Dozens of cherished recordings were made during the legendary “golden age” of Ethiopian music, an era stretching from the early 1960’s through the mid-1970’s. Less-discussed are the songs made in the aftermath of the 1974 revolution that toppled Emperor Hailu Selassie I. The acclaimed and highly sought-after LP by Hailu Mergia and the Walias, Tche Belew, an album of instrumentals released in 1977, is perhaps the most seminal of these recordings. The story of the Walias band is a critical chapter in Ethiopian popular music, taking place during a period of music industry flux and political complexity in the country.
Hailu Mergia, a keyboardist and arranger diligently working the nightclub scene in Addis Ababa, formed the Walias in the early 1970’s with a core group of musical colleagues assembled from the remnants of prior working bands attached to the Zula and Venus clubs. One of the first “private” bands, the Walias got a steady gig at the prestigious Hilton Addis Ababa and remained independent from the government-supported bands of the time as well as from the clubs who employed bands.
While the oppressive and often brutal, Socialism-inspired Derg government (1974-1987) had a firm grip on Ethiopians following the revolution, Walias organized their own contracts and eschewed government patronage. Unlike the celebrated bands of the run-up to Selassie’s removal—the Police Orchestra, Imperial Bodyguard Band, National Theater Band, Ethiopian Army Band, Hager Fikir Theater Band, City Hall Theatre Folkloric Group and so on—the Wailas developed fame on their own terms and maintained control of their instruments and performances. They played the blues-, funk- and soul-informed tunes Mergia was writing and arranging, while cutting 45rpm recordings released by Kaifa Records with popular vocalists, including Getachew Kassa and Alemayehu Borobor.