Their pinnacle came when they took residency at the Hilton Addis- the place to be- and became the go-to backing band for some of the greatest Ethiopian artists. They utilized their strong connections with big names in the industry from their previous incarnations (Most of the group had worked together since their early musical careers, notably as members of Shebelle Hotel band). Tilahun Gessesse, Getachew Kassa, Muluken Melese, Mahmoud Ahmed and Mulatu Astatke were major early collaborators while the band also gave opportunities to up-and-coming vocalists that would dominate the music scene for decades to come. Artists Tsehaye Yohannes, Netsanet Melese, Wubishet Fisseha and Seyoum Gebreyes all made their name after recording with The Walias.
Their 1981 tour of the USA was organized by Amha Eshete of the famed Amha Records, who was in exile and owner of several clubs in the States. Planned in 1979, the tour almost never happened as the military regime in Ethiopia initially refused to issue exit clearance stating the band wasn’t allowed to perform in an imperialist country. It took two years of wrangling (and schmoozing) before they finally got permission to go ahead, clandestinely, with band members explicitly warned not to tell their family or friends that they were traveling for a tour. The trip marked the end of the original line-up, as four members elected not to return back home.
Walias released eight instrumental albums to varying degrees of success. In fact, only a couple of those shifted in notable numbers. But, when you’re banging out record after record with the greatest voices in the history of Ethiopian music, there’s always more than enough to go by and recording those non-vocals becomes pure indulgence for the band. Back then, Ethiopians- almost invariably- termed “instrumentals” as “classical”, with an overwhelming consensus that they were merely produced as background music or fillers. Indeed, the only instrumentals made before the Walias were by the Ministry of Information, specifically, for those purposes. They hired session musicians to create and record theme tunes for their radio programs at their Abune Petros studios.
Odds are, any Ethiopian over the age of 35 who had access to TV or radio by the early 90s, will instantly recognize the sound of Walias. What is not a given is, how many would actually identify the band itself. Barely a day went by without hearing the Walias either in the background on radio or as an accompaniment to various programs on TV. Their music was so ubiquitous in media that most of us who enjoyed it never bothered to go out and look for it. Gradually, they started to slip out of public consciousness by the early 90s when newer works by bands such as Roha and Axumite were favored. Only then did those of us feeling a certain sense of loss started inquiring about “that music from TV” at record stores. Yet, most of their work remains stubbornly elusive.
This “Tezeta” album is one of those that have been impossible to find for nearly three decades. Sourced by Awesome Tapes From Africa and expertly remastered by Jessica Thompson, its unique and funky renditions of standards and popular songs of the day are so quintessentially Walias, flavorful and evocative. Hailu’s melodic organ, unashamedly front and center in every track, makes even the complex pieces accessible. The stirringly distinct opening riff from “Zengadyw” took me right back to a certain time in my youth. Deliciously vivid, it’s a time capsule in and of itself. “Gumegum” is a definite favorite. The vocal version, most popularly sang by the legendary Hirut Bekele, tells of unrequited love – an over-exploited theme in music of the time. “Tezeta” is the traditional anthem of nostalgia that doing a version of it was, for a long time, a rite of passage for any aspiring musician. “Endegena” (To Love Again), is a sleepy ballad by Mahmoud Ahmed getting a zesty uplift here. “Ou-Ou-Ta” is one of the signature songs of the greatest of them all, Tilahun Gessesse.
Profoundly engaging; it’s an immersive trip down memory lane for those of us getting reacquainted with it, while also an enthralling and gratifying experience for fresh ears.
— Text by Tessema Tadele