For 20 years, Hailu Mergia spent his days in a cab shuttling passengers to and from Dulles International Airport. In between fares, he’d pull over, pull out a keyboard and make music.
For most of that time, no one else heard the sounds that were coming out of his instrument.
“I was performing for myself — that’s the best way to say it,” Mergia says.
He wasn’t just a cabbie who played piano as a hobby — Mergia was an accomplished Ethiopian jazz musician, formerly of the Walias Band, who moved to D.C. in the early 1980s after the group toured the region. When the band broke up, he stuck around, recording the hypnotic “Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument,” a 1985 album for which he acted as a one-man band, layering Rhodes piano, accordion and Moog synthesizer sounds. He gigged a little around the world and then, in 1991, stopped performing publicly and opened a restaurant.
“But I was practicing everywhere, all the time,” says Mergia, who is in his early 70s and lives in Fort Washington, Md.
In 2013, Brian Shimkovitz, who runs the blog-turned-record label Awesome Tapes From Africa, discovered Mergia’s album on cassette while in Ethiopia and rereleased it on his label the following year. Awesome Tapes went on to rerelease two more Mergia albums: “Wede Harer Guzo,” with the Dahlak Band, and “Tche Belew,” with the Walias Band. Both are heavy on keyboard and accordion work, blending funk and jazz in forward-
thinking (at the time) ways that also recall Ethiopia’s past.
“When I started playing in the clubs, I was a singer and then I started playing accordion because accordion, back in the early ’60s in Ethiopia, was very popular — there was no organ,” Mergia says. “When the organ came in the mid-’60s, the accordion became a forgotten instrument — it was lost. So after so many years when I brought it back … along with the Moog, it was kind of like a different sound.”
After the rereleases, the world was able to tune in to the music Mergia had made decades prior, and he started gaining fans and playing live again. (Indie singer Feist personally invited Mergia to open for her at the Lincoln Theatre in 2017 once she found out he lived here).
Re-energized and with a new fan base, Mergia decided it was time to make a new album — his first since “Classical Instrument.” “Lala Belu,” released last year, showcases Mergia’s evolved sound. The music has taken a more modern jazz turn, though it is still funky, hypnotic and, thanks in part to the accordion, uniquely him.
Mergia is spending more time on the road — his trio plays The Hamilton on Sunday as part of the DC Jazz Festival — and he quit driving his cab in October.
“The business was getting slow and at the same time I have more shows coming,” he says. “I need more time for the music.”
He doesn’t miss driving to Dulles, but he does miss playing in the cab, where he wrote many of the melodies that make up “Lala Belu.”
“When I practice in my car … I’m by myself, nobody’s bothering me — there’s no TV,” he says. “At the time, I was making money [on cab fares]. … Now I just practice.”
Mergia plans to keep touring and recording, but he’s also learned that plans can quickly shift.
“I’m just music now, but I dunno,” he says. “Life’s always changing, so I might do something else.”
The Hamilton, 600 F St. NW; Sun., 7:30 p.m., $19.75-$39.75.