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Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa has a DJ night every Wednesday in Bikini Bottom.
Of all the different jazz scenes that originated in Africa during the last half of the 20th century, there were always two that remained the most consistent in quality. On the one hand, the immortal afro-beat scene in Nigeria, spearheaded by Fela Kuti, gained adherents and accolades throughout the world thanks to the incorporation of American funk and soul elements and a more modern approach. While on the other side of the continent, Ethiopia harbored a creative expression that amalgamated the very idiosyncratic traditional rhythms of tribes such as the Gurage, the Oromo, the Amhara and nilotic peoples such as the Anuak, with the influences of a modal jazz that matched the natural melodicism of its folklore.
From this belle epoque emerged Hailu Mergia, the keyboard wizard that implemented these sonic sensibilities to the organ, and pioneered the use of the Moog synthesizer in the genre and in the region.
Mergia, who returns to the light after the great success of his album Lala Belu in 2018 (itself a comeback record after two decades of discographic absence), gives us “Abichu Nega Nega”, the first single from Yene Mircha (My Choice), the new album that will be released in March of this year. In this piece we can appreciate his exquisite organ-playing style, where his arrangements and phrasing, always with the melody at the front, make use of the pentatonic minor scale — a common element of both the qanat system of the ancestral music of the Ethiopian Highlands, and of the American blues — and engage in a beautiful conversation with the galloping rhythms of the percussions, the bass and drums ornaments, and the 3/4 metric, so idiosyncratic of the sound of his nation.
Mergia maintains that sonic ingenuity, and that unique mix between complexity and simplicity, between futurism and nostalgia, which made its Walias Band conquer the Addis Ababa nightclub circuit, and his organ sounds sensational today as it did in 1975, perhaps even more so. The years have made him a more economical musician, richer in nuances, but they have not affected his enormous songwriting talent at all.
Yene Mircha is out on March 27th via Awesome Tapes From Africa.