Ethio-jazz legend, Hailu Mergia is making a resounding statement on his first studio album in 15 years, “Lala Belu”. The former member of the famed Walias Band is following up the reissuing of his tape, “Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument” (1985) in 2013 which reintroduced his highly emotive and polarizing sound to the world. The 6-track tape, slated for a February 23 release via Awesome Tapes From Africa oozes with a candid calming presence as well as the crystal essence of fusing funk, jazz and folk that makes ethio-jazz a standout genre.
The album opens with a sonic odyssey on Tizita, as Mergia takes listeners on a 10-minute run through the blissful range of sonic expression that have characterised his career from the soothing bass scales nestled behind the steady jazzy drum in the begin to the kinetic joy of the Moog synthesizer. The song is soaked with nostalgia, reminiscent of himself and Mulatu Astake’s early work in the genre before it erupts with a change of pace as Mergia exhibits his dexterity as a keyboard maestro with precise Ethiopian Folk music phrases.
Track 1 then becomes the frame through with the rest of the tape unfolds, as each song becomes an honest and riveting elaboration of warm and cool moment. Gum Gum, the lead single for this project for instance, has the colourful flair of Bossa Nova and South American drums sprinkled over mellow and prolong bass guitar chords as the main phrases from the piano guide listeners through each twist and turn in the melody. The song has more of an 80s soulful jazz vibe to it, resembling Love Deluxe Sade, despite the fusion architecture. The title track Lala Belu also has the measured patience of funk with the spaced out bass lines that lead Mergia’s snappy vocals onto the track. It also features his signature Moog snyth lines, with a particularly charming phrase that counters the shadowy nature on the mellow bass. Lalu Belu has a more cheerful and upbeat tone, compared to most of the other cuts on the tape and its celebratory atmosphere warms up the album. However, Mergia saves his best for the final song, Yefikir Engurguro with a magical moment of keyboarding brilliance where he serenades listens with a bubblegum sweet solo.
Lalu Belu is more than a fitting comeback for such a legend of the game. Mergia honors the traditions that fertilizes his stunning musical career by returning to the base simplistic of Ethiopian folk music, whilst satisfying his fusion craving by blending soulful, jazz and funk in balancing proportions on the album. At 40-minutes, it is compact enough to expose new listeners to this breath-taking sounds as well as take old fans back to the memories of the 1970s and 80s when Mergia was a household name in the Ethiopian music scene. The album is more than a nostalgia project, but rather a vivid expression of emotion from someone whose best form of communication is in the organic, weightless nature of music.
Written by Hakeem Adam