In the mid-1970s, a force of nature swept across the continental United States, cutting across all strata of race and class, rooting in our minds, our homes, our culture. It wasn’t The Exorcist, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, or even bell-bottoms, but instead a book called The Secret Life of Plants. The work of occultist/former OSS agent Peter Tompkins and former CIA agent/dowsing enthusiast Christopher Bird, the books shot up the bestseller charts and spread like kudzu across the landscape, becoming a phenomenon. Seemingly overnight, the indoor plant business was in full bloom and photosynthetic eukaryotes of every genus were hanging off walls, lording over bookshelves, and basking on sunny window ledges. The science behind Secret Life was specious: plants can hear our prayers, they’re lie detectors, they’re telepathic, able to predict natural disasters and receive signals from distant galaxies. But that didn’t stop millions from buying and nurturing their new plants.
Perhaps the craziest claim of the book was that plants also dug music. And whether you purchased a snake plant, asparagus fern, peace lily, or what have you from Mother Earth on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles (or bought a Simmons mattress from Sears), you also took home Plantasia, an album recorded especially for them. Subtitled “warm earth music for plants…and the people that love them,” it was full of bucolic, charming, stoner-friendly, decidedly unscientific tunes enacted on the new-fangled device called the Moog. Plants date back from the dawn of time, but apparently they loved the Moog, never mind that the synthesizer had been on the market for just a few years. Most of all, the plants loved the ditties made by composer Mort Garson.
Few characters in early electronic music can be both fearless pioneers and cheesy trend-chasers, but Garson embraced both extremes, and has been unheralded as a result. When one writer rhetorically asked: “How was Garson’s music so ubiquitous while the man remained so under the radar?” the answer was simple. Well before Brian Eno did it, Garson was making discreet music, both the man and his music as inconspicuous as a Chlorophytum comosum. Julliard-educated and active as a session player in the post-war era, Garson wrote lounge hits, scored plush arrangements for Doris Day, and garlanded weeping countrypolitan strings around Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” He could render the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel alike into easy listening and also dreamed up his own ditties. “An idear” as Garson himself would drawl it out. “I live with it, I walk it, I sing it.”
But as his daughter Day Darmet recalls: “When my dad found the synthesizer, he realized he didn’t want to do pop music anymore.” Garson encountered Robert Moog and his new device at the Audio Engineering Society’s West Coast convention in 1967 and immediately began tinkering with the device. With the Moog, those idears could be transformed. “He constantly had a song he was humming,” Darmet says. “At the table he was constantly tapping.” Which is to say that Mort pulled his melodies out of thin air, just like any household plant would.
The Plantae kingdom grew to its height by 1976, from DC Comics’ mossy superhero Swamp Thing to Stevie Wonder’s own herbal meditation, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. Nefarious manifestations of human-plant interaction also abounded, be it the grotesque pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the pothead paranoia of the US Government spraying Mexican marijuana fields with the herbicide paraquat (which led to the rise in homegrown pot by the 1980s). And then there’s the warm, leafy embrace of Plantasia itself.
“My mom had a lot of plants,” Darmet says. “She didn’t believe in organized religion, she believed the earth was the best thing in the whole world. Whatever created us was incredible.” And she also knew when her husband had a good song, shouting from another room when she heard him humming a good idear. Novel as it might seem, Plantasia is simply full of good tunes.
Garson may have given the album away to new plant and bed owners, but a decade later a new generation could hear his music in another surreptitious way. Millions of kids bought The Legend of Zelda for their Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1986 and one distinct 8-bit tune bears more than a passing resemblance to album highlight “Concerto for Philodendron and Pothos.” Garson was never properly credited for it, but he nevertheless subliminally slipped into a new generations’ head, helping kids and plants alike grow.
Hearing Plantasia in the 21st century, it seems less an ode to our photosynthesizing friends by Garson and more an homage to his wife, the one with the green thumb that made everything flower around him. “My dad would be totally pleased to know that people are really interested in this music that had no popularity at the time,” Darmet says of Plantasia’s new renaissance. “He would be fascinated by the fact that people are finally understanding and appreciating this part of his musical career that he got no admiration for back then.” Garson seems to be everywhere again, even if he’s not really noticed, just like a houseplant.
Barely known outside of his home country during his lifetime, the late Japanese ambient music pioneer Hiroshi Yoshimura has seen his global stature rise steadily in the past few years. The 2017 reissue of his lauded debut, Music For Nine Post Cards, along with a slow building cult internet following has helped ignite a renaissance in his acclaimed body of work, much of which has never been released outside of Japan. Known for his sound design and environmental music, Yoshimura worked on a number of commissions following the 1982 release of Music For Nine Post Cards, including works for museums, galleries, public spaces, TV shows, video art, fashion shows, and even a cosmetics company. Originally released in 1986, GREEN is one of Hiroshi Yoshimura’s most well-loved recordings and a favorite of the artist himself. Recorded over the winter of 1985-86 at Yoshimura’s home studio, the compositions unfold at an unhurried pace, a stark contrast to the busy city life of Tokyo. As Yoshimura explained in the original liner notes, the album title in the context of this body of work is not meant to be seen as a color, but is rather used to convey “the comfortable scenery of the natural cycle known as GREEN”—which perfectly encapsulates the soothing and warm sounds contained on the album, although it was created utilizing Yamaha FM synthesizers, known for their crisp digital tones. This edition marks the first reissue of the highly sought-after and impossible to find album. It features the original mix preferred by Yoshimura himself, previously available only on the initial Japanese vinyl release (a limited edition remixed version of the album, with added sound effects, was released on CD in the US). Additionally, this release is the first in our ongoing series, WATER COPY, focusing on the works of Hiroshi Yoshimura.
The acclaimed and highly sought-after LP by Hailu Mergia and the Walias, Tche Belew, an album of instrumentals released in 1977, is perhaps the most seminal recording released in the aftermath of the 1974 revolution. The story of the Walias band is a critical chapter in Ethiopian popular music, taking place during a period of music industry flux and political complexity in the country. Hailu Mergia, a keyboardist and arranger diligently working the nightclub scene in Addis Ababa, formed the Walias in the early 1970’s with a core group of musicians assembled from prior working bands. They played Mergia’s funk- and soul-informed tunes, while cutting 45rpm singles with various vocalists. While the Walias performed at top hotels and played the presidential palace twice, their relationship with the Derg regime was complex, evidenced by the removal of one song from the record by government censors. Decades later, Hailu Mergia was surprised to see the album fetching more than $4,000 at online auctions (it helped that the most popular of all Ethiopian tunes “Musicawi Silt” appeared on the record). Now everyone has the chance to listen again―or for the first time―to this timeless pillar of Ethiopian popular music.
By 1978, Addis Ababa’s nightlife was facing challenges. The ruling Derg regime imposed curfews, banning citizens from the streets after midnight until 6am. But that didn’t stop some people from dancing and partying thorough the night. Bands would play from evening until daybreak and people would stay at the clubs until curfew was lifted in the morning.
One key denizen of Addis’ musical golden age, Hailu Mergia, was preparing a follow up to his seminal Tche Belew LP with the famed Walias Band. It was the band’s only full-length record and it had been a success. But his Hilton house band colleagues were a bit tied up recording cassettes with different vocalists. Still Mergia, amidst recording and gigs with the Walias, was also eager to make another recording of his instrumental-focused arrangements. So he went to the nearby Ghion Hotel, another upmarket outpost with a popular nightclub. Dahlak Band was the house band at Ghion at the time. Together they made this tape Wede Harer Guzo right there in the club during the band’s afternoon rehearsal meetings, with sessions lasting three days.
“My instrumental music was very in-demand and I could have waited,” Mergia recalls. “But I wanted to have a different kind of sound. I had done several recordings with Walias so this time I needed a different sound.”
Dahlak Band catered to a slightly more youthful, local audiences, while Mergia’s main gig with the Walias at Addis swankiest hotel had a mixed audience that included foreign diplomats and older folks from abroad. Therefore their sets varied included lighter fare during dinnertime and a less rollicking selection of jazz and r&b. Meanwhile Dahlak was known more for the mainly soul and Amharic jams they served up for hours two nights a week to a younger crowd.
When Mergia entered the Ghion hotel nightclub to record this tape he was teaming up with a seasoned band who were particularly suited to his instrumental sound. Ethiopian popular music at the time combined elements of music from abroad and Dahlak balanced Mergia’s traditional song selection with the modern approach of a seasoned soul band.
Crucial to the resulting collaboration were Mergia’s arrangements which replaced distinctively use vocals for melodies normally played by instruments. His arrangements conjured memorable new flavors out of existing songs already popular with listeners.
Before Walias Band’s successful gig as house band at the Hilton, Mergia was a young musician hustling from one place to another around Addis. After finishing gigs at the Hilton or on nights off, he would go to good bar where azmari—roving musicians who play traditional songs for tips—and he’d pick up ideas and inspiration. Late night azmari performances revealed for Mergia which songs were moving people in the city. He regularly attended clubs, bars and special private after-hours venues called zigubgn where azmari perform. For Mergia, it was crucial to feature songs he knew people would recognize.
Amharic music has a large repertoire of standard songs everyone knows, the original composers and lyricists of which are often unknown or forgotten. Many of the songs Dahlak, Walias and other bands of that era (including Ibex and Shebele) were playing came from the treasury of shared music, which helped ensure a good vibe in the air.
Mergia released Wede Harer Guzo (“Travel to Harer,”with Sheba Music Shop, which was located in the Piazza district but has long since shut down. Recalling the audience’s positive reaction to Wede Harer Guzo’s novel arrangements, he says it sold well and found many fans. However, as no trace of the tape can be found online, there’s no indication as to why the cassette appears largely forgotten until now.
Hardly anyone outside Ethiopia seems to know Hailu Mergia & The Walias Band “Tezeta” exists. Within Ethiopia this tape has been impossible to find for decades. That’s about to change with this release, which makes available this epochal recording on LP, CD and Digital formats for the first time. From their genesis as members of the Venus club in-house band in the early 70s, Hailu Mergia and the Walias Band were at the forefront of the musical revolution during an era where modern instruments and foreign styles superseded the traditional fare to become the staple sound of Ethiopia. No one would argue that the Walias were the trailblazing powerhouse of modern Ethiopian music. They were the first band to form independently without affiliation to a theatre house, a club or a hotel; unprecedented and risky as they had to raise all funding for expenses by themselves including buying equipment. They were the first to release full instrumental albums, considered to be commercially unviable at the time. They opened their own recording studio, with band members Melake Gebre and Mahmoud Aman doubling as technical buffs during sessions. They were also the first independent band to tour abroad. In short, they were the pioneers every band tried to emulate; some more successfully than others. 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. This Tezeta album is the band’s second recording, released in 1975. 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. 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)