Video Power Doc: Hailu Mergia – Far Off Sounds

Artist: Hailu Mergia
Documentary: Far Off Sounds

“WASHINGTON, D.C. — Far Off Sounds, a revolutionary film series that explores music and the connections it creates between people and across cultures, have just released their fourth installment in the series – a portrait of the legendary Ethiopian musician Hailu Mergia.

Hailu Mergia was the leader of one of the biggest jazz funk bands in Ethiopia in the 1970?s. 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 they had originally landed in the States. 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.

Record label Awesome Tapes From Africa recently rediscovered Hailu’s music. Besides reissuing an album, this intrepid label has arranged shows in New York City and across Europe for Hailu, backup band included.

Available online, Far Off Sounds ( episodes are a hybrid of ethnographic documentary, music video and travelogue. The show’s creators, Nick George and Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman, both Detroit filmmakers, guide viewers through distant lands and hidden places close to home, exploring the beautiful, strange and varied ways that people use, play and connect with music around the world.

Audiences have gone on a heavy metal cruise aboard a 70,000-ton ship in the Caribbean, into an Appalachian church service featuring snake handling, and to the streets of Tampa, Florida for a generator-powered illegal noise show of experimental music. The Far Off Sounds series serves to connect music genres, cultures and people through intimate but discreet video storytelling.”