In honor of World Refugee Day on Thursday, June 21st, this week's Songs of the Day were chosen by DJ Darek Mazzone, host of Wo'Pop, our modern global radio show on the air Tuesday nights from 6:00 to 9:00 PM.
When the Walias Band formed in the early '70s, they were the house band for an upscale Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. At the time, leader Mengistu Haile Mariam's Derg government enforced strict censorship rules on music that the band got around by playing entirely instrumentals. During a 1980s tour of the United States, keyboardist Hailu Mergia and three of his bandmates in the Walias Band decided to escape the restrictive regime by remaining here. At the time, Ethiopia had entered into one of the most devastating famines in the history of the country. Mergia began to drive a cab in Washington DC, keeping an electronic keyboard in the trunk so he could practice in-between customers. He self-released music on cassette, but never again achieved the level of fame he did with the Walias Band in Ethiopia.
Fast forward a couple of decades and Brian Simkovitz, head of the Awesome Tapes From Africa label, came across a Walias Band cassette while shopping in Ethiopia. The album was fetching $4,000 at online auctions. Simkovitz knew this music needed to be heard and managed to track down the talented taxi driver who, fortunately, still had the master tapes in his possession. Just last year, Mergia released his first new LP in fifteen years, titled Lala Belu.
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