Awesome Tapes in Ethiopia
“Ethiopia was so wonderful music-wise. Everywhere I went, I heard music and it was almost always some kind of regional delicacy. I hardly heard any music from outside Ethiopia, which was surprising,” Awesome Tapes from Africa’s Brian Shimkovitz recounts. Brian’s tape digging adventures has previously taken him around West Africa but his travels in Ethiopia earlier this year was his first hands-on exploration of East African tape culture. And he was not disappointed: “From my experience there, where I traveled for 3 weeks through much of the northern and central regions, people in music shops and in public transport were helpful in answering my many questions. Although I don’t speak Amharic, a lot of people I met were willing to take the time to help me figure out names of artists I was hearing on the radio,” he continues.
Tapes are still a preferred format in Ethiopia and a lot of the best Ethiopian music has never been released on vinyl or CD. Ironically, it was exactly the spread of the cassette in the late 1970s and 1980s that exterminated numerous record labels in Ethiopia and paved the way for cheaper productions and increased musical piracy (an issue we covered in a previous feature on tape collection in Ethiopia). But now, it seems that tapes in Ethiopia have finally started to give way for CDs and MP3s. Something that Brian also experienced: “Tapes are getting harder to find in Ethiopia. So you might need to ask a few times at shops who don’t look like they sell tapes, they may be hidden in the back.” Asked about hit favourite musical discoveries in Ethiopia, Brian mentions among others the Ethiopian pop queen Kuku Sebsebe, the music of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and a really intense tape of masinko music by the legendary Legesse Abdi.
But of course one musical discovery really stood out from his trip: Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument. Hailu Mergia was keyboardist in the Walias Band, a dominating force on the Ethiopian music scene in the 1970s and 1980s. His solo recordings, however, has been largely underappreciated. That is at least until now. “I knew about Hailu Mergia’s Walias Band recordings but I didn’t know about his solo work, and I was super surprised when I found this tape in Bahir Dar and the gentleman at the shop let me hear it. It wasn’t until I got home that I could hear the whole thing, and realized how it’s this fully-formed singular masterpiece,“ Brian explains.
Hailu Mergia has been living in the US for decades working as a musician and managing a nightclub, and he is now a taxi driver in Washington DC (see a great VOA interview with Hailu here). Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument was recorded in the US as well in 1985 but it was only after Brian came across the recording by chance in a music shop in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, in early 2013, that the revival of Hailu’s music took off. In August, Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument was reissued by Brian’s Awesome Tapes label, and in November the 66 year-old Hailu will be touring Europe and North America.
Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument is dominated by the accordion, an instrument that is still largely ignored in contemporary Ethiopian music, which aroused Brian’s curiosity. “I was really curious about all the accordion on Hailu’s record so I had to ask him about it. He told me about how back in the day when we has a kid, before keyboards and guitars were widely available in Ethiopia, there was a good deal of accordion music.” With this record Hailu wanted to bring back that old time feeling and sound because he felt it had been neglected since he and his colleagues were using all different kinds of keyboards since the 1960s.
“What’s so interesting to me about this record is that he felt it would be cool to combine modern electronic keyboards with this very old timey sound. While I was in Ethiopia I didn’t hear much music with accordion at all, so this tape really stood out when I got home and began listening closely to the tapes,” Brian concludes.
Listen to another track from Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument and make sure to pass by Awesome Tapes (or your record dealer in Ethiopia or abroad) to get your copy on LP/CD/MP3 or tape and news of Hailu’s upcoming revival tour.
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