There’s something dangerous about tales of a Golden Age. The so-called Golden Age of Ethiopian popular music (or Ethio-jazz, or Ethio-groove), from the late 1960s to 1974 in Addis Ababa, was fed by exposure to American soul and jazz, and distilled by brass-heavy bands adding guitar and organ. The richness—the sheer grooviness—of this work has made the Ethio-jazz of this brief period the target of a growing field of cover and revival projects. Debo Band, however, takes a different approach.
No doubt, eminences from that time are core inspirations to bandleader Danny Mekonnen, lead singer Bruck Tesfaye and their nine partners in the Boston-based outfit. Debo’s first album from 2012 includes songs (some traditional) from these icons, alongside Azmari folk material, and Debo original compositions. But what’s different is... everything. The instrumentation, with Debo’s sousaphone, accordion, and electric and acoustic violins. The all-original arrangements, with elements from klezmer, avant-garde jazz, and groove-based musics of multiple provenances. So there are no covers here: rather, Mekonnen explains, reinventions. And one of Debo’s signal achievements is a collaboration with Fendika, a young Addis-based acoustic music and dance group in the ages-old Azmari folk tradition, that the band met in Ethiopia in 2009. Debo with Fendika went on to perform in Ethiopia again in 2010, on multiple tours in the US, and at a major African music festival in Zanzibar.
All this is a long way from the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston—and from the rock and folk roots of many of Debo’s non-Ethiopian members. But it’s far as well from Angers, France, where Tesfaye attended high school and university; and even further from Fargo, ND, and Paris, TX, where Mekonnen, who was born in Sudan to parents who were fleeing the Ethiopian military dictatorship, ended up spending his teenage years. He always thought of himself as Ethiopian, Mekonnen says, but it’s through Debo that he has figured out for himself what that meant. “Debo” is an archaic Amharic word that signifies collective effort, and a good 20 people have contributed to the band since 2006, some Ethiopian, others not; all, Mekonnen says, have helped his discovery at the same time as making their own. Jonah Rapino, for instance, has taken his violin and wandered solo for months through several African countries. Bassist P.J. Goodwin worked as sound designer on an award-winning short film shot in Ethiopia’s rural South; Rapino and Mekonnen later scored the film. And violinist Kaethe Hostetter has gone further, packing up her Boston loft and setting down roots in Addis where she has started a school and a trio with Fendika members.
The band’s cultural commitments include an idea of Ethiopian music that overflows the limits of the Golden Age story and gives due to the pop sounds that followed and also to the renewal of old and rural traditions. So it makes sense to find Debo Band challenging the easy classifications and manufactured orthodoxies of the world-music scene on the festival circuit, or tearing up the stage in rock clubs from SXSW to the Lower East Side. Whatever the Golden Age might be, Debo Band is in it, today. (excerpted from Siddhartha Mitter)
What people are saying about Debo Band:
“What’s amazing about Debo Band is that they play that music (Ethiopian pop) without any sort of…precious reverence… They play it like it’s NOW, as music of right now, and they play it with incredible energy and passion and excellence. And it just totally rocks. It’s amazing.” – NPR
“A different archival impulse paid off for Debo Band, a Boston group devoted to the Ethiopian funk of the late 1960s and ’70s: fierce, jagged, complex and galvanizing music. With a beefy horn section, biting violins and a lead singer with a convincing Ethiopian quaver, the group brought back a live version of a style that was never recorded as vividly.” – The New York Times
"It's not an easy feat to pay tribute and transcend that same tribute simultaneously, but over the course of their debut, this band manages the trick." – Pitchfork
“The Boston-based band Debo Band gives the psychedelic music heard on the Ethiopiques collections a high-spirited revamp.” – Village Voice
“Buda Musique opened a door to the strange, foreign-yet-familiar music of Ethiopia to world music fans across the world, delighted by the mixture of classic funk, Arabic-sounding scales, and trance-like African grooves. Boston’s excellent Debo Band has become standard bearers for the Ethiopian sound on our shores.” – WNYC
“If George Clinton had come from Ethiopia instead of outer space, the result might have been what Debo Band gives you.” – Boston Globe
Bruck Tesfaye - Lead Vocals
Danny Mekonnen - Saxophones
Jonah Rapino - Electric Violin
Kaethe Hostetter - Violin
Marié Abe - Accordion
Danilo Henriquez - Trumpet, Percussion
Gabriel Birnbaum - Saxophone
Brendon Wood - Guitar
Arik Grier - Sousaphone
PJ Goodwin - Bass Guitar
Adam Clark - Drums
Debo Band (s/t) - LP - Sub Pop Records/Next Ambiance (released July 2012)
Flamingoh (Pink Bird Dawn) - EP - Self released (September 2010)
Debo Band + Kiddid - "Adderech Arada" & "Gedawo" (7-inch vinyl singles) - Electric Cowbell Records (2010, 2011)
Debo Band Album Review
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I've listened to a lot of Ethiopian music, and not just from the most widely-known "Golden ...I've listened to a lot of Ethiopian music, and not just from the most widely-known "Golden Age" of Ethiopian pop so masterfully plumbed by Francis Falceto's Ethiopiques series. I'm talking folk music, modern pop made with synths and drum machines, and the music recorded to cassettes during the long dictatorship of the Derg from 1974 to 1987. Even so, I didn't really know what to expect when I first put on the debut from Debo Band, an 11-piece Boston band that's billed as putting its own unique spin on Ethiopian music, a spin that covers that same gamut rather than simply going to the Ethiopiques well.
The band acquits itself amazingly well, mixing in a few originals with a well-chosen selection of Golden Age songs, folk tunes, and Azmari troubadour songs. They don't limit themselves to a faithful homage to the music. Ethiopian music's reliance on pentatonic scales and modes makes it harmonically compatible with a wide array of other folk music, and even if you've spent hours listening to Mulatu Astatke and Alemayehu Eshete, you'll hear plenty of fresh ideas here, as the band spikes its arrangements with hints of Romany brass and even Celtic melody.
Those moments are flourishes, though, building off a style born of the distinctive sounds of one of the oldest countries in the world. The band is led by ethnomusicologist Danny Mekonnen, an Ethiopian born in Sudan and raised in the U.S., and its vocalist is French-raised Ethiopian Bruck Tesfaye, who sings powerfully in Amharic, the language whose rhythms this music was primarily built around. They've taken their instrumentation in an adventurous direction, giving their horn section a huge low end with sousaphonist Arik Grier and incorporating electric violinist Jonah Rapino and acoustic violinist Kaethe Hostetter (Hostetter has established her own music school in Addis Ababa). Guitarist Brendon Wood also adds a highly original voice to the music. His wild psychedelic leads on "Habesha", "Asha Gedawo", and "Ney Ney Weleba" sharpen those songs' already wickedly funky edge.
All that is what makes Debo Band far more than a genre exercise. These people have clearly spent time in this rhythmic and harmonic world and learned how to use the vocabulary not only to play the music, but to expand it. Tesfaye's pleading, intense vocal on the group's spare arrangement of the traditional "Medinanna Zelesegna" owes a debt to Tlahoun Gèssèssè and other powerful Ethiopian singers of the past, but the way it mingles with Hostetter's melancholy, drone-based violin part doesn't. Likewise the thrillingly dissonant climax of "Habesha" and the snaking accordion solo that follows it. It's not an easy feat to pay tribute and transcend that same tribute simultaneously, but over the course of their debut, this band manages the trick. As I said, I've listened to a lot of Ethiopian music. Debo Band may be from Boston, but this album leaves no question that they deserve to be included in that count.
NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums Of 2012
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This is how we sum up 2012: beats, harmonies, struggles, breakdowns, recoveries, party starters, raw...This is how we sum up 2012: beats, harmonies, struggles, breakdowns, recoveries, party starters, raw-voiced rallying cries, song suites, storytellers, pop experimenters, never-more-devastating septuagenarian poet-crooners, never-more-devastating 285-year-old oratorios, epic statements, perfect miniatures, instant classics, hard-won achievements and explosions of joy. The albums we loved in 2012 — presented here in alphabetical order — spanned genres and borders, and each one got its hooks into us. We hope you find something here that does the same for you.
This is one of the best finds of the year, bar none. The Boston-based Debo Band takes traditional Ethiopian sounds and scales to a new place with sousaphone, accordion, violin and electric guitar — a party where funk, soul and free jazz swirl together with the heady, sultry melodies and harmonies of Addis Ababa. (If you think the album's great, then you've got to catch Debo Band live — that's where the groove and sweat really kick in.) —Anastasia Tsioulcas
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Elf Männer und Frauen, eine Band. Was finanziell an Selbstausbeutung grenzt, geht musikalisch v...Elf Männer und Frauen, eine Band. Was finanziell an Selbstausbeutung grenzt, geht musikalisch voll auf: Debo Band mixen auf ihrem Debüt fiebrigen Afrobeat mit Ethno-Folk zu Songs voller Energie und schräger Arrangements.
Im Zweifelsfall steht gute Labelarbeit nicht für einen bestimmten Sound, sondern für gleichbleibende Qualität – egal welches Genre. Sub Pop hat in den letzten Jahren diesen Turn geschafft: Vom Label, das man mit dem Sound (Grunge) einer bestimmten Zeit (90er) assoziiert, zu einem Label, das Musik aus allen Genres veröffentlicht, deren gemeinsamer Nenner in der Zukunft liegt.
THEESatisfaction, Spoek Mathambo, Shabazz Palaces - Neo-Soul und Rap aus Seattle, Afrofuturismus aus Südafrika hat Sub Pop im letzten Jahr unter anderem veröffentlicht. Jetzt kommt mit dem Debütalbum der Debo Band Afrobeat hinzu. Die elfköpfige Band aus Boston um Sänger Bruck Tesfaye und Saxofonist Danny Mekonnen spielt einen eigentümlichen Mix aus funky Bläsersätzen, synkopischen Beats und psychedelischen Exkursen.
Wie in anderen Genres auch, gibt es dank Internet inzwischen überall Experten für die Musik der 60er und 70er Jahre - egal ob in Addis Abeba oder New York aufgenommen wurde -, die mit ihren Bands dieses Erbe bearbeiten, mit anderen Genres vermischen und zugänglich machen. Womit man wieder bei Sub Pop wäre. Das Label beweist mit dem Release der Debo Band nicht nur Mut, es bringt auch Leute mit Afrobeat in Berührung, die unter Umständen seit 20 Jahren auf die neue Nirvana warten. Nur: die wird nicht kommen! Dafür hoffentlich noch viele Platten der Debo Band, deren Debüt unerhört und innovativ, doch respektvoll im Umgang mit der Musikgeschichte Afrikas ist.
El disco del día: Debo Band
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Debo Band –nada que ver obviamente con los históricos Devo– es una banda multitudinaria formada...Debo Band –nada que ver obviamente con los históricos Devo– es una banda multitudinaria formada en EE.UU. y dirigida por el saxofonista Danny Mekonnen, que es de origen etíope. Y es otra de esas historias de mezcolanza sonora que tienen lugar en aquellos sitios donde es normal y habitual convivir en un ambiente de amplia diversidad cultural cuya mezcla entre sí genera a su vez curiosas nuevas identidades. Esto marca por supuesto una gran diferencia y es lo que ocurre en este acertadísimo primer disco de la banda, que bebe por supuesto de la música tradicional etíope a su paso por la lectura que de ella hicieron aquellas grandes orquestas de metal –lo que en Occidente hemos venido disfrutando dentro de la serie “Ethiopiques”– , pero también de otras orquestas algo diferentes –las de bodas, entierros y bautizos balcánicas, cortesía de su productor, Thomas “Tommy T” Gobena, miembro de Gogol Bordello– y por supuesto del más auténtico soul y funk occidentales, que no se pone por delante porque hace tan solo de respetuosa argamasa que funde todos estos elementos.
El resultado es de una energía indómita y desbordante –bien canalizada y producida a su vez–, donde la presencia de un vocalista tan carismático como Bruck Tesfaye, con esos vientos tan dislocados y la orgánica presencia de acordeones e instrumentos de cuerda, ofrecen un conjunto tremendo y casi insólito.
No es de extrañar que haya sido un sello tan alternativo como Sub Pop –descubridores hace ya mucho tiempo de gente como Nirvana, Mudhoney, Reverend Horton Heat o Afghan Wigs– el que les hayan dado esta oportunidad, que se corresponde también con la deslumbrante presencia de un grupo como Gogol Bordello –modelo a seguir–, que hace ya tiempo que desbloqueó el circuito de los escenarios de EE.UU. a favor de unas cada vez más necesarias “energías transatlánticas”.
Top Singles Review: Debo Band "Asha Gedawo"
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A Tune-Yards side project? No, but this Ethiopian-American crew's update on Seventies East African f...A Tune-Yards side project? No, but this Ethiopian-American crew's update on Seventies East African funk sounds just as giddily strange. Guitar solos, massed vocals,violin and brass rush in like a Red Bulled marching band. Dance at your own risk. - Will Hermes
Debo Band: globalFEST 2012
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Debo Band: globalFEST 2012 January 10, 2012 This Boston group takes the funky, psychedelic groove...Debo Band: globalFEST 2012
January 10, 2012 This Boston group takes the funky, psychedelic groove of 1960s Ethiopia and transplants it to a sweaty 21st-century dance floor.
By Anastasia Tsioulcas
Earth-rattling horns and mesmerizingly oscillating vocals: Boston's Debo Band takes the funky, psychedelic groove of 1960s Ethiopia and transplants it firmly onto a 21st-century dance floor.
With 11 musicians crammed every which way onto the tiniest stage of the night — the sousaphone barely cleared overhead pipes — Debo Band closed globalFEST in serious, sweaty, funky style.
Where Feet, Beat and Joy All Soar Funkily
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At the end of a day of perfect New York summer weather on Thursday, the mood established by the Linc...At the end of a day of perfect New York summer weather on Thursday, the mood established by the Lincoln Center Out of Doors two-part event of dance and live music at the Damrosch Park Bandshell was just right: generous, warm, high-spirited real entertainment for a big audience. But while the first half of the evening — featuring Debo Band with the special guests Fendika — was characterized by startling and thrilling particulars, the dance and music in the second half — David Dorfman Dance with the Family Stone — was little more than exercises in mood.
Debo Band is a Boston-based collective, founded in 2006, that cultivates “the vintage sounds of 1970s Ethiopian pop,” which, according to its program notes, include “the searing horns, crooning vocals and slinky funk grooves that brought renown to the Ethiopiques series.”
Every number it played deepened my delight. The sound is wind-weighted: trumpet, two tenor saxophones, trombone and sousaphone all swing in together alongside accordion, five-string violin, electric violin, electric bass, drums and — less regularly — vocals and bongos. The rhythm alone is so layered that you can hear some numbers as fast and slow at the same time.
Two pilgrimages made by the band to East Africa have led to collaborations with the traditional Ethiopian artists Fendika, described as “a group of young torchbearers led by star Ethiopian dancer Melaku Belay.” They regularly returned, individually or together, to the stage in Thursday’s performance. The singer Selamnesh Zemene always enriched the spell; Asrat Ayalew’s playing of kebero (traditional drums) had complexity and brilliance; and Mr. Melaku and Zinash Tsegaye, the two dancers, provided most of the program’s most remarkable highlights.
Their several costume changes alone were vividly entertaining: Ms. Zinash at one point wore a large, funnel-shaped headdress, and Mr. Melaku, in the same dance, a bright yellow pajamalike suit. It was a delight to watch them both, and the rhythmic virtuosity of Mr. Melaku was often astounding. He can turn either the upper or the lower body into an electrifying vehicle of rapid pulsation. One dance was all to do with his throwing his feet out before him (as if on hot coals). Sometimes the feet alternated, sometimes he hopped, and on one occasion, while hopping brilliantly, he mimed strumming on the other leg, which he kept stretched out like a guitar.
In later dances he showed how he could play his shoulders, his neck, his head and his whole torso like percussion instruments. In one number his shoulders kept chiming in like chords in music. Elsewhere he shook or vibrated muscles at the base of the neck — together or with left and right playing against each other — and he also isolated and vibrated his head.
At the climax of one amazing dance cadenza, his own body became a trill — initiated, it seemed, from somewhere around the diaphragm and midspine, but with the whole body shaken into a blur — and then he began to turn in a traveling diagonal across the stage.
All these were dazzling bravura touches. Mr. Melaku’s dancing, however, didn’t consist just of stunts. Simply to see him sway his body to the music was a marvel: the angle of his out-held elbows, the pliancy of his spine, the rhythmic point of those shoulders all made their sensuous contributions. A happily superlative artist.
The general impression of David Dorfman Dance with the Family Stone — in what was the world premiere of “Prophets of Funk, Concert Edition” — was one of good-time funkiness. Every so often, for dramatic effect, someone (often Mr. Dorfman himself) would continue moving when there was little or no music, or stand still while the music was going, or talk to others onstage or in the audience.
These essays in contrast or paradox were, however, merely arch, unserious, posey. In a closed theater they might make more of an impression, but for Thursday’s open-air audience nothing sullied the bright, rock-concert at
Debo Band branches out from Boston roots
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AUSTIN, Texas - Among the more than 2,000 bands that descended on this city last week for the South ...AUSTIN, Texas - Among the more than 2,000 bands that descended on this city last week for the South by Southwest music festival, it is safe to say none had quite the itinerary of Boston’s Debo Band.
It began at noon on Friday at Joe’s Crab Shack, a chain of seafood restaurants of all places. As families picked at plates of fried shrimp, the band squeezed onto the back patio and unleashed its big, brassy take on Ethiopian pop music.
A high-profile admirer sat at a nearby table, grinning and nodding in sync with the beat. Bob Boilen, the host of National Public Radio’s “All Songs Considered’’ and an all-around music tastemaker, had invited Debo to tape a segment for NPR.
In the next 24 hours, with two more performances aimed at different audiences, Debo Band would lay the foundation for what could be a banner year that primes the group for a national stage.
The 11-piece ensemble, which plays a hard-driving strain of ’70s Ethiopian music with elements of rock, funk, and experimental jazz, attended SXSW last year. This time, however, it arrived riding a wave of buzz.
“I think our shows at SXSW represent the two sides of the band,’’ saxophonist and frontman Danny Mekonnen said last week at the band’s rehearsal space in Jamaica Plain, where most of its members live. “There’s the fact that we’re signed to Sub Pop, an indie-rock label. But our show at globalFEST proves that we’re more than just indie rock, and we’re not just world music, either.’’
In January, Debo was considered a breakout artist at globalFEST, the annual barometer of which acts could be big in world music. That is where Boilen first saw Debo, and he has been championing the group ever since.
“They were the band that fired me up the most at globalFEST,’’ Boilen said after the NPR taping. “Of all of my friends, and of all of the bands I saw that night, Debo is the band I’d bring to their party.’’
That globalFEST performance came on the heels of being signed to Next Ambiance, an imprint of Sub Pop Records, the Seattle label whose roster includes indie-rock heavyweights such as Fleet Foxes and Beach House.
It is easy to see why Debo would end up on a rock label. Its sound is fierce - a polyrhythmic collision of horns, electric guitar, drums, violin, bass, accordion, tuba, and an Ethiopian-born vocalist who sings in the country’s native Amharic language.
No other band in Boston sounds like Debo, which is partly why it has stood out so prominently in the local music scene since emerging in 2006. After years of playing around town and even in Ethiopia twice, the band is finally courting broad exposure, much to Mekonnen’s disbelief.
At the recent rehearsal in Jamaica Plain, Mekonnen pointed to the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine. “Did you see page 65?’’ he asked. Among reviews of new songs by Rihanna, Norah Jones, and John Mayer was a 3-star rating for Debo’s latest single, “Asha Gedawo.’’ “That’s crazy, right?’’
Five days later, SXSW was a litmus test for who, exactly, will connect with Debo’s sound. The NPR taping suggested a highly educated, slightly older demographic could be on board.
In the evening, the first showcase was for Sub Pop in a room dotted mostly with 20-somethings. Heads bobbed and knees bounced, but it was clear most of the crowd was hearing Debo for the first time. Unsolicited, a young woman approached a reporter with a question she already knew the answer to: “Aren’t they awesome?’’
Mekonnen’s family - his mother, father, sister, and brother - were also in the audience, having traveled three hours from their home in Dallas. It was a poignant performance for his parents. They have watched their oldest son, who was born in Sudan and came to the United States at 18 months, explore his heritage through the music they grew up. His mother, though, hears more than tradition in Debo’s music.
“It brings me back to the feeling of music I heard in the ’70s, but it’s different,’’ she said. “This is modern - and this
Boston’s unique Debo Band capturing world’s fans
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Seattle’s Sub Pop Records recently diversified its roster beyond the underground r...Seattle’s Sub Pop Records recently diversified its roster beyond the underground rock that made it famous and added folk, hip-hop and comedy acts. But even after the expansion of talent, Debo Band represents something completely different for the label.
There’s nothing like Debo Band on Sub Pop because there’s nothing like Debo Band anywhere: The 11-piece Boston band roots itself firmly in the Ethiopian funk of the early ’70s, but also dips deeply into ’60s soul, almost atonal jazz and klezmer.
“When Sub Pop signed us, we had no idea what to expect,” band leader Danny Mekonnen said ahead of the group’s show tomorrow at Johnny D’s. “But last year, we were the only band on every Sub Pop showcase. They put us on stages at SXSW in Austin, CMJ in New York and Bumbershoot in Seattle.”
Why push a humble world music act so hard? Because it has the potential to capture ears the label never imagined in the heyday of Nirvana.
“They are just brilliant,” Sub Pop president Jonathan Poneman said. “Although they’re a bunch of overachieving polymaths, a dime a dozen in your neck of the woods, Debo Band whip up a fearsome squall, and do so with passion, finesse and charm.”
Debo’s makeup would give a musicologist a migraine.
Born in Sudan to parents fleeing an Ethiopian military dictatorship and raised in Texas, Mekonnen founded Debo with an eclectic group of friends in Jamaica Plain in 2006. Lead singer Bruck Tesfaye is an Ethiopian who grew up in France; the rest of the band are white Americans who came from a range of rock, folk and jazz backgrounds.
When the musicians mix it up, it’s impossible to tease out every influence. On the traditional Ethiopian tune “Asha Gedawo,” a highlight of the 2012 debut, the band evokes Nigerian Afropop, New Orleans jazz, noise rock and other less-obvious influences.
“That’s a song that you hear at every Ethiopian wedding,” Mekonnen said. “But our arrangement is faster, there’s a punk flavor in there. Nobody does it like us.”
One of the great tests of the band came playing its sonic hybrid in Mekonnen’s homeland. Ethiopians jam with joy, but they also take seriously their artistic heritage. Before the 1974 coup, the country’s capital was a swinging, thriving music city.
“Our first trip there (in 2009) was a pilgrimage,” he said. “We weren’t tourists, we were musical ambassadors. They have a very intimate relationship with their music, but they got what we did. They could recognize the songs, but also heard that we were doing something uniquely Debo Band.”
After winning over his countrymen and one of the industry’s legendary labels, Mekonnen hopes more will follow suit. Hand anyone an iPod with “Asha Gedawo” and headphones and they will.
Best of SXSW 2012, Friday: Jack White, 50 Cent, Imperial Teen
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Debo Band: "Parlez-vous Francais, monsieur?" It was a question asked of us for no particular reason ...Debo Band: "Parlez-vous Francais, monsieur?" It was a question asked of us for no particular reason at all, moments before Debo Band, an 11-member Ethiopian pop behemoth, took the stage more than an hour late at Speakeasy. It was the kind of question that could nudge you slightly off-balance, all the better because this particular outing would feel all the more satisfying as a result. Dreadlocked, fedora-wearing global-groove seekers who had come in droves to see Balkan Beat Box headline were left grumbling when technical difficulties had forced the venue to shift back and hour, thus shaving off the New York outfit's set completely. Those that stayed seemed delighted. For roughly an hour, the Boston-based crew rumbled through Ethiopian wedding songs and mighty, constantly evolving originals. Every hot blast of brass or well-placed outburst of strangled guitar combined to resemble a smartly tweaked, off-kilter version of what you might find in the Ethiopiques series. Tonight it all felt like a celebration: wild, unabashed dancing during every song, and hugging between friends and strangers alike in between. DAVID BEVAN
A World Away and Branching Out
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A world away and branching out Ethiopian roots nourish Debo By James Reed, Globe Staff | Janua...A world away and branching out
Ethiopian roots nourish Debo
By James Reed, Globe Staff | January 10, 2010
CAMBRIDGE - Just before midnight on a brisk night at the Western Front, an unassuming club outside Central Square, a refreshing scene is unfolding. Soon after a handsome man croons a love song in Amharic
(Ethiopia’s official language) over the band’s chunky ’70s funk riffs, a rapper gets up on stage and drops fluid rhymes also in his native tongue. Other times the musicians lock into long instrumental grooves solely in
service to the party vibe.
The sounds are as vibrant and diverse as the ragtag players making them and the enthusiastic crowd dancing with abandon, a rare sight around here.
This is how Danny Mekonnen hears and processes the Ethiopian music he makes with Debo Band, an 11-piece group he assembled in 2006. Mekonnen views Debo (pronounced DEH-bo) not as cultural tourism but rather as an outlet to explore and preserve his heritage as an Ethiopian-American raised in Texas and now living in Jamaica Plain. If he seems hellbent on reviving his homeland’s rich musical history - from traditional folk to soul to pop to hip-hop - you’re getting the idea.
“Yes, it’s totally messy and it’s hard to negotiate, but one of the great things about my band is that not everyone is a working professional musician,’’Mekonnen says at a coffee shop in JP. “It would be really hard to have kept a band this large together for three years where no one has made it. I just ask people to stick with me, and they have.’’
He’s heartened, then, to see the labor of love is finally paying off. Having recently won a Boston Music Award for best international act, Debo Band is in the middle of a residency at the Western Front (next shows are Friday and Jan. 30). Bigger news yet: Next month the group heads to Ethiopia to play a big music festival in Zanzibar called Sauti Za Busara. It’ll be the group’s second trip to Ethiopia in a year, but this time it’ll hoist Debo onto a world stage with exposure to European audiences, a slot on the festival’s closing night, and a performance on Ethiopian television.
It caps a long and resolute journey for the man who started the band. Mekonnen, who’s 29 but articulates with a sophistication behind his years, is part of a generation of musicians raised on the influential “Ethiopiques’’
series launched in 1997 and now several volumes deep into excavating classic Ethiopian music from the 1960s and ’70s. Mekonnen grew up listening to his parents’ music collection - a hodgepodge of Maxell cassette compilations sometimes labeled with nothing more than artists’ first names.
As a budding jazz musician with a voracious interest in the music’s context, he was hungry to know more about the pivotal players and production notes.
After spending time in Ghana, he came to Boston in 2003 to study jazz saxophone and ended up auditing
classes at Berklee before enrolling in a graduate program in ethnomusicology at Harvard.
Shortly after arriving here, Mekonnen reached out to Russ Gershon, founder and leader of the 10-piece
Either/Orchestra, which has been exploring Ethiopian music since the mid-’90s and has collaborated with some of its legendary figures, including Mulatu Astatke. Mekonnen was Gershon’s assistant for a while, but now it’s the mentor’s chance to appreciate Mekonnen’s work with Debo.
“I admire that the band has really morphed a lot over the past three years,’’ Gershon says. “The instrumentation has changed, but Danny has a very open idea about how the band should sound and evolve. He has a pretty clear concept of what he wants to do musically, combining elements of classic Ethiopian with a more modern sensibility. He has a tradition-oriented but very forward-looking vision.’’
Gershon, who first became interested in Ethiopian music after his friend Mark Sandman, the late Morphine frontman, gave him a cassette back in 1994, says Debo is already making an important mark in the local music community.
“I think Danny made a conscious decision to plant it more in the rock scene, and because of that, the band is getting noticed by people who aren’t typically world music aficionados. He’s bringing Ethiopian singing into
Boston’s rock clubs, which is a nice change of pace.’’
Mekonnen has also been adamant about making Debo Band very much a New England product, enlisting
people from the local Ethiopian community (singers, musicians, fans) to flesh out Debo’s sound, but also to envision the future of the music and its potential for cross-cultural understanding.
Debo’s lineup has changed often, ranging from eight to 15 musicians of various ethnic backgrounds and ages, but Mekonnen relishes the challenge of adapting to new parameters. Given that Debo’s repertoire is about 95 percent covers, Mekonnen says he sometimes frets that the band hasn’t written more original material. (He
also notes that the group has inched closer to that goal after recently scoring a short film with 10 new instrumentals.)
Besides, Mekonnen’s taste in Ethiopian music leans more toward the esoteric. He’s hip to performing shopworn standards but also wants to resurrect some of the long-lost classics he first heard as a child on
those Maxell tapes. If not yet revolutionizing Ethiopian music, Mekonnen at least sees Debo blazing other trails.
“I think the number one innovation we’ve brought to this music is instrumentation and orchestration,’’ he says,
referring to Debo’s unusual inclusion of accordion, violins, and sousaphone, a combination unheard of for an Ethiopian band.
Bringing it all full circle, Mekonnen’s parents finally saw the band perform for the first time in September. “My dad was really shocked because we play all these songs he loves and he knows all the lyrics,’’ Mekonnen
says. “He ran up on stage and gave me a kiss. He was so proud. I realized then that Debo Band has given me a chance to embrace my Ethiopianness and to connect to my family in ways that I never would have imagined when I was 22 and trying to figure out who I was.’’
James Reed can be reached at
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Ethiopiqued Debo Band go from the Western Front to East Africa By MATT PARISH | January 26, 201...Ethiopiqued
Debo Band go from the Western Front to East Africa
By MATT PARISH | January 26, 2010
Last spring, Danny Mekonnen and Jonah Rapino led Boston’s fledgling Ethiopian pop group Debo Band straight to Addis Ababa. They played a local festival, made friends with nightclub owners, and found an Ethiopian Airlines deal for a free trip down the coast to Tanzania. There, they hung out with expatriated Black Panthers, took giraffe safaris, and met organizers from one of the biggest music festivals in Africa, Zanzibar’s Sauti za Busara.
“It was totally far-fetched,” says Rapino. “When we got to Tanzania, we still had enough equipment to have shows, so we went for it. We played with hip-hoppers and some ’70s free-form thought poets in front of orphans — out in the jungle on the worst PA ever, with a horse wandering around.”
Next month, they’re heading back to Africa to team with singers and dancers they met in Ethiopia to fill a prime spot on the festival in Zanzibar, which puts them in front of thousands of festivalgoers plus the international press, music magazines, and BBC cameras. “Our first trip to Ethiopia seemed like a dream come true,” says Mekonnen, himself an Ethiopian-American who grew up in Texas. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
Debo Band — who wrap up their two-month residency at the Western Front this Saturday — are an 11-piece strings, horns, and accordion collective from all over Boston’s musical map. They were birthed from Mekonnen’s studies of Ethiopian pop. There were no Craigslist ads and no auditions, just the willingness to pick a place and go.
If there’s a music ideally suited to Debo’s try-everything attitude, Ethiopian pop since the late ’60s could certainly be it. The legendary Ethiopiques anthologies served as most Westerners’ introduction, chronicling everything from the small jazz-funk bands of Mulatu Astatke to military horn sections of state-programmed bands like the Imperial Bodyguard Band. Some melodies sounded Arabic or Balkan; others swang like Glenn Miller. (In Boston, the Either/Orchestra recorded its own arrangements of “Ethiojazz” and played live with Mustatke and others.) There were bands with accordions and saxophones and bands with strings strung over trippy organs. Mekonnen wanted to mash them all together.
He started Debo Band when he persuaded Stick and Rag Village Orchestra — the sprawling Balkan/klezmer pick-up street outfit of friends Rapino and Aric Grier — to learn a few Ethiopian arrangements he’d been working on. Rapino has been a member of the experimental Devil Music group for years; Grier played bass and synth in the gonzo noisecore band Fat Day. It was a project that seemed designed for a picky bandleader, but Debo went the other way. “I wasn’t looking for experts,” Mekkonen explains. “I hardly knew anything about it myself — it was just a way for everyone to learn.”
They recruited vocalists whom he’d met through contacts in the local Ethiopian community. “These were amazing people who had completely internalized the rhythms and melodies that we were struggling to learn, but they didn’t know when to begin singing. You couldn’t say, ‘Come in after four bars.’ They didn’t know what a bar was. It was an adventure for everyone.”
Grier had just picked up the sousaphone for Stick and Rag, and Stacey Cordeiro learned the accordion on the job, spending the first year and a half as the Debo melodica player. Keith Waters had never played a drum kit in a band before in his life. But soon, everyone was pitching in on arrangements. Rapino even recently scored an original soundtrack for the band, bits of which they play live now.
Their Western Front show this past Saturday was mobbed. Elastic-voiced crooner Bruck Tesfaye waltzed through the crowd, and Seattle/NYC transplant Gabriel Teodros and founding member Heni-Rap (both Ethiopian-American rappers) made guest appearances, skipping over tricky beats and getting hands in the air. The saxes of Mekonnen and Abye Osman growled cop-show harmonies; the strings of Rapino and Kaethe Hostetter darted through jagged scales. There were folk songs, ’70s Ethio-pop classics, even reworkings of modern hits.
Which is not to say Debo Band turn into organ-thumping evangelists when they head to Africa. “We’re all just there to learn,” says Rapino. “I didn’t even know the names of the scales before we got there last time.”
Mekonnen backs this up: “Our crew goes over there with the idea of exchanging. When we get there, we’re excited just to say, ‘Hello.’ ”
American and East African Collaboration Heats up the Stage at Sauti za Busara!
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February 17, 2010 American and East African Collaboration Heats up the Stage at Sauti za Busara! ...February 17, 2010
American and East African Collaboration Heats up the Stage at Sauti za Busara!
Debo Band, an eleven piece Ethiopian-groove collective from the United States, joined forces with four Ethiopian artists to provide a stunning performance of a style never before seen at the Sauti za Busara [Sounds of Wisdom] festival Sunday night in Zanzibar.
The festival allowed Debo Band make connections and collaborations with musicians in East Africa, while presenting Ethiopian music for the first time to the venue. Debo's travel from the United States was supported by the American people through a "USArtists International" grant from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation with support from the United States' National Endowment for the Arts, with additional funds provided by individual American donors.
After the show, Debo leader Danny Mekonnen said, "Sauti za Busara totally exceeded our expectations: the world class stage and programming, the friendly and supportive staff, and the amazing performances from across the African continent and beyond. Moreover, the festival was brilliantly conceived, organized, and efficient."
Since its formation in 2006, Debo Band has earned a growing and enthusiastic following in the USA while immersing itself in the unlikely confluence of traditional East African poly-rhythms and pentatonic scales, classic American soul and funk music, and the instrumentation of eastern European brass bands to produce a unique form of dance music. With an uncommon instrumentation--including horns, strings, and accordion--that is a nod to the big bands of Haile Selassie's time, Debo Band is carrying the torch of classic Ethiopian music by giving new life to these old sounds. But that's not all Debo brought with them to Busara.
After a May 2009 visit to Addis Ababa to perform at the 8th Ethiopian Music Festival, Debo band began collaborating with four traditional Ethiopian musicians – vocalist Selamnesh Zemene, traditional azmari goat-skin drummer Asrat Ayalew, and traditional dancers Zinash Tsegaye and Melaku Belay. All accomplished musicians in their own right, these musicians work together at Fendika, a leading azmari bet, or traditional music house, operated by Melaku in Addis Ababa.
After receiving an invitation to perform at Busara, Debo Band decided to continue their collaboration with the Ethiopian artists by bringing them along to the Zanzibar festival. There, the group grew into a forceful and authoritative fifteen-piece ensemble that provided an energetic, one-of-a-kind performance.
Accordion player Stacey Cordeiro summed up the visit, saying, "It’s remarkable how our humble efforts to work with our four friends from Addis Ababa has, through our performance at Sauti za Busara, been recognized as a cross-cultural collaboration worthy of the attention of European festival organizers, international press, and the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania. We honestly never expected a response like this!"
686 OLD BAGAMOYO ROAD, MSASANI, P.O. BOX 9123, DAR ES SALAAM, TEL. (255-22) 2668001,
Debo Band's typical set is 9 to 11 songs from the repertoire of classics from the 1970s, contemporary, traditional, and original Ethiopian popular music, including, but not limited to:
And Lay (Debo original)
Not Just A Song (Debo original)
Musicawi Silt (Girma Beyene)
Ney Ney Weleba (Alemayehu Eshete)
Habesha (Debo original)
Addis Ababa Bete (Alemayehu Eshete)
Lanchi Biye (Menelik Wossenachew)
Akale Wube (trad.)
Embwa Belew (trad./Muluqen Melesse)
Yene Neger (Gossaye Tesfaye)
Each set lasts approximately 45 minutes to 1 hr, 15 mins., depending on length of solos and stretching out for dancers. The band can play up to two sets totaling 18-22 songs, or approximately 2 hrs, 30 mins.
PDF RiderFull Rider - stage plot, input list, and backline
There are no upcoming dates at this time.