Hailu Mergia was the leader of one of the biggest jazz funk bands in Ethiopia in the 1970s. His band, The Walias Band, reached the pinnacle of success in Ethiopia, eventually being invited to play for the president. Their sound, a mixture of traditional Ethiopian melodies and American-inspired jazz and funk, struck a chord with Ethiopians across the spectrum.
Having achieved celebrity status in his home country, Hailu wanted his band to grow. He arranged a U.S. tour for the Walias band, hoping to find international success. The tour did not match his vision of quick American success, and, met mostly with indifference in the States, the band fizzled.
Hailu decided to stay in Washington DC, where the band had originally landed upon their arrival–and there he has remained.
More recently, Hailu Mergia has been driving a taxi, shuttling visitors from the airport to their hotels and houses. What most of his passengers don’t know is that the friendly Ethiopian chatting with them about the weather or the Washington Monument has a full-sized electronic keyboard stashed away in his trunk, and when he’s waiting for customers, he sits in the back seat and practices. He has practiced every day since he came to the United States, not necessarily out of a nostalgia for lost glory, but because his love for music is at the level of a vital need: he cannot go a day without playing