Band of the Day

2012.07.16

Debo Band

The swinging sounds of ‘60s and ‘70s Ethiopian pop, released from a time capsule in present-day Boston
How can we hope to right what is wrong and live in a world that’s not just in a song?
lyrics from Not Just a Song

Ethiopian-American saxophonist Danny Mekonnen leads this 11-piece Boston based outfit fronted by vocalist Bruck Tesfaye. Formed in 2006, Debo Band (pronounced “debbo”) have gone on to tour Ethiopia and perform at African music festivals including the Ethiopian Music Festival and Sauti Za Busara, the latter being the largest music festival in East Africa. In North America they’ve performed at the Montreal Jazz Fest, globalFEST 2012 at Webster Hall, and World Music Festival: Chicago, among other venues. July 10, 2012 marks the release date of the band’s anticipated self-titled debut album. Their exciting sound combines 1970’s Ethiopian pop over syncopated funk grooves, layered with accordions, horns, violins, and drums. The album was produced by Thomas Gobena (of Gogol Bordello) and mastered by Grammy nominated engineer Joe LaPorta.

Without doing a formal survey, it’s still probably safe to call the Debo Band the best Ethiopian jazz-funk collective in Boston, mostly because the field of competition for that particular designation probably isn’t especially crowded. Even if the 11-piece ensemble is the only game of its sort in Beantown, it doesn’t dilute the group’s powerful commitment to authenticity. Thanks to the Ethiopiques compilation series, the unique sound that filled the dance clubs of Addis Ababa in the 1960s and ‘70s is less foreign to American ears than logic would dictate, and the Debo Band strives to embody the music found across those discs, while throwing in some modern flourishes to boot. Cutting its teeth in the clubs and basements of its hometown, the crew earned a rep as peerless party-starters on the East Coast. Now, it’s finally bringing the funk to the rest of the country. Not a lot of bands known primarily for their terrific live shows can translate that energy to the studio, but on the Debo Band’s self-titled Sub Pop debut, you can almost feel the heat of the crowded loft space. “Akale Wube,” the first song, sets the table for the uninitiated. Over the course of a trance-inducing, five-minute polyrhythmic jam, the band introduces the instruments of its funk: a flight of violin, the entrancing wheez of an accordion, the sweat-damp heat of leader Danny Mekonnen. It is on the second song, “Ney Ney Weleba,” that the genre’s quavering vocals come to the fore. Singer Bruck Tesfaye skillfully recalls any number of classic Ethiopian vocalists, from Mahmoud Ahmed to Tilahun Gessesse. But the band isn’t just interested in simple re-creation. It adds its own worldview to songs such as the psychedelic, English-language “Not Just a Song,” chanting as a group, “Love is the force that inspires us.” “And Lay” has the rolling, horn-driven propulsion of a ska-punk song. And on the menacing “Habesha,” the guitars even get a little crunchy, suggesting—maybe, possibly—Ethiopian metal. How’s that for some cross-cultural exchange?