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This former Ethiopian music star is getting a late-life encore in the U.S.

Once a music star in Ethiopia, Hailu Mergia moved his life to Washington, D.C., more than 35 years ago. But while today he can often be found behind the wheel of a taxi, he also has returned to performing his music on tour. With a new album, the now 71-year-old is having an unexpected resurgence. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Many times, when immigrants come to the United States, they leave behind careers they had at home.

    Jeffrey Brown profiles a man who is returning to his roots.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A taxi picking up customers at Washington's Dulles Airport, but this one is driven by a man with an unusual musical past.

    Once a star in his native Ethiopia, Hailu Mergia has lived in and around Washington, D.C., for more than 35 years, driving a cab for many of them.

    I was wondering, when you were driving the taxi, did anybody ever recognize you, maybe Ethiopians you were driving?

  • Hailu Mergia:

    Yes, some of them, yes, they do. When they see my name on the license of the taxi license, they always ask me, are you the one who play organ? I say yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And now he's once again on stage, performing his music on tour, as in this recent concert in Philadelphia for NPR's World Cafe.

    With a new album, the now 71-year-old is having an unexpected resurgence, decades after his career had seemingly ended.

    Was it hard to go from being very well-known in your city, in your country to being mostly unknown here?

  • Hailu Mergia:

    Yes, it is. When people think about you, and some of them, they think like, I'm not alive.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They think you're not even alive anymore.

  • Hailu Mergia:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Hailu Mergia:

    Maybe they think I have passed away. I have no idea.

    And some of them, why? Where he is? All of a sudden, I just disappeared. And then people, they forgot me. And I almost — the only thing that they didn't forget is my music, what I played.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the 1970s, Mergia was part of an exciting musical scene in Addis Ababa that fused Western funk and soul with the traditional Ethiopian music he grew up with in the countryside. His mother had brought him to the capital when he was 10 and, at 14, he joined the army's youth troop, where he learned to play the piano in its band.

    He eventually pursued a life in music as keyboardist, singer and composer, which took off when he joined the Walias Band, an influential group that their own spin on sounds from different continents and had crowds dancing into the night.

  • Hailu Mergia:

    There were some radio stations that were playing some latest media or Western media, which is like from James Brown or from Wilson Pickett of from Tyrone Davis, or from Aretha Franklin, I mean, you name it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, you're funkifying Ethiopian music.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Hailu Mergia:

    I just pick up the old songs and rearrange them, change everything, change the harmony, and change sometimes the intro.

    Then I just played it like kind of modern Ethiopian music.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    His 1977 album "Tche Belew" combines funk beats and Mergia's organ improvisations with the pentatonic scales of Ethiopian folk music.

    What was the biggest you could hope for from — at that time?

  • Hailu Mergia:

    At that time, my hope was like, one, for the group to play in the Hilton Hotel, because once you get to Hilton, that's the end of it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That was the biggest place to play in Addis.

    The band became a long-running hit at the Hilton, the hottest venue in Addis. But they also wanted more. In 1981, Mergia and members of the band came to the U.S. The gigs were small, mostly to a newly arrived Ethiopian immigrant community.

    The band eventually split up, some returning home. Mergia stayed and released a solo album in 1985, but six years later, he stopped performing and recording. It was impossible to make a living.

    Did you feel like you were giving up a dream of making it as a musician?

  • Hailu Mergia:

    I never give up, because I was always practicing. I was practicing every day, every night in my house, in my car. And I start — I start buying — I bought one keyboard that I can move around.

    A lot of the time, I want to drive taxi. You know why?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Why?

  • Hailu Mergia:

    Because, one, it's the schedule. I have my own time.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Hailu Mergia:

    I can go any time without asking anybody permission.

    That's a freedom of the life. As a musician, sometimes, I go to a studio and I sit like more than expected time, like long hours.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But, also, also, if you are driving a taxi, you can just keep your instrument in the back, in the trunk, and pull it out.

  • Hailu Mergia:

    Yes. Pull it out and practice.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That's pretty good. And practice.

  • Hailu Mergia:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And practice, he does, even in the airport parking lot, working out compositions while waiting for his next customer.

  • Hailu Mergia:

    I'm trying to keep myself busy. I just — I don't want to lose my feelings from music.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, Mergia was ready when musical fortune struck.

    A producer named Brian Shimkovitz, who specializes in African music, found a cassette tape of one of his old albums in a box in Ethiopia, and re-released it in 2014. That led to a new album titled "Lala Belu," or "Say Lala," released in February, and a new late-life beginning for his second musical career, in and now out of the taxi.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Fort Washington, Maryland.

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