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Hailu Mergia On World Cafe

Every day I talk to artists about the winding and sometimes tricky roads they travel to make a career in music. But I've never heard a "how-I-got-here" story quite as remarkable as the one that belongs to today's guest.

Hailu Mergia's journey began in the countryside in Ethiopia surrounded by sheep, goats and oxen. He was a shepherd when he was young. That's before he became a member of one of Ethiopia's most popular club bands in the 70s. After his band was invited to tour the United States in 1981, Hailu made the choice to stay rather than return to his home country, which was in the throes of the brutal and deadly Ethiopian Civil War at the time.

When he settled in Washington D.C., Hailu gave up playing music for a living, but he kept a keyboard in the back of the taxi cab he drove around the city and practiced between customers. Sometimes passengers would recognize the name and photo staring at them in the back seat of his cab.

A few years ago, a lover of African music from the U.S. named Brian Shimkovitz was in a small record shop in Ethiopia when he heard a piece of music and fell in love. He tracked down the creator — it was Hailu! And that discovery led to the rebirth of Hailu's career, which includes a new album he's just released called Lala Belu. Hailu performs live music in this session. Hear it all in the player.

Copyright 2021 XPN. To see more, visit XPN.

Talia Schlanger hosts World Cafe, which is distributed by NPR and produced by WXPN, the public radio service of the University of Pennsylvania. She got her start in broadcasting at the CBC, Canada's national public broadcaster. She hosted CBC Radio 2 Weekend Mornings on radio and was the on-camera host for two seasons of the television series CBC Music: Backstage, as well as several prime-time music TV specials for CBC, including the Quietest Concert Ever: On Fundy's Ocean Floor. Schlanger also guest hosted various flagship shows on CBC Radio One, including As It Happens, Day 6 and Because News. Schlanger also won a Canadian Screen Award as a producer for CBC Music Presents: The Beetle Roadtrip Sessions, a cross-country rock 'n' roll road trip.
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