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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.

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