Debo Band Merges Traditional Song with New Sounds in Ethiopian Pop

By Scott McLennan

July 9, 2012

BOSTON — Though inspired by what is called the “golden age of Ethiopian pop” in the liner notes to its debut CD, Boston’s Debo Band does not simply try to sound like that hybrid of jazz, soul, and African rhythms originally cooked up in the late 1960s.

Debo Band also takes its cue from the Ethiopian-pop process, further blending and bending the music. The band uses instruments you won’t find on traditional Ethio-pop bandstands, and there are new appropriations from rock to klezmer not to be found even on the Ethiopiques CD series, which is considered an essential wellspring of Ethiopian music performed before the 1974 civil war that tore Ethiopia apart.

Many people fled the Ethiopian dictatorship during this period, including the future parents of Danny Mekonnen. The saxophone player (who didn't visit Ethiopia until he was 12) founded Debo Band in Jamaica Plain in 2006 with vocalist Bruck Tesfaye, who mainly sings in Amharic. Today the band includes two violins, a sousaphone, an accordion, a trumpet, a trombone, another sax, an electric guitar, a bass, and drums.

The praise Debo Band has already garnered at home and abroad (local music awards, showcases at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, a 2009 tour of Ethiopia and other African festival invites) is borne out on the band’s self-titled album, released July 10 by Sub Pop records’ world-music imprint Next Ambiance.

The hour-long disc features a blend of originals and fresh arrangements of tunes from the Ethio-pop songbook. In each case, the songs are stuffed with exotic details ranging from mournful sousaphone undertones to frenetic violin solos.

The material is both sophisticated and folksy, often at the same time, which again mirrors the Ethio-pop tradition. The CD’s opening song “Akale Wube” is an Ethiopian pop standard from the 1970s based on an old folk song. Debo Band’s version of a traditional wedding song “Asha Gedawo” whips it into a rocking, joyous anthem full of punched- up horns and bleating electric guitar.

As comfortable as Debo Band’s music is, it never gets dull. Tesfaye’s voice is limber and lean, sounding like a spectral presence among the muscular funk and soul grooves coursing through the music. The gentler “Ambassel,” though, reveals the power of his light touch.

Debo Band’s originals run from the groove-rock positivity of “Not Just a Song” to the hypnotic instrumental “And Lay” to the flute and drum driven optimism of “DC Flower.”

Debo Band disproves the notion that “world music” comes from someplace else and reinforces that innovation is actually essential to the tradition.

Debo Band celebrates the release of its new album with concerts on Wednesday in Boston and on Thursday in Northampton.

Catch Debo Band and Grupo Fantasama
9pm on July 11
Brighton Music Hall
158 Brighton Ave., Allston,
Ticket info: 617-779-0140

8pm on July 12
The Iron Horse
20 Center St., Northampton
Tickets info: 413-586-8686.


About the Author
Scott McLennan Scott McLennan
Scott McLennan is a music correspondent for the Boston Globe and former entertainment columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. His work as taken him from the Newport Folk Festival to the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival and many musical points in between. Scott also writes about skiing for Hawthorn Publications.


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