technical difficulties at Hailu Mergia | virtual book

technical difficulties at Hailu Mergia

#journal #seattle #live-music #music Mentioned in concerts, what I'm doing now

I first read about Hailu Mergia in Pitchfork’s The 200 Best Albums of the 2010s, which listed his 2018 album Lala Belu at 185th. But my favorite Hailu album quickly became and has remained his 1978 album, Wede Harer Guzo. It’s that rare and precious kind of music that’s somehow nostalgic on first listen. I adore even the album cover, which is a scan of the original tape cover art set against a solid magenta background. Late


jazz & soul gems of 2019

(Originally posted on

#journal #music Mentioned in technical difficulties at Hailu Mergia

To my delight, there is a wealth of curated lists of great music from the last year, spanning across genres and levels of popularity. Albums from established artists like Tyler, the Creator and promising up-and-comers like black midi appeared on various year-end lists, but some of my favourite albums from this year didn’t seem to circulate much at all.

I wrote this little piece to share some of my thoughts on these albums, most of which draw from jazz, soul, and blues influences. I also selected a few tracks from these few albums and put them together in this Spotify playlist. The playlist consists largely of instrumentals and, even when vocals appear, they often act as just another instrument rather the the song’s main reason for existence. Hope you enjoy!

Bridges and Superbloom by Kiefer

This year, Kiefer released two EPs — Bridges and Superbloom — as one cohesive project that clearly showcases the pianist’s musical ideas and mastery of the keyboard. On these two EPs, the accompanying instruments meld subtly into the background, allowing Kiefer and his keyboard forward into the spotlight.

The song “Be Encouraged” is my personal favourite. On this track, Kiefer alternates between a short, soulful motif that he repeats like a mantra and a sequence of gorgeous harmonies that he delicately lays out as the base for his improvisations. He repeats the main melody of the song over and over, as if he were emphasizing the first part of his pithy motto: “Be Encouraged and Encourage Others.”

The Loop by Shafiq Husayn

After experiencing Joe Armon-Jones’ dazzling keyboard solos live at an Ezra Collective gig earlier this month, I got the chance to ask him what music he’d been listening to lately. From the various artists in the realms of jazz and soul that he recommended, Shafiq Husayn stood out.

Crowded with appearances from some of the heftiest names in contemporary R&B, jazz, and soul music, including Erykah Badu, Robert Glasper, Bilal, & Anderson Paak, The Loop delivers track after track of slow-burning grooves laden with vocal harmonies, glittering synths, streaming horns, funky bass lines, and swinging drum loops.

In this album, Husayn weaves together a tapestry of eclectic yet cohesive musical moments from slivers of home studio recordings of jam sessions with friends, dating as far back as 2012. The album pays a worthy tribute to soul, jazz, hip hop, and R&B music of preceding decades in the form of further musical innovation.

Cypress Grove by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes

Produced by Dan Auerbach of Black Keys fame, Cypress Grove presents the minimal yet full-bodied sound of Mississippi blues figurehead Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.

One of the album’s highlights is its very first track, “Hard Times”. Throughout the song, Holmes’ voice and acoustic guitar take turns resolving a strolling, bluesy riff, descending again and again to the same, inevitable place. It sounds like Holmes plucking sympathy out of his guitar.

Auerbach deserves credit for bringing robustness and polish to the country blues veteran’s vintage sound. Like the cover art, the album’s production offers a vivid snapshot of the artist by framing and colouring his straightforward, traditional approach.

Pareidolia and NUNU by Clever Austin

In Pareidolia and NUNU, Clever Austin, drummer of the acclaimed Hiatus Kaiyote, created two albums brimming with dynamic yet meditative instrumentals.

In “Higher Plains” on Pareidolia, Clever Austin carves out a pensive groove, hones it, and moves on to the next; each musical idea progresses organically onto the next like thoughts in a wandering mind.

Even more so than Pareidolia, NUNU is an intimate record of musical ruminations. Fans of the acoustic moments in Nicolas Jaar’s discography might find similar joy in Austin’s repetition of soft, thoughtful piano lines. On “B5”, the contemplative mood grows with the barely audible sound of light friction between neighbouring piano keys, as Austin moves them carefully in and out of place. You can imagine yourself sitting silently in the artist’s dimly lit personal studio, watching him sketch out a musical idea.

Shiroi by Mansur Brown

Mansur Brown, a major contributor to the acclaimed 2016 album Black Focus by Yussef Kamaal, took a strong step forward as a solo artist in 2019 with this debut album. In Shiroi, the guitarist creates a dreamy yet lively atmosphere by bringing together the sounds of jazz, funk, and electronic music in an imaginative, refreshing way.

Overall, Brown impresses with a balanced and focused album. Most tracks feature a hypnotic mesh of garbled electric guitar and bustling percussion, but maintain a spacious, inviting atmosphere. Even though the album loses a bit of its edge halfway through, due to its limited sound palette and repetitive use of song structure, it promises much of Mansur Brown’s future work. It’s no wonder the talented young guitarist managed to enlist heavy-weights Thundercat and Robert Glasper for his solo debut.

Honourable Mentions

In addition to select songs from the few albums above, I included songs from these three albums in my Spotify playlist:

All Trash, No Love by Billy Uomo

Coping with romantic heartbreak, Uomo somehow translates his sour, dejected mood into sweet, funky, and soulful bedroom pop.

Zdenka 2080 by Salami Rose Joe Louis

After ditching her career as a scientist to pursue her artistic career with Brainfeeder Records, the experimental songwriter releases another enigmatic collection of colourful, meandering, and subdued compositions.

You’re so Fine by Papa Bear & His Cubs

Re-released in 2019, the two songs by this family band are a blissful mix of old soul and gospel from the 60s.

and early


9 songs not from 2020

(Originally posted on

#journal #music Mentioned in technical difficulties at Hailu Mergia

This year felt like the right time to escape the present. And so, I ditched hip hop, neo-soul, and modern R&B and journeyed back to the 60s and 70s. These nine songs are tasters of the music that kept me company in this bizarre year. I hope they lift you up, too.

All the songs mentioned in this post are available in this Spotify playlist.

“Another Star” by Stevie Wonder

The song riles me up every time I play it. I might even prefer it over “I Wish” and “A Seed’s A Star/Tree Medley”. I first heard it when I put on Songs in the Key of Life during a game of FIFA with my friend. It came on after halftime when I was losing and my friend said he felt the momentum of the game turn against him. The song is an absolute scorcher, finishing Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece with an echoing bang.

“Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You” by Dionne Warwick

I’ve loved J Dilla’s “Stop” for years and when I finally heard the original song, Dionne Warwick’s “You’re Gonna Need Me”, I realized how much Dilla’s song owed to the original’s production and instrumentation. Curious to hear more, I listened to the rest of Warwick’s album Just Being Myself on a walk around the neighborhood and found her glorious “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You”. Wonderfully produced and arranged, the song makes heartbreak sound beautiful and invigorating.

“Since I Found My Baby” by Brother Cornelius and Sister Rose

I discovered “Too Late To Turn Back Now” in the BlacKkKlansman soundtrack when I watched the movie with my dad during quarantine. Since then, I’ve been listening to the whole album, The Story of Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, over and over. It’s hard to pick a single song because the album is so consistent, but “Since I Found My Baby” is one of my favorites. To me, this album proves that you can write great songs using the same form. You know where they’re aiming, but it doesn’t matter because they’re deadly accurate.

“Oh Happy Day” by The Edwin Hawkins Singers

This song sounds like hope, love, and joy, and it convinces you that they’re all the same thing. The song owes its surging power to the tremendous choir, which sounds like a whole community singing together. It’ll make you want to meet all your neighbors when the global pandemic is finally under control.

“Run, Shaker Life” by Voices of East Harlem

BB King starred in the Thanksgiving Concert at Sing Sing Prison, but it was one of the supporting acts that suddenly came on and jolted the audience onto their feet (at 29:00). Their electrifying performance of “Run, Shaker Life” stunned me. Its similarities with Kendrick Lamar’s album version of “i” from To Pimp A Butterfly is a reminder of the progress seen and the stasis still endured in the 40+ years that have passed.

“I’m Waiting For The Man” by The Velvet Underground

This song snuck up on me. It’s so straightforward that I didn’t expect the enthusiasm I’d eventually feel about it. It sparked my newfound love for The Velvet Underground’s noisy, guitar-driven rock ’n’ roll. From here, I went on to discover garage rock like “Psycho” by The Sonics and early psychedelic rock like “I Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” by The Seeds.

“Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones

It surprised me to discover that The Rolling Stones were originally bluesmen. I ignorantly conflated them with other rock bands like AC/DC and Aerosmith that I associated with condescending dads. Their early material didn’t do much for me, but then “Street Fighting Man” pushed me to find my place in their discography. It was intimidating to delve into the legendary band’s long discography, but of course I had the time to do it. I soon learned that their 1968–1972 album run is considered one of the most prolific in rock ’n’ roll history. Sure enough, I found new favorites like “Gimme Shelter” and “Moonlight Mile”.

“I’m Only Sleeping” by The Beatles

I grew up listening to The Beatles’ #1 Hits CD, but I’d never explored their discography. As a kid, I preferred McCartney, but now I prefer Lennon for songs like “I’m Only Sleeping”. I’m enchanted by the gruff sound of the acoustic guitar, the reversed electric guitar riffs, and the aloof attitude of the lyrics. The verse and the chorus are great and yet somehow the bridge is my favorite part — when Lennon sings “Keeping an eye on the world going by my window”. John Lennon also wrote others of my favorite Beatles’ songs like “Across The Universe” and “You Can’t Do That”.

“Tombstone Blues” by Bob Dylan

This song won me over early in the year, in the first few weeks of quarantine. I love the bluesy guitar, the noisiness, the galloping pace, and the blemished vocals, elements that would later draw me to other songs in this list. I still feel the raw, pleasant ache of excitement in my gut that I felt when I first listened to this song and realized that my journey into the past would be fruitful.

was a fertile time of music discovery for me.

It’s been five years and I still listen to Hailu routinely, and so does my friend Isaac, who was my roommate at the time and is Ethiopian like Hailu. So, in January, when Isaac got a Spotify notification that Hailu was playing a concert in Seattle in March, we bought tickets instantly. Soon afterwards, it sold out.

We showed up close to scheduled showtime, but Hailu and his bandmates didn’t for another hour, almost two. On “Habesha Time,” as Isaac anticipated of his fellow Ethiopians. Nonetheless, the crowd roared as the band came on stage.

From the first song, I thought the music sounded spare, like an instrument was missing. So much so, that by the end of the second song, I felt let down. It wasn’t sounding like I expected. And yet the rest of the crowd was thrilled. I wondered if we should move away from the stage to a place in the venue where the speakers translated better. Maybe our position under them was deceiving us.

But by the third or fourth song, Isaac and I realized we were thinking the same thing. Something was wrong. In the middle of a song we saw Hailu turn a keyboard knob left and right with a puzzled look like one would if the volume wasn’t working. The other two band members, the bassist and the drummer, seemed to sense something too. The three of them exchanged looks but did not betray much worry. When the song ended, the crowd clapped and whooed enthusiastically. I waited for Hailu to say something to someone about the keyboard. He didn’t. They went on to the next song.

We were standing a few feet to Hailu’s left, in the perfect position to watch his left hand play mute accompaniment. We could hear every note he played with his right hand on the upper keyboard, and even some of the notes he played on the right half of the faulty keyboard, but almost nothing from the left hand as it pressed futile chords into the left half.

After the fifth or sixth song, I approached an employee standing security next to the stage to tell him. He leaned in and listened to me and nodded without looking up. I stepped back to my spot and waited. He leaned and said something to the other employee standing by the stage. Neither seemed bothered. When the song ended, they just stood there and clapped.

Then I noticed a guy in front of me and Isaac shifting and glancing restlessly at the two employees and conferring with his friends about something. I figured he must have noticed too. At the end of the next song, I leaned forward and asked him, trying to speak over the noise of the crowd. It’s ridiculous! he said to me immediately. After a moment I realized he was talking about the huge fan at the end of the corridor blowing air into the venue from outside. He was just cold.

Isaac needed to go to the bathroom and I still held out hope that the music would sound better farther from the stage, so we waded diagonally through the crowd towards the bar, listening as we went. We agreed. No difference.

Isaac went to the bathroom and I went to the merch table to see what albums they had. I commented to the woman working there about our suspicion that half of Hailu’s keyboard wasn’t working. She reacted with concern, but then said that her boyfriend was in charge of the sound and that he was a pro. I dropped the subject.

They were selling Lala Belu on vinyl but didn’t accept debit, credit, cash, or Venmo, so I spent the next several minutes downloading PayPal and trying to set it up. I stood aside and the woman continued selling copies of the record to people that came up. While I battled with multifactor authentication and her confusing instructions – no, you can’t do it that way because of the currency exchange – people kept coming up and buying records until there was only one left. Another guy came up wanting to buy the record. The woman looked between us, apologized, and said that whoever paid for it first could have it. I was on the brink of giving up but then I tried again, this time ignoring her instructions. It worked, finally.

With my new record in hand, I went with Isaac to the back of the venue to listen from a third vantage point, to see if the chords were audible from there. Nope. Still nothing.