The Walias were an Ethiopian Jazz and funk band active from the early 1970s until the early 1990s. The period of the early 1960’s through the mid-1970’s marked a “golden age” in Ethiopian music history.
In September 1974 Ethiopia’s political, economic, and social climate shifted with the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and the rise of the Derg regime. The country’s music scene, at once dominated by Ethio-jazz and funk legends like Mulatu Astatke, entered a state of unremarkability.
The Walias, led by keyboardist/arranger/composer Hailu Mergia, are perhaps one of the most influential groups to come from an otherwise stagnant era for Ethiopian music. Mergia, who started out working the nightclub scene in Addis Ababa, formed the Walias in the early 1970’s. In 1977 they recorded one of the few albums of Ethiopian instrumental music in collaboration with vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke, whose role as a bandleader and composer was also a major influence on Ethiopian popular music.
Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye, originally out in 1985, signaled Mergia’s spellbinding work to resurrect the vintage Ethiopian accordion sound of his youth and pair it with psychedelic analog synth music. In 1981 Walias became the first modern Ethiopian band to travel to the United States, playing on a tour with singer Mahmoud Ahmed primarily to audiences of Ethiopian refugees. Four members—Girma Bèyènè, Mogès Habté, Mèlakè Gèbrè and Hailu Mergia—stayed in the U.S. and formed a new group called Zula Band.
In the late 1990s Walias Band found a wider audience in the west when the French label Buda Records reissued much of the group’s music on the Ethiopiques series of compact discs. Their instrumental, “Musicawi Silt”, became a popular dance number and has been covered by a number of artists.