On paper it’s a peculiar combination, Tony Buck from the Necks on percussion, Mike Majkowski on bass – two Berlin based Australian musicians, both known for their experimental and jazz leanings, providing the rhythm section for Ethiopian multi instrumentalist Hailu Mergia.
Mergia is one of those performers that you never thought you would ever see live, possibly because you never knew he existed. He cut one album in 1985, Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument, that was only rediscovered recently, some 30 years later by Brian Shimkovitz from the Awesome Tapes from Africa label. Shimkovitz’s re-release of this album resurrected Mergia’s career, and this unexpected trio have been touring across Europe.
Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument is strange and mesmirising album, it’s quite minimal as Mergia moves between organ and piano accordion. It’s subdued and repetitive, a hypnotic evocative suite of music that is counter to the upbeat energy of perhaps some of the better-known Ethio jazz.
Tonight at the iconic Bennetts Lane it’s an intimate performance, sold out, with a strange cross section of folks, possibly due to it being part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival summer series. When the trio came to the stage, despite being the second show of the night, the sound was a concern, with Buck’s drums eclipsing everything else. You could see Mergia’s fingers moving dramatically over his Rhodes and Roland VK8 organ and you could hear little hints of what he was playing, however the detail was lost somewhat, and you had to lip read Majkowski’s bass. When Mergia moved over to the piano accordion however things improved dramatically, the percussion was much gentler – with Buck at times utilising hand percussion, and suddenly the bass was present.
Whilst there were elements of the style of music present on Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument, it quickly became clear that trio weren’t wedded to nostalgia, and were keen to explore and develop the sound in the live arena, moving it into more jazz and funk realms, as it’s more upbeat, more what we understand Ethio Jazz to be – even heading into Herbie Hancock territory.
It was midway through the performance that it began to feel like Mergia really started to get into the groove, the volume of his keys increased, and he began to dance, mopping his brow with a towel and clapping along to Majowski and Buck. The showstopper was his move onto the melodica, running up and down the notes, call and response style with Buck on rattles and hand drums before moving onto organ and kicking out a funky groove all within the same song. It’s this ability to move between instruments and create different dynamics, pared with the tightness of the band, and the rhythm section’s ability to evolve across multiple styles that makes the music so successful. Then there’s Mergia’s incredible compositions themselves, all of which serve to transcend any of the sound issues. Lets hope this trio records together.