Hailu Mergia | photo by Ashley Gellman for WXPN | agellmanphotos.com

Yes, today’s Free at Noon with Hailu Mergia may have gotten off to a late start while some equipment errors were sorted out. But oh, was the wait worth it.

The Ethiopian jazz and funk artist is something of a living legend — in Ethiopia, that is. Until recently, the visionary musician was hardly known outside of his native country, and leads a relatively anonymous life as a cab driver in Washington, D.C., where he’s lived since the 80s. Now, Mergia has stepped back into the public eye with the release of his first new album in 15 years, Lala Belu.

If Hailu Mergia’s resurgence seems sudden, that’s because it has been. Mergia was at the forefront of innovative musicians in 1960s and 70s Ethiopia who experimented with blues, rock, jazz, funk and Afrobeat to create a unique new sound. He got his start in Walias Band, one of Ethiopia’s most successful music acts of the time (their 1977 album Tche Belew remains an Ethiopian classic). When the band broke up in the early 80s, Mergia moved to the U.S., and over the following decade slowly stopped playing music professionally.

Mergia had all but given up performing when, in 2013, an Awesome Tapes From Africa reissue of his 1985 album Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument started bringing greater attention his way, leading him to eventually record the new album, which features a mix of new, original songs and Ethiopian traditionals.

Hailu Mergia performed as a three-piece today, with Alemseged Kebede on bass and Kenneth Joseph on drums, and the man himself alternating between his two signature instruments, keyboard and accordion. Despite the initial delays, the band powered through its lively, hour-long set. Though Mergia didn’t banter much with the crowd, and his music is for the most part absent of lyrics, the musician communicated all that he needed to with his stirring instrumentals and soothing rhythms.

In a press release preceding the announcement of the new album, Mergia said, “It is a very historical album for me. And I am extremely excited. All of it feels like a big comeback. A different kind of audience, playing with a different kind of band and working with a different kind of record company.” Even if they hadn’t listened to his music or seen him perform before, anyone who witnessed today’s set can attest to the storied musician’s successful comeback — Mergia makes the kind of music that can take an audience from rapt attention to leisurely dancing, all in the duration of a single song.

Lala Belu is out now via Awesome Tapes From Africa. Check out photos and audio from today’s performance below, and revisit Hailu Mergia’s 2014 World Cafe session here.

Yegle nesh
Abichu nrga nega
Hati meru meru
Yene Abeba
Yene mircha