In an era where algorithmic curation denies music its place in broader culture, ‘IT IS A SOUL: A Portrait of Hailu Mergia’ puts a generation of listeners in touch with history
A few years ago, Ethiopian jazz became a mainstay on my Spotify radio. Artists like Mulatu Astatke and Hailu Mergia signaled the transition from human to algorithmic curation. But soon the phenomena became cultural. From coffee shops to lowkey bars, tracks like “Tezeta (Nostalgia)” by Astatke practically haunted me in public, suggesting we had all fallen deep into a pocket of the Spotify core we couldn’t quite name, but could definitely feel. Soon, the algorithmic force-feeding made me want to actively avoid Ethiopian jazz, and Spotify’s curated playlists at large.
The new short documentary, IT IS A SOUL: A Portrait of Hailu Mergia, shifted my perspective, as it grounded Ethiopian jazz in a cultural landscape otherwise denied by algorithmic curation. We meet Mergia in the context of his contemporary day-to-day, among a group of rehearsing musicians before sounds from his melodica mix with street noise, taking us into his life as a taxi driver ferrying passengers to and from Dulles Airport. After the Derg, an oppressive military junta, seized control over Ethiopia in 1974, many fled the country, including Mergia and his group Walias Band. Washington, D.C. became the overseas capital of the country’s diaspora, a crowd Walias Band would entertain as it toured the city and other parts of the US. After an initial bout of shows, Mergia settled in D.C. and put performing aside to dedicate his days to cab driving. He brought his music with him on the road, taking every chance he could get to pull over, open his trunk, and play his battery-powered Yamaha electric keyboard to remember home.
“In hindsight, it makes sense. Ethiopian jazz’s blend of lo-fi warmth and nostalgic melodies has made it an aural wallpaper for the digital age—a muffled style calm enough to quell the anxieties of contemporary overstimulation.”
“Music comes in different ways. Sometimes it comes from old memories—memories of love and friendship from childhood,” Mergia says in the documentary. “I also remember my country. So many memories.”
Such deep nostalgia is inherent to the tradition of Tezeta, a scale of Ethiopian music meant to evoke intense longing. In the 1970s, the style was harnessed as an act of resistance—a tool that could connect Ethiopians to a forgotten past, as dictatorship flattened the culture around them. Early evening curfews stifled nightlife and intense censorship stifled expression, yet the humanities retained vitality through artists like Mergia, who found his niche playing 10-hour sets at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa. The long shows were strategic: Attendees could skirt curfews by staying out all night, listening to sunny instrumentals blending funk sensibilities with classic Ethiopian styles. Although this jazz was on the regime’s terms, it carved out space for musicians like Mergia to further evolve Ethiopian traditions, like the Tezeta style.
In the ’90s, Walias Band broke out of Ethiopia after its music was reissued on a series of compact discs by the French label Buda Musique. Although this development allowed Mergia to tour outside of Ethiopia, he remained relatively unknown until his music was rediscovered once again—this time by a curious Brooklyn-based ethnomusicologist, Brian Shimkovitz. Beginning in 2016, Shimkovitz released Mergia’s music on his label, Awesome Tapes From Africa, sparking a second life for the artist as digital listeners discovered and shared his discography.
“Music comes in different ways. Sometimes it comes from old memories—memories of love and friendship from childhood.”
IT IS A SOUL portrays Mergia as rather unaffected by the relative success that followed his discovery by Shimkovitz, accentuating how streaming platforms excavate individual plight for mass sensation. In a world where two million streams don’t even net five figures, we see Mergia scrolling through Washington Post headlines lauding his resurrection, while he remains confined to a small bedroom watching CNN, before getting back into his cab for another ride. Mergia remains radically alienated from the culture and memories that inspired him, his newfound success an ambiguous force not strong enough to quell his longing for home. It’s a reality the film highlights by cutting through contrasting visuals of Ethiopian deserts, where daily life remains unaffected by Mergia’s global “rediscovery.”
In hindsight, it makes sense. Ethiopian jazz’s blend of lo-fi warmth and nostalgic melodies has made it an aural wallpaper for the digital age—a muffled style calm enough to quell the anxieties of contemporary overstimulation. Here, history and context are lost as algorithmic curation denies music its place in the broader landscape of culture. Artists like Mergia are just a mood traveling in montage—a kind of institutional propping-up of tradition as style, akin to the way jazz has traditionally been commodified as a tool for cultural hegemony. It’s why the State Department toured Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong around the world during the Cold War—to further American exceptionalism. Or how South African saxophonist Winston Mankunku Ngozi was forced to play shows from behind a curtain, while white counterparts mimed his movements from onstage. Here, artistry becomes a pawn for cultural diplomacy, with appreciation only extending as far as the interests of dominant culture.
Much of what makes Mergia special is the way his music cuts through the circumstances surrounding his modern presentation. Even if his music remains tied to the curiosities of the visitor, its availability puts a generation of listeners in touch with sensations otherwise lost to history.