In Amharic, the word “tezeta,” has 3 meanings. It describes the concept of, “…memory, or the memory of loss and longing.”
The term is also the name of a musical scale in traditional Ethiopian music, and, simultaneously, the name of an Amharic folk standard or ballad, which evokes a feeling of loss.
The legendary Ethiopian jazz keyboardist Hailu Mergia’s story is intertwined with “tezeta.” The atmospheric tone poem, It is a Soul, tracks aspects of Hailu’s journey from an iconic bandleader in the club scene of Addis Ababa in the 1970s, his immigration to the US during a decade of political repression and brutality in Ethiopia, and his public re-emergence as a performer in 2014 after a music publisher in New York began re-releasing his music. It is a Soul is a collaboration with Hailu which expresses both the longing so evident in his performances, as well as the celebration of the now.
At the height of the second wave of the vibrant Ethiopian jazz music scene, Hailu Mergia was a famous and beloved multi-instrumentalist and bandleader in Addis Ababa, performing with the Walias Band, the Dahlak Band and others. The Walias had a residency at the famed Hilton Hotel in Addis, where all of the biggest acts of the time performed until dawn, sometimes playing 8-10 hour sets for ecstatic crowds of dancers.
In 1977, Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Derg seized power in Ethiopia, overseeing a murderous and oppressive regime that snuffed out all political opposition and dissent in a period that became known as the Red Terror. However, in 198, Hailu and the Walias had established such notoriety as performers that they were granted permission to tour the United States. After the tour, Hailu and a few of his bandmates declared asylum in the US and began new lives.
Hailu left Addis Ababa at the height of his popularity, fleeing the Red Terror to start a new life in Washington, DC, where no one outside of the small Ethiopian diaspora community was familiar with his music.
Settling in Washington, Hailu continued to make music for himself for over 30 years while driving a taxi, working at a gas station, managing a club and doing whatever he had to in order to make a living. In 2014, Brian Shimkovitz– a young music publisher from Brooklyn – discovered Hailu’s music in a cassette shop in Addis Ababa. He tracked Hailu down and began re-releasing his music (never heard outside of Ethiopia) on his label, Awesome Tapes from Africa, to great acclaim. The past 7 years have been a rebirth for Hailu, and at 73 years old, he is finally receiving international recognition for his contributions as a musician.
Directed by Lorena Alvarado & Adam Golfer
Producer: Jessica Beshir
Editor: Lorena Alvarado
Director of Photography: Adam Golfer
Additional Footage: Abdullah Akçay & Leo Plunkett
Sound Design: Luciana Foglio
Colorist: Cédric von Niederhäusern
Translations: Menbere Awoke, Jessica Beshir
Title Design: Ghazaal Vojdani
Music by Hailu Mergia, Courtesy of Awesome Tapes from Africa