Hailu Mer­gia and the Walias Band: Tche Belew

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - TICKET STUBS - Donal Di­neen

The Walias Band’s name de­rives from the walia ibex, an en­dan­gered species na­tive to the moun­tains of Ethiopia. They were formed in the early 1970s as a house band for the Hil­ton Ho­tel. At a time in which the mil­i­tary Derg was turn­ing the screw on the mu­sic scene in Ad­dis Ababa, they chose their name well.

The band’s res­i­dency was the best in town with many lu­mi­nar­ies in the ranks to match their stature. Hailu Mer­gia is the nom­i­nal leader here and his dis­tinc­tive touch on the keys is an out­stand­ing fea­ture. His ca­reer had be­gun play­ing ac­cor­dion as a boy scout in the army. A deeply in­stilled mu­si­cal cu­rios­ity led him to ex­per­i­ment with more mod­ern sounds and in­stru­ments. By 1977, when this LP was recorded, he was switch­ing be­tween an elec­tronic or­gan and Moog syn­the­siser, and re-pur­pos­ing folk songs into funkier mod­ern melodies.

Girma Bèyènè, ar­ranger of some of the most sem­i­nal record­ings of the golden age, is co-pi­lot on pro­duc­tion du­ties. The hard polyrhyth­mic funk sound has lost none of its edge four decades later.

The other key com­po­nent is the vi­bra­phone mas­tery of Mu­latu As­tatqe. This was his only ap­pear­ance with The Walias Band. As­tatqe was an­other mav­er­ick who had been schooled in Lon­don, New York City and Bos­ton, where he com­bined his latin and jazz in­ter­ests with tra­di­tional Ethiopian mu­sic. Like Mer­gia, his abil­ity to strad­dle these worlds brought the band into un­charted ter­ri­tory.

For all the pres­sure that was be­ing ex­erted on the mu­si­cal scene at the time, this al­bum bris­tles with ex­cite­ment. So in­fec­tious and force­ful is the rhyth­mic push, the lack of vo­cals is in­con­se­quen­tial. If it was in­tended as a ri­poste to the op­pres­sive regime, it packs more punch than a mil­lion an­gry words.

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