia of Washington DC, his overlaid cabby permit attached to the back of his seat. It’s uncommon that one of his clients understands that their driver is an Ethiopian melodic legend, the keyboardist and accordionist of the Walias Band, a standout amongst the most well known gatherings from the nation’s 70s brilliant age. At the point when Mergia talks about that time – growing up close Addis Ababa, raising goats and sheep, singing conventional society music, joining the military, shaping the Walias Band and in the long run leaving Ethiopia for good – the dates get fluffy, yet the encounters stay clear.
He isn’t even certain how old he is – either 71 or 72. When he was conceived, birth authentications weren’t generally issued. He wishes that he had film of the Walias Band’s 12-hour shows at the Addis Ababa Hilton lodging: dusk ’til dawn affairs for club-goers looking for asylum amid the curfews that Ethiopia’s Derg government authorized for a long time. “Perhaps we couldn’t have cared less,” he says, “or possibly we didn’t think we’d get this far.” By “this far”, he implies his new collection – his first in over 30 years. Mergia slides the CD of Lala Belu into his taxicab’s stereo and presses play on some of his most radiant and exploratory music. As we drive past faceless strip shopping centers, warm, brushing harmonies and accordion fill the air, Ethiopian pentatonic rhythms blending with American bop and combination.

Hailu Mergia in 1977

Mergia’s auto is a decent place to hear his new music since it’s the place he composes it. “After I drop my client, I get my console from the storage compartment and sit in the auto and practice,” Mergia says. Since 1998, he has been grabbing admissions from Washington’s Dulles air terminal; he spends the downtime in the organization of his battery-controlled Yamaha. “When I create, I record it with my telephone. I do it with my voice, shrieking, whatever; and after that I put it on the console and record it in my auto. I send it to alternate performers in my trio: ‘Take in this line.'” Mergia stops and grins. “I generally think: in the event that you have a decent bassline you can make anything.
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