He’s carried his music around the planet, but if you want to hear him play it, you have to go to his house.
In his living room, there’s an upright piano where he coaches his fingertips through jazz standards for 30 minutes each day.
In his dining room, there are framed photographs where he’s sporting bell-bottoms and broad smiles alongside his seven bandmates in Ethiopia’s beloved Walias Band.
And in his garage, there’s a graphite gray Washington Flyer taxi cab where he spends his workweek dashing to and from Dulles International Airport — if his passengers happen to be from Ethiopia, the ID hanging from the cab’s sun visor might catch their eye.
“Hailu Mergia the musician?” they ask, pivoting from delight to disbelief.
“Some of them say, ‘I grew up listening to your music! . . . How come you drive taxi?’ ” Mergia says on a recent Saturday afternoon. “I tell them, ‘This is what I do. I am perfectly happy.’”
But with Mergia’s 1985 solo album, “Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument,” being re-released this month, the 67-year-old has been wondering how it might feel to play music outside of the Fort Washington home he shares with his wife.
“Of course, I want to go back to [performing], but it depends how,” says Mergia, who hasn’t stepped on a stage since the early ’90s. “If you ask me to play organ in a restaurant by myself, I’m not going to do it . . . . I grew up in a group.”
That group first landed at Dulles in the final days of 1981. After soundtracking Addis Ababa’s night life for more than a decade, Mergia’s storied Walias Band was in need of a change. So the octet came to America to accept a residency at Washington’s now-shuttered Ibex Club at the corner of Georgia and Missouri avenues NW, as well as embark on a coast-to-coast tour, performing for diaspora communities that had fled Ethiopia’s protracted civil war.
It was a blast, then a grind, and after two years, the musicians linking arms in the black-and-white photos on Mergia’s dining room wall had split apart. But their music didn’t vanish.
“Walias Band was a very influential band,” says Thomas “Tommy T” Gobena, the local Ethiopian-born bassist of Gogol Bordello. “They backed legendary Ethiopian singers and had distinct, killer grooves. . . . ‘Tche Belew’ has to be one of my all-time favorite tunes.”
That song, a woozy instrumental from the ’70s, captures Walias Band at its hypnotic heights — American soul grooves and traditional Ethiopian rhythms woven together with meticulous melodic trills that still flow from Mergia’s fingers when he practices at the piano in his living room.
He first learned his way around a keyboard at age 14, as a boy scout in the Ethiopian army. By 18, Mergia had left the military to sing in the streets, hoping someone might hire him for a paying gig. “The competition was very high,” he says. Mergia points to another picture on his dining room wall, “See that guy sitting with me?”
It’s a blown-up snapshot of Mergia and Tilahn Gessese, a tenor from Ethiopia’s “golden age” of pop music, a singer so revered, his nickname was “The Voice.” “At that time, everybody had to be like him,” Mergia says. “So I switched to accordion.”
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