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Ethiopian Jazz Greats Hailu Mergia and Selam Woldemariam release new albums in Washington DC

By Steve Kiviat | DCist

Every Friday from 2016 until recently in a small, second-floor room of the Crystal City restaurant Enjera, Ethiopian guitarist Selam Seyoum Woldemariam has led his trio through minor key, groove-filled renditions of 20th century Ethiopian songs. For the crowd of mostly 40-something-and-up Ethiopians in attendance, Woldemariam’s catalogue brought back memories of when these tunes were the radio soundtrack to their lives. The band stands on a tiny stage jammed up against a wall, playing their lounge-funky East African jazz for an audience of roughly 50 people who enjoy plates of Ethiopian and Eritrean food with spongy injera or just drink and socialize at tables close by.

Performing live, Woldemariam says, gave him “the utmost satisfaction and a chance to meet my fans,” who he says treasured his shows and aren’t fans of going out to other types of nightlife like dance clubs or hookah bars.

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Woldemariam, 65, is one of the stars of a lively Ethiopian music scene that, before the pandemic, encompassed local clubs and restaurants, most notably in D.C., Silver Spring, and Falls Church. But as the novel coronavirus has spread, restaurant closures and bans on large gatherings has put everything on pause, including gigs for two popular Ethiopian artists who just released new albums.

Hailu Mergia, a 74-year-old keyboardist and accordionist based in Fort Washington, typically brings his funky Ethio-jazz to larger venues, such as the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage or the 600-person capacity Hamilton. On March 27, Mergia released his new album, Yene Mircha. The Washington Post and music website Pitchfork have hailed both hailed the new work, but because of the pandemic, Mergia has been unable to translate that acclaim into live appearances: His American and European tour have been cancelled.

Woldemariam also recently released a new album, Grace, in January, under the name Selam “Selamino” Seyoum. (Seyoum is his father’s last name and Woldemariam is his grandfather’s last name.) He was able to put on some album release shows locally and one in Texas before the pandemic, though planned shows in Oakland, Calif., and Los Angeles have been cancelled.

Both artists, best known for being part of the 1970s Ethiopian music scene that later reached a fanatic audience through a collection of retrospective albums called Ethiopiques, mix traditional Ethiopian pentatonic scale chords with sounds from elsewhere in Africa, plus American R&B, jazz, and rock to create their funky afro-psychedelic Ethiopian styles.

In the ‘70s, Mergia was performing as a member of the renowned Walias Band, a funky house band that played throughout the night at a hotel in Addis Ababa to guests who, because of a military-imposed curfew of 11 p.m., were unable to leave until the next morning.

Mergia’s career took an unlikely path to the acclaim he has today, when in 1981 Walias Band received the Ethiopian government’s permission to tour the U.S. During the tour, the band broke up, and Mergia and several other band members chose to stay in the United States, rather than return to the stifling restrictions in Ethiopia.

Mergia then largely gave up playing music publicly for years, working several jobs, including a two-decade stint as a cab driver at Dulles International Airport. He made music on breaks between fares, when he would pull his keyboard out of the trunk and sit with it in the backseat and play for himself. He returned to performing for audiences in 2013 after Brian Shimkovitz of the Awesome Tapes from Africa label found a 1985 Mergia instrumental solo cassette and reissued it to great acclaim, eventually leading Mergia to release the album Lalu Belu in 2018.

Woldemarian, who came to the United States in 2000, achieved renown in Ethiopia with the popular Ibex Band and, later, Roha Band. (Roha Band become so known in Ethiopia that the bandmembers’ beard-and-sideburns look became known as the “Roha style.”) In the studio over the years, he has backed five generations of Ethiopian vocalists, including Mahmoud Ahmed, Aster Aweke, Efrem Tamiru, Teddy Afro, and Dawit Tsige. As recently as January, he backed legendary Ethiopian singers Mahmoud Ahmed and Abeba Desalegn at an Ethiopian Christmas show at the Ethiopian Embassy in D.C.

Younger Ethiopian musicians have asked him to play on their albums, and Mark Speer, the guitarist of indie band Khruangbin, recently praised him in an  interview with Reverb while demonstrating the type of licks that Woldemariam plays.

“That’s the style he is using: my style,” Woldemariam says of the video. “It’s going out to other musicians, especially the ones who don’t want to repeat the music of the digital era.”

Woldemariam has become known for using the same two Gibson ES-335 guitars since 1980. “I don’t want to sound like Santana or Wes Montgomery, but I take sounds from them and mix it with mine,” he says of his uniquely Ethiopian method of playing. “I am not blues or jazz or rock.”

His new album, Grace—so named “because God has graced me to continue playing guitar. Most people my age have stopped playing music,” Woldemariam says—contains smooth and polished covers of Ibex and Roha songs put together in a 21st century manner. Woldemariam recorded his guitar tracks for the songs at the studio of friend and drummer Ruphael Woldemariam (no relation) in Chicago. Ruphael Woldemariam added drums, and then Woldemariam sent the recorded music to Yohannes Tona, a friend who added bass and keyboards, and then mixed and mastered the album in his Tabor Studio in Minneapolis.

Mergia’s Yene Mircha, Amharic for “my choice,” also involves a collaboration, but with members of the locally based Feedel Band. Bassist Alemseged Kebede and drummer Kenneth Joseph recorded on all of the tracks with Mergia. Other members, including saxophonist Moges Habte, Mergia’s former bandmate from Walias Band, also make guest appearances. When Kebede and Joseph weren’t touring the world with Mergia, they and the other supporting musicians on the album perform together regularly at the intimate Bossa Bistro + Lounge in Adams Morgan. (Bossa is closed due to the coronavirus.)

On Yene Mircha, one can hear traces of reggae as well as funky jazz riffs drawn from Mergia inspiration Jimmy Smith. The opening track “Semen Ena Debub,” which means “North and South,” starts off with a leisurely rhythm from the northern part of Ethiopia before transforming into a speedier tempo from the country’s south.

“It’s good to have a variety of arrangements for listeners,” Mergia says.

While some songs have flashy instrumentation, Mergia says the melody is what is most important to him. That’s why, he says, the album includes both a recent number by Ethiopian pop-reggae singer Teddy Afro and a haunting tuneful older piece by Ethiopian singer Asnakech Worku, to which he has added a Jamaican lilt.

As the pandemic continues, instead of promoting his album, Mergia says he is staying busy at home by himself, practicing and writing new material. (He stopped driving taxis two years ago.)

Woldemariam, who lives in Arlington, is currently spending much of his time working on writing a book on the origin and development of Ethiopian secular music. The book is a musical dream project for him—an expansion of his Addis Ababa University history major essay. He is also playing guitar daily and hopes to someday record another album of his newer original songs.

He doesn’t have any plan to play live on social media from his home during the pandemic. Going onstage before an audience with his Gibson is his passion, he says. “The guitar is an extension of my heart,” Woldemariam says.

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