Hailu Mergia

Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, January 14


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Hailu Mergia and Mike Majkowski. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Hailu Mergia’s star waxed in the 1970s, when his Walias Band stampeded its way to being the first Ethiopian band to tour the US. Mergia stayed on to escape the military dictatorship that was driving music underground, but ended up driving cabs rather than playing keyboards. Since his re-emergence on the world stage in 2013 his European band has actually comprised two Berlin-based Australians: bassist Mike Majkowski and drummer Tony Buck.

The essence of Mergia’s blend of jazz, funk and traditional Ethiopian music lies in striking a balance between hypnotic repetition and enough colour and variation to prevent staleness creeping in. This was an intriguing assignment for Majkowski (primarily known as a free improviser) and Buck (best known as one third of the Necks).

Increasing the challenge was the eccentricity of Mergia’s improvising: a melodically exotic, sinuous and unbroken stream of consciousness, with scant use of space, and a complete renunciation of climax – or even much drama – in favour of an almost relentless flow of, well, equilibrium. This applied whether he was playing accordion, electric piano or synthesizer (usually with an organ sound). Oddly enough one of his most compelling solos came on the humble melodica.

On accordion he favoured the instrument’s lower register, often creating a rather subterranean effect in which texture counted for as much as melody. If his lines on the other instruments had more clarity they were no less enigmatic, although on one piece the organ sound suddenly surged through the groove with all the unstoppable force of a river about to break its banks. Instead it just reached a high-water mark.

The rhythms fluctuated between loping, triplet-based grooves, funk of varying weight and skipping jazziness. Buck realised these with metronomic precision, while sometimes chopping them up and single-handedly adding some drama. Indeed his skill and ingenuity, combined with his excessive prominence in the mix, sometimes made his work the primary focus, while Majkowski nailed down the repetitive riffs and offered a couple of engaging solos.