Report: Debo Band/Grupo Fantasma Live MA

 

At the Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass., July 12, we learned how many
musicians can fit onto a single stage.

 

By
Jennifer Kelly

 

Two big
bands bring the funk to Western Mass., one the 
11-piece Ethiopian-crossed-with-proggy-jazz Debo Band, the other Austin’s
mighty nine-man Grupo Fantasma. You wouldn’t think that 11 or even nine people
would fit on the Iron Horse’s modest stage, but both bands pack them in. Debo’s
guitar player is almost entirely invisible behind the horn line, the bass and
sousaphone players bob up and down, partly obscured by a lavish two-violin, one
accordion electric gypsy band. Grupo Fantasma obscures its red-hot guitarist,
too, behind a front line of timbales, bongos, singers, sax, trombone and
trumpet players. But the sheer size of these bands, especially in such a
constrained space, generates an an overwhelming, body-moving, surrounding sound.
You can’t not move to the beat. It’s all around you.

 

 

 

 

Debo Band,
up first, formed in the mid-‘00s around the core of saxophonist Danny Mekonnen
and singer Bruck Tesfaye, both Ethiopian-Americans with an interest in the
1960s and 1970s heyday of Ethiopian jazz and funk. (Mekonnen is  a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at Harvard University specializing in Ethiopian
music.)  The band works largely with this
classic Ethiopiques-style source
material, adapting compositions from
Ethiopian big band stars including Getatchew Mekurya, Alemayehu Eshete and
Ahmed Mahmoud. Yet it does so in its own distinct way, incorporating a mix of
Western jazz, East European and Americana
sounds into these songs.

 

The whole
right side of the stage, in a set-up that is divided by Tesfaye’s lanky,
elegant frame, is made up of fairly untraditional instruments (at least by
Ethiopian terms). These include long-haired electric violinist Jonah Rapino,
playing his instrument sideways like a guitar, through a wah wah, to elicit a Superflyish psychedelic twitch and
strut, and Boston Philharmonic violinist Kaethe Hostetter on acoustic violin. There
is accordion player Stacey Cordeiro, sitting demurely for most of the set until
a scorching solo moves her to wrestle her instrument like an alligator. And in
back, klezmer-trained sousaphonist Arik Grier and bassist P.J. Goodwin hold
down an undulating groove in booming (Grier) and thumping (Goodwin) low-end.

 

The left
side of the stage starts with Mekonnen, hefting an antique baritone sax, Abye
Osman beside him with a smaller alto, a trumpet player who moves sometimes to
timbales and, behind them, guitarist Brendan Wood. Tesfaye slithers and sways
in the middle, moving up and back in time to the music, his supple tenor
slipping in and around the wild, ululating melodies of Addis Abbaba in its
golden age. Behind him drummer Keith Waters performs the by no means simple
feat of keeping everyone together, setting a foundation that players can return
to after their most free-flowing flights of fancy. The set is dominated by
material from Debo’s self-titled debut (out since Tuesday on Sub Pop’s Next
Ambience imprint and reviewed here), and ends with the
exhilarating “Asha Gedawo,” a folk song whose best-known interpreter was the
legendary singer  Ahmed Mahmoud.

 

 

 

 

After a
good deal of set-up and tear-down, Austin’s Grupo Fantasma takes the stage in a
remarkably similar formation – horns to the left, singers up front, guitarist Beto Martinez and kit drummer John Speice half-hidden in the back. The main difference
is that alongside frontman singer and timbale master Jose Galeano, right in
front, sits conga player Matt Holmes and singer/auxiliary percussion player
Kino Esparza. This makes sense because Grupo Fantasma clearly is a band in
which rhythm is as important as words.

 

Grupo
Fantasma’s sound is an amalgamation of Latin styles – Cumbia, salsa, mambo,
merengue and others – plus hard funk, rock and psychedelia. The band, formed in
Austin, Texas at the turn of the millennia, was nominated for a Grammy for its
2008 album Sonidos Gold and won the
Latin Grammy two years later for El
Existential
. Grupo Fantasma has collaborated with a really diverse group of
artists, touring with GZA, contributing horns to a Spoon album and serving as
Prince’s house band at his club in Las
Vegas. Their show is tight, exuberant and professional.
There are nine people on stage, operating more or less as one.

 

Oh, and
they want everyone to dance. “It’s all in the hips,” Galeano says,
encouragingly, as a surprising number of women in tight halter dresses
(surprising, that is, for New England) shimmy
towards the front of the stage.  The band
launches into the cumbia-style slink of “Roto Corazon,” the rhythm taut and
disciplined, the lead vocal florid and romantic and echoed by the band in high
harmonies. There’s a rollicking, swaying, horse-clopping rhythm to this song
that is almost irresistible, as the brass section – trumpet and trombone –
vault off into a brassy stratosphere.  The songs come one after another without
stopping, only a conga roll, a brass and reed exclamation point, a nod from Galeano,
to separate them. Band members get short, illuminating spotlights, Quesada
conjuring a ghostly, psychedelic funk in one solo, bassist Greg Gonzales taking
a rumble-y run on the strings in another. There is a brief pause for a
“salute,” where everyone, led by Galeano, has a gulp of beer.

 

Embolded,
perhaps, Grupo Fantasma launches into a “salute” of women, first in its hip
rolling, hot-blowing “Esa Negra” and later in a conga-frenzied, brass blowing
“Big Boned.” “Reconciliar” starts in complex, interlaced percussion, then opens
up into a lush, sensual surge of horns, “La Conozco” struts and swaggers in
syncopation and call-and-response. A cover of the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down
the House,” is so smouldery hot (as compared to the kind of robotic original)
that at first I don’t recognize it; later, it seems clear that the drum fills
that follow every “Burning down the house” refrain were meant to be played on
timbales and congas.

 

***

 

It’s a
pretty fantastic evening, all in all, with two remarkably distinct, ethnically
diverse takes on the broad category of funk, and, at least by Western Mass
standards, a helluva a lot of people dancing. And we finally know how many
people can fit on the stage at the Iron Horse, by my calculation, more than 11,
but not much more.  

 

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