The Ethiopian Red Terror was a brutal political campaign led by the Derg regime in the late ’70s that left somewhere between 30,000 and 500,000 people murdered, executed, tortured, or imprisoned.
And yet, Hailu Mergia’s Wede Harer Guzo, recorded in 1978 at the tail-end of the terror, shows no signs of hell, only heaven.
Laid to tape over three afternoons with the Dahlak Band, who were the entertainers in residence at the Ghion Hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Wede Harer Guzo is a hypnotic mixture of feel-good funk, soul, R&B, blues, and jazz. Due to the Derg’s strict curfew, which kept people off the streets between midnight and 6 a.m., the clubs stayed packed all through the night as people danced ’til dawn to these celebratory tunes, which gave traditional songs a modern twist.
Now based in Washington, D.C., Mergia drives a cab, and still occasionally performs. When he unearthed his only copy of Wede Harer Guzo from his personal archives, he turned the tape over to Awesome Tapes from Africa, the blog-turned-label that reissued his much-beloved Tche Belew album in 2014.
The audio was cleaned up by Jessica Thompson at Coast Mastering, but since one can only really do so much with a tape of such advanced age, the sound quality of the mostly instrumental set is on par with an old AM radio broadcast. And that’s perfectly fine—this is an intimate document of a bygone era, and the divine vibes this thing lets off are still as fresh as they surely were nearly 40 years ago.
A true master of the ivory keys, Mergia leads Dahlak Band with his electric organ and piano, which elegantly snake and shriek across 10 tracks that, while played hard, are fairly laid back. Standouts include “Bati Bati” for its excellent guitar work, “Yemanesh Ayinama” for its wild saxophone figures, and “Minlbelesh,” which is the album’s best song, partly due to its memorable arrangement. However, these are just the shiniest nuggets in a sparkling mountain of gold. (Oddly, despite the resurgence of the format, not to mention the name of the label, the album isn’t available on cassette.)
Meaning “Journey to Harer”—Harer, now spelled “Harar,” is a walled city in eastern Ethiopia—Wede Harer Guzo takes newcomers and Afrophiles alike on a relaxing, uplifting musical journey to obsess over all summer long while the ghosts of Ethiopian nightclubs past dance right along.
Reissued: June 17, 2016
Label: Awesome Tapes from Africa