There’s a back story behind the African funk that had the whole room dancing on Thursday night at Baby’s All Right, the new club in Williamsburg. Hailu Mergia, the keyboardist leading the band, was playing his first American show since 1991. For the last two decades, he has been driving an airport taxicab in Washington.
Mr. Mergia was a star of Ethiopian music in the 1970s as a member of the Walias Band, which had worked its way to the top of the Addis Ababa club circuit. In 1981, when Ethiopia was ruled by a brutal military dictatorship, the Walias Band came to perform in the United States, and Mr. Mergia and some of the other band members stayed, settling among the many Ethiopian immigrants in Washington.
For a few years, Mr. Mergia led the Zula Band there; after it dissolved, Mr. Mergia studied music at Howard University and decided to start playing the accordion, an instrument that had been used in Ethiopian music of an earlier generation.
In 1985, he went into a small studio to record for himself. With the accordion and the studio’s synthesizer, electric piano and drum machine, he overdubbed himself to make what would become an album of instrumentals, “Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument.” The classical instrument was the accordion, but its old-fashioned tone was joined by the new electronic sounds. With the unswerving patterns from the drum machine, the music came across as an eerie, isolated rumination on a place and time Mr. Mergia had left behind, with its Ethiopian modes and melodies transplanted to a modern terra incognita.