Good thing Hailu Mergia wasn’t angling for a Kennedy Center gig when he made his debut solo album, “Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument.” The booking eventually came, putting the Ethiopian-bred, Washington-based keyboardist on the venue’s Millennium Stage on Tuesday night. But that took almost 30 years, a period during which Mergia stopped performing live and began to support himself by driving a Dulles Airport cab.
Echoes of Mergia’s 1985 release were heard in Tuesday’s show, notably during a version of “Hari Meru Meru.” But “& His Classical Instrument” is a one-man show, featuring accordion with overdubbed synthesizers and drum machines. Recently, Mergia has been backed by Low Mentality, a Brooklyn septet led by guitarist-keyboardist Nikhil P. Yerawadekar. The group adds guitars, horns and live percussion to the music that attracted a Western cult audience after the album, originally available only in Mergia’s homeland, was issued in the United States last year.
Years before he recorded solo in a D.C. studio, Mergia played with Walias Band, perhaps Addis Ababa’s top 1970s act. He returned to being just one of the guys — almost — at Tuesday’s concert. The keyboardist took center stage, and his red shirt, gold vest and green, red and yellow scarf upstaged the other musicians’ prep-punk look of skinny ties and untucked shirts. But Mergia didn’t dominate the arrangements, and all the other musicians were allotted solo turns.
Those passages were brief and fitted tightly into jazz-funk instrumentals that ran about six minutes each. Every piece had a slightly different flavor, from reggae to disco to Latin; the opener recalled the swagger and sleekness of Henry Mancini’s spy- and detective-story scores. Playing two keyboards, one with each hand, Mergia embellished the music with rippling passages that suggested bebop and, occasionally, Bach.
If East African motifs often seemed submerged in the keyboardist’s style, that may reflect American jazz and soul’s long acceptance and wide influence in Ethiopia. The evening’s most exotic melodies came during the two numbers on which Mergia traded his Japanese keyboards for accordion. The latter instrument is also not indigenous to Ethiopia, of course, but was common in that country’s music before electric instruments took over. The accordion tunes were more sinuous, and the grooves that accompanied them more hypnotic. For a few minutes, it was clear that the longtime Washingtonian onstage came from someplace far away.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.