Hailu Mergia, Ethiopian artist, who has called Washington his home for the past 30 years, is fleet-fingered and has soul to spare.

By Aaarik Danielsen  (Columbia Tribune) |

When you think of modern greats of the organ, a few names quickly rise to the top of the list: the soulful Booker T. Jones, jazz great Lonnie Smith — who will perform in Columbia this September as part of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series — and the flexible, fusion-minded John Medeski.

Add Hailu Mergia’s name to the register. The Ethiopian artist, who has called Washington his home for the past 30 years, is fleet-fingered and has soul to spare.

Thanks to curators of African music — and a few younger artists with great respect for the man — Mergia’s music is finding a new audience, in his adopted home and around the world.

Three recent reissues of Hailu Mergia’s work, all via the Awesome Tapes From Africalabel, are more than worth your time. The freshness of Hailu Mergia’s playing — and his facility at mixing Ethiopian jazz, folk and funk — is breathtaking.

“Tche Belew” (2014 reissue) consists of work Hailu Mergia did with Walias Band in 1977. That group, which enjoyed a long, successful run in its home country, interacted with Western artists such as King Curtis and Maceo Parker.

The record threads the needle between funk and jazz and draws on a rich sonic palette. Mergia’s bandmates contribute many moving parts but play with one sense of motion. These songs still scratch that soul itch 40 years later.

1978’s “Wede Harer Guzo” (reissued last month) was made with a different outfit, The Dahlak Band. The record features more fluid, almost stream-of-consciousness playing from Hailu Mergia and weaves in a number of other musical ideas, from chorus vocals to rock-steady drums that evoke the funk and rock of that decade.

Hailu Mergia’s organ work is of typical, high quality but the electric piano also shines throughout.

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