When the great reissue label Awesome Tapes From Africa introduced the mid-80s album Shemonmuanay in the summer of 2013 the music and the Ethiopian keyboardist Hailu Mergia—still alive and residing in Washington D.C., where he had made the solo album—got a ton of deserved attention. The charming, low-budget recording harked back to the earlier glory days of Ethiopian popular music (in the years before the oppressive Derg government overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974) and used only cheap keyboards and drum machines. Mergia made the most of his limited setup, and with his resourcefulness he forged a kind of East African retro-futurist sound. Last October the label reissued another Mergia title that got less attention, probably because it was made with a full band and lacked the novelty factor. But to these ears that 1977 album—Tche Belew, recorded at an Addis Ababa radio station as one of the last gasps of a special musical era—is the real gem of the pair.
Mergia formed the Walias Band as a private enterprise in the early 70s, a period when most groups were state-sponsored. While the Derg government cracked down on those acts—such as the Police Orchestra and Imperial Bodyguard Band—Mergia was able to continue performing at the Hilton, where he had a residency for years. The all-instrumental album would rank as a stone-cold classic if only for the inclusion of the indelible “Musicawi Silt,” one of the funkiest and most hypnotic tunes in all of Ethiopian music, but all ten tracks burn. A trio of female singers (including future superstar Aster Aweke) turn up to contribute chanted phrases on a few songs and the brilliant vibist Mulatu Astatke joins in on a few tunes as well. For today’s 12 O’Clock Track you can hear “Eti Gual Blenai” below.