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AWESOME TAPES FROM AFRICA

Hailu Mergia

Yene Mircha

    From a young musician in the 60's starting out in Addis Ababa to the 70's golden age of dance bands to the new hope as an emigre in America to the drier period of the 90s and 2000s when he mainly played keyboard in his taxi while waiting in the airport queue or at home with friends. More recently, with reissue of his classic works and a re-assessment of his role in Ethiopian music history, Mergia has played to audiences big and small in some of the most cherished venues around the world.

    With 2018's critical breakthrough "Lala Belu" Mergia championed himself and consolidated his legacy, producing the album on his own and connecting with listeners through the sheer creative power of his version of modern Ethiopian music. His subsequent performances revealed an artist who is in no way stuck in the nostalgia for the “golden age” sound. The press agreed, including the New York Times, BBC and Pitchfork, calling his music “triumphantly in the present” in its Best 200 Albums of the 2010's list. Mergia's new album "Yene Mircha" ("My Choice" in Amharic) encapsulates many of the things that make the keyboardist, accordionist and composer-arranger remarkable—elements that have persisted to maintain his vitality all these years, through the ebb and flow of his career.

    The rock solid trio with whom he has toured the world most recently, DC-based Alemseged Kebede (bass) and Ken Joseph (drums), forms the nucleus around which an expanded band makes a potent response to the contemporary jazz future "Lala Belu" promised. "Yene Mircha" calcifies Mergia's prolific stream of creativity and his philosophy that there is a multitude of Ethiopian musical approaches, not just one sound. Enlisting the help of master mesenqo (traditional stringed instrument) player Setegn Atenaw, celebrated vocalist Tsehay Kassa and legendary saxophone player Moges Habte from his 70's outfit Walias Band, Mergia enhances his bright, electric band on this recording with an expanded line up on some songs. Mergia produced the album which features several of his original compositions along with songs by Asnakesh Worku and Teddy Afro.

    An artist still reinventing his sound every night on stage during his marathon live sets, this 74 year-old icon refuses to make the same album twice. The album feels as urgent and risky as his concerts can be, pushing the band to the outer limits of group improvisation and back with chord extensions during his exploratory solos. "Yene Mircha" captures this live experience and fosters an expansive view of what else could be in store for this tireless practitioner of Ethiopian music. CD features bonus “Dibik Fikir”. 

    It makes sense that Antoinette Konan’s eponymous album features nothing more than her ahoko on the cover. The deceptively simple traditional percussion instrument transformed Ivory Coast’s Baoulé music scene when Konan deployed it against a roaring electrified backdrop of synth, bass guitar and drum machines. Released in 1986, the album is a veritable UFO of instrumental force and contemporary pop sensibility landing in a boiling pot of diverse, creative characters inhabiting Abidjan, Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire). Known as the “Queen of the Ahoko” among Ivorians, Konan singlehandedly put the central-Ivorian instrument on the map when she gave it a 20th-century re-introduction. The three-piece wooden idiophone is handmade from a thin, ribbed, flexible stick, against which a smaller chunk of wood is rhythmically scraped.

    A hollow nutshell held in the non-scraping hand amplifies and manipulates the resulting overtones. Despite the ahoko's diminutive appearance, Konan and her powerful voice have remained at the forefront of Ivorian music for decades now, in an extremely diverse country—approximately 70 indigenous languages—with a competitive, internationally-recognized music industry. Music plays an important role in Baoulé cultural life, heard and seen in festivities, funerals and more. They are the largest ethnic group in Côte d’Ivoire and descend from Akan peoples who migrated from presentday central Ghana. Baoulé vocal music is characterized by polyphony, melodies built on parallel thirds and call-and-response. All of this can be heard in Konan’s music. Konan’s fingerprints are all over Antoinette Konan, she says, as it was meant to be a highly personal recording. She wanted to portray the suffering, injustice, frustrations, humiliations, personal career struggles, experience of child birth and poverty she sees in society. Taking on the producer role for the first time, Konan was the architect of her dancefloor-ready neo-traditional sound. But crucial to the recording was arranger Bamba Moussa Yang. A creative and versatile musical mind who was known for his work with legendary Ivorian singer Ernesto Djedje, Konan met him in 1986 after she had already released two albums.

    Yang brought a touch that matched Konan’s expectations, she says, because he knew her work so well. As she reflects on her long career today, Konan remembers Yang as her favorite arranger. Over the years Konan’s popularity grew to the upper echelons of Ivorian society: Ivory Coast’s first president Felix Houphouet Boigny’s would regularly invite Konan to perform at official ceremonies with foreign dignitaries. Through her charity and advocacy work on behalf of female musicians, Konan is still a force in the country’s music community. You can see her performing or speaking on television and around the country all the time—yet she still maintains several entrepreneurial projects in the farming sector. Konan has recorded more than 15 albums so far and plans more recordings soon

    Nahawa Doumbia

    La Grande Cantatrice Malienne, Vol. 1

    Nahawa Doumbia is one of Mali's defining vocalists of the last four decades. Her work journeys through progressive stages of musical evolution and sonic vogues, making it hard to summarize or even comprehend. She's played a part in popular music since the late '70s, as her version of Wassoulou music developed from vocals-and-guitar duo into full-scale touring bands packing a bombastic, electrified punch. As Doumbia puts it, "My music has changed multiple times to this day. The more I progressed in my musical career, the more instruments I have had accompany my songs." Awesome Tapes From Africa now releases Doumbia's debut recording “La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol 1”, building on the success of the label's first-ever reissue back in 2011, Doumbia's “La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol 3”.
    This seminal classic, which is still sought-after in Mali today, is finally be available for the first time internationally with remastered audio on LP, CD, Tape and Digital formats. The recording looks back to the beginning of Doumbia's long career, when she was performing in a simple voice and acoustic guitar format. This was before she added bass and drums, and finally the electric guitar and synths for which she became known more recently. Released in 1981 by the excellent Cote d'Ivoire-based AS Records, the singer was barely 20 years old when it was recorded. She was accompanied by her future husband N'Gou Bagayoko on acoustic guitar, whose style echoes the nimble runs of traditional kamele n'goni players. The stark simplicity of this highly intimate recording-the audible room acoustics, the occasionally in-the-red vocals-do not obscure the mature strength of her voice.
    On “Vol 1” Doumbia performs her songs with the tenacity and hunger of a young artist on the cusp. "When I think about it, first, I am reminded of how long ago it was. It's one of the albums that I love most because it reminds me of my youth. I was so young and my voice was light and joyful. I still listen to some of those songs today. I am really proud of that first album because that's where it all began. It shows me how far I've come in my personal and artistic life; it gives me the courage I need to keep going forward, and makes me appreciate all the years of dedication and hard work I put into my musical career." These early songs are rhythmically built around Bagayoko's sensitive guitar, as his fingers brush the fretboard and gently outline the melodies. Although this record predates the singer's use of percussion, the driving skeletal didadi rhythm is apparent in the songs. Later albums like Vol 3 further prioritize her hometown didadi beat and the result made her famous.


    Fresh off the label Awesome Tapes From Africa, Hailu Mergia brings us his first new LP in over 15 years. Modern Ethiopian jazz built on ancient scales and standards. Capping several successful years traveling the world performing to audiences big and small, Hailu Mergia’s ‘Lala Belu’ has been a long time coming and fifteen years overdue. His old recordings are cherished revelations for Ethiopian music fans; however, Mergia’s return to the stage has been just as inspiring and electrifying. Mergia’s vintage recordings are known for an inherently mysterious and worn-in quality, while his new recordings echo his band’s 21st century live show with modern instrumental interpretations of crucial Ethiopian standards and Mergia’s own original compositions. Tony Buck (drums) and Mike Majkowski (bass), who have backed Mergia on tour throughout Europe and Australia, form the bass-drums trio on the recording. Having played venues from Radio City Music Hall and the Kennedy Center to jazz festivals, rock clubs and DIY spaces all over North America, Europe and Australia, Mergia and Awesome Tapes From Africa document this moment in his landmark career with a snapshot of Mergia’s current sound. Since he emigrated from Ethiopia and built a life in Washington, D.C. around 1981—where he remains working as an airport taxi driver when he is not on tour—Mergia’s career has followed a humble trajectory. He made a few recordings in America but they didn’t easily reach fans back home. He kept making music on his own and with friends but after the early 80’s his gigs in the U.S. mostly dried up. It wasn’t until he began working with Awesome Tapes From Africa and putting together bands with the help of booking agents and musicians in Europe and the U.S., that he was able to chart a new path. With a broad audience of young listeners in diverse venues and distant locales, at age 71, Mergia is enjoying his comeback and is not slowing down.

    Though "Say You Love Me" wasn't "Om" Alec Khaoli's first solo recording, the 1985 EP solidified the bass player and songwriter's standing as one of South Africa's most consistently innovative pop auteurs. He built a career on ubiquitous rock, pop and soul hits with groundbreaking bands like the Beaters, Harari and Umoja. But Khaoli's seemingly endless fountain of music continued outside these ensembles, where he usually played bass and contributed songwriting and vocals. Khaoli released several successful solo works while he made records with Umoja and worked on other productions with friends.
    This creativity was aided by Khaoli's own recording studio. He was the first South African to have a privately-owned studio. As black artists were forced to record during lunch breaks and didn't get sufficient access and time in the white-owned studios, having his studio allowed Khaoli to develop in his own way. Hence his productive output during the 80's and early 90's, releasing 5 LPs with Umoja and 5 solo LPs, along with numerous singles and EPs. There's something broad and dynamic about the almost epic pop sound Khaoli creates on "Say You Love Me". Being the first South African to take control his recording process and thereby free himself from one of apartheid's many strictures, he took his vision of music to new realms and made timeless music for the dance floor in the process. 

    STAFF COMMENTS

    Patrick says: Another rarity reissued by the erm...awesome... Awesome Tapes From Africa, kicking off with the emotional pop of "Say You Love Me", a shoulder rolling love song which could easily have found its way onto the end credits of many an 80s buddy movie. "Make Me Your Lover" fuses a little Paul Simon style songwriting with traditional African styles (oh the irony), while "Crosslines" is an oddball synth funk freakout a la Herbie Hancock. Last but not least we feel the force of the show-stealing "Enjoy It", a dreamy bit a Afro-cosmic for the Balearic crowds.

    At the age of 28, Awalom Gebremariam arrived in the United States, following a years-long journey from Eritrea. He'd made it to a refugee camp in Ethiopia several years ago and eventually attained asylum status for passage to America. But before he left his hometown, Eritrea's capital Asmara, he made his first and only recording so far, 'Desdes'. In 2006, Awalom began to teach himself two of Eritrea’s most recognizable and important folk instruments, the wata and the krar. Although they have roots in traditional music, they are heard in most Eritrean folk and pop recordings. Awalom completed 'Desdes' in 2007, not long before he departed Eritrea. Because Awalom left after the recording he never received any money for cassette and CD sales. But he also didn't get to find out how much of an impact the songs have had locally. His songs appear to focus on love, but Awalom isn't speaking about romantic love per se. Much of the music Awalom heard growing up was intertwined with Eritrea's difficult and contentious split from Ethiopia. In 2012, during a trip to Switzerland to help promote a film about biking in Eritrea, ATFA was given a copy of 'Desdes' by fixed-gear bicycle athlete Patrick Seabase, the documentary’s protagonist. Seabase gave a copy to ATFA founder Brian Shimkovitz as a gift and it later appeared on the ATFA blog. A few years later Shimkovitz was contacted by some agencies in North Carolina, where Awalom had settled. Through a translator very one decided to work together on a reissue of his recording. It took many months to source a clean master but now the album is ready and Awalom’s goals are clear. He spent years waiting for the chance to escape economic and political turmoil at home. Now 29 and living in North Carolina, he works in a restaurant and plans to bring his music to Eritrean communities across North America as well as newer listeners with whom his powerful sounds and remarkable journey will deeply resonate.

    Ata Kak's cassette 'Obaa Sima' fell on deaf ears when it was self-released in Ghana and Canada in 1994. The music on the recording - an amalgam of highlife, Twi-language rap, electro-funk and disco - is presented with the passion of a Prince record and the DIY-bedroom-recording lo-fi charm of early Chicago house music. The astute self-taught song craft and visionary blend of sounds and rhythms has made the album a left-field cult favorite among adventurous listeners worldwide. Awesome Tapes From Africa founder Brian Shimkovitz found the tape in 2002 in Cape Coast, Ghana - one of only a few ever pressed - and later made it the inaugural post on the Awesome Tapes From Africa blog. Hundreds of thousands of downloads, YouTube views, music video tributes and remixes, as well as years of mystery regarding Ata Kak's whereabouts, culminate in this remastered release featuring rare photos and the full back story of one of the internet age's most enigmatic musicians.

    FORMAT INFORMATION

    LP includes MP3 Download Code.

    The acclaimed and highly sought-after LP by Hailu Mergia and the Walias, 'Tche Belew', an album of instrumentals released in 1977, is perhaps the most seminal recording released in the aftermath of the 1974 revolution. The story of the Walias band is a critical chapter in Ethiopian popular music, taking place during a period of music industry flux and political complexity in the country. Hailu Mergia, a keyboardist and arranger diligently working the nightclub scene in Addis Ababa, formed the Walias in the early 1970's with a core group of musicians assembled from prior working bands. They played Mergia's funk and soul-informed tunes, while cutting 45rpm singles with various vocalists. While the Walias performed at top hotels and played the Presidential Palace twice, their relationship with the Derg regime was complex, evidenced by the removal of one song from the record by government censors. Decades later, Hailu Mergia was surprised to see the album fetching more than $4,000 at online auctions (it helped that the most popular of all Ethiopian tunes "Musicawi Silt" appeared on the record). Now everyone has the chance to listen again - or for the first time - to this timeless pillar of Ethiopian popular music.

    Hailu Mergia is a one-man band. In 1985 master accordionist and veteran Walias Band leader / arranger / keyboardist released the Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument 'Shemonmuanaye' cassette. The tape is a nostalgic effort to bring back the vintage accordion sound of his youth. Hailu was already celebrated for his work with the industry-shifting Addis Ababa ethio-jazz and funk outfit the Walias Band, and he pressed forward using new tools to reshape the popular sounds of the past. Adding a Moog synthesizer, Rhodes electric piano and rhythm machine to the harmonic layering of his accordion, he creates hauntingly psychedelic instrumentals. These songs draw from famous traditional and modern Ethiopian songs, as Hailu matches Amhara, Tigrinya and Oromo melodies to otherworldly flavors soaked in jazz and blues. The result is a lush, futuristic landscape, balancing Ethiopian music's signature pentatonic modes and melodic shape with beautiful analog synth flair.

    Hailu Mergia was born in Debre Birhan, Ethiopia in 1946. He went to school in Addis Ababa and then joined the army music department. He was later singing in small bars as a freelance musician when he joined a casual band, touring across the Ethiopian provinces as a singer and accordion player for almost a year. After the group broke up, he started performing in nightclubs across the city. He and his mates formed Walias Band and did something no other band in Ethiopian nightclub history had done: they started buying their own musical instruments. Until then the club owners were supplying the instruments and had the power to fire musicians at will. Following eight years playing at the Hilton Hotel, Hailu and Walias Band went to the United States and toured widely in 1982-1983. Despite breaking ground as the first private band to tour the States and play state dinners at the Derg government palace, some of the band stayed in America while others went back to Addis. After settling in America, Hailu made a one-man band recording with accordion for the first time, mixing in Rhodes electric piano, Moog synthesizer and a rhythm machine. That was 1985. This recording was inspired by the early memories of his first instrument, the accordion. Nowadays he's making his living as a self-employed taxi driver at Dulles International Airport while continuing to record and practice his music as often as possible.

    The reissue of this recording brings back a moment when Ethiopian music was shifting from acoustic-based performances to recordings using more and more synthesized elements. While the resulting sound of that shift has its critics Hailu Mergia's initial experiments with "switched-on" solo instrumentals based on Ethiopian folk and popular music captures a singular feeling dripping in ambiance and a very human emotional energy.


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