With its rolling grooves, heavy arrangements, funky horn sections, and sophisticated singers, Ethiopian pop music’s so-called golden age, which aficionados agree lasted from about 1969-74, bears scant resemblance to any other African style of the time. Boston’s Debo Band captures the era’s essence on its debut album. It also integrates more recent styles into its 11-member dancefloor rumpus, embellishing the whole shebang with accordion, strings, sousaphone and other instruments more closely associated with Eastern Europe than with East Africa. “I like the idea of folk music being modern,” explains bandleader Danny Mekonnen. “I’m trying to be progressive.”
A mission statement incarnate, Debo Band lives up to its name: “Debo” signifies collective or communal effort in Amharic, Ethiopia’s main language. Mekonnen was born in Sudan in 1980 after his parents fled the military dictatorship that hijacked Ethiopia in 1974. Although Mekonnen was exposed to plenty of Ethiopian music on homemade tapes as a child, and discovered Miles and Coltrane as a saxophone-slinging teenager in the Dallas area, he was converted to the glories of the aforementioned golden age just like everyone else: through French producer Francis Falceto’s indispensable Ethiopiques series on the Buda Musique label. He met future Debo front man Bruck Tesfaye, raised in Ethiopia, in a Boston-area Ethio-diaspora student association, and the two performed songs by the venerable Mahmoud Ahmed and younger Ethio-reggae star Teddy Afro at a talent show. Debo eventually coalesced as a community band in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, and the group played its first real show at an Eagles lodge in 2006.
Debo’s debut announces itself with the Ethio-jazz classic “Akale Wube” by Ethio-jazz godfather Mulatu Astatke, who has his own connection to the Boston jazz scene as the Berklee School of Music’s first African graduate and later as a collaborator with the area’s Ethiopia-obsessed Either/Orchestra. Mekonnen chooses the band’s material with Tesfaye, an Amharic speaker in charge of the group’s lyrical message. Both insist the group think beyond 1974. Originals like “Not Just a Song” and “DC Flower” reflect the influence of Teddy Tadesse, Gossaye Tesfaya, and the many other Debo contemporaries who blend Ethiopia’s traditional and modern repertoires.
When I spoke with Mekonnen, who had just finished sorting band T-shirts prior to a show in Northampton, Massachusetts, the Harvard PhD candidate in ethnomusicology noted that Falceto was “a bit of a purist” in what he’s been releasing on Ethiopiques since 1997. “I think he’s been drawn to things on vinyl,” Mekonnen said. “He hasn’t released any music that came out on cassette inititally. He writes that Ethiopian music kind of died when Haile Selassie was deposed in ’74, but I think [the music industry] became more complicated.” With the communists in power, vinyl was no longer imported. Cassettes continued to be produced, but tracking down master tapes became even more difficult than with vinyl.
I ask Mekonnen to suggest a couple of contemporary Ethiopian artists deserving of a wider hearing. “There are so many,” he replies before suggesting singer Omar Souleyman. Neither the similarly named Syrian dabke star nor the Egyptian politician, Souleyman is a favorite among Ethiopia’s Oromo people, and Mekonnen admires the way he mixes horns and live drums with synths and drum machines. He also digs guitarist Mesfin Abebe, “an amazing musician” recorded primarily in the ’80s. But that’s just the tiny tip of the iceberg.
“When I’m in Ethiopia in a taxi cab or one of these buses that seats 10 people, I still hear songs on the radio with no idea who the singers or bands are. I’m drawn to this music from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s but still feel like a novice listener even though I’ve been doing this seriously for so long. That speaks volumes to the richness of the music and how much there is to draw from.”
When I walk into the middle of a Debo show in Brooklyn the next day, Tesfaye is crooning the beautiful “Medinanna Zelesegna” accompanied by violinist Kaethe Hostetter, who started a school in Addis Ababa and performs with traditional group and occasional Debo tour partners Fendika. When three Grupo Fantasma horn players join the band’s own horn trio for an explosive take on Mahmoud Ahmed’s “Belomi Benna,” the tall, charismatic Tesfaye jumps offstage into the crowd, shimmying his shoulders and working some vigorous stiff-legged moves. The brass players march through the audience, which comes to a boil. The Debo Band, you suddenly realize, has earned your highest praise: You want to listen as hard as you want to dance.