Debo Band – Debo Band

January 01, 1970

(Sub Pop/Next Ambience)


The Debo Band, with its eleven members and full, big band
brass and reed sound, digs into “Akale Wube,” a traditional Ethiopian folk song
made famous by the great saxophonist (and sometime Ex collaborator) Getatchew
Mekurya. Like Mekurya, the Debo Band takes a certain amount of liberty with the
tune, underlining its swaggering funk rhythms with a decidedly not-Ethiopian
sousaphone, executing its crazy, keening flourishes with a Celtic-leaning
electric violin. Like bandleader Danny Mekonnen, born in the Sudan to Ethiopian parents, resident of North Dakota, Texas and,
recently, Boston, a frequent visitor to East Africa, these songs are well-travelled and not
wholly anchored geographically. Yes, they draw from the Golden Age of Ethiopian
jazz – the Haile Sellassie-sponsored 1960s and 1970s heyday chronicled in Buda
Music’s Ethiopiques series – but no,
we are not talking about museum quality reproduction. The Debo Band is a live
band in every sense of the word, and even here, on record, you can hear them
creating on the fly, bending  well-loved
tunes into new shapes, and injecting everything from Irish folk to East European
oompah brass into the slink and strut of their materials.


 Mekonnen says he
first encountered Ethio-jazz as a child as background music at parties in the
Ethiopian enclaves of Dallas
and in the piles of home-recorded cassette tapes that his parents played. Mekonnen
didn’t immediately gravitate to this traditional music, instead leaning towards
Western jazz figures like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. A visit to Ethiopia at age
12 awoke an interest in his homeland’s culture, but it was only as a young man
embarking on a serious study of music that he reconnected with Ethio-jazz. He
started, as many Westerners do, with the exhaustively documented Ethiopiques
series, using its liner notes to prompt
conversations with older relatives and friends. In Boston for school, he met up with another Ethiopian,
Bruck Tesfaye, and formed a trio with Tesfaye singing, himself on sax and
another Ethiopian playing guitar. Other, non-Ethiopian members joined, the
klezmer-influenced sousaphonist Arik Grier, the electric violinist Jonah
Rapino, additional violinist Kaethe Hostetter and bassist P.J. Goodwin. The
sound evolved, incorporating folk, rock and psychedelia into its bedrock funk. The
Debo Band travelled to Ethiopia
(and other parts of Africa) in 2009 and 2010,
further cementing its connection with the region’s traditions.



Debo Band is the
band’s first full-length, following a 2010 EP called Flamingoh, and it captures
the band’s rambunctious, not-especially-reverent approach to Ethio-jazz. “Ney
Ney Waleba,” originated by the 1960s star Alemayehu Eshete, has a giddy, gypsy
accordion solo spliced into its jittery slink. …”Yefeker Wegagne” has a
lacquered middle European melancholy in its swooning violins. “Asha Gedawo,”
first made famous by Ahmed Mahmoud, loops proggy knots of irregular rhythm and
melody over one another and showcases a brief but shreddy guitar solo. And
that’s just the traditionally rooted stuff. Original compositions like “Not
Just a Song” and “DC Flower” stray even further into Americana and rock. “Not Just a Song” sounds
a lot like Akron/Family, its rhythmically complicated instrumental parts
undergirding  bright vocal melodies. “DC
Flower” layers brass bursts and jittery polyrhythms over a sunny,
life-affirming tune. Neither sounds particularly Ethiopian. Either would fit in
reasonably well at Camp
Bisco. Yet even in these,
the most straightforward, least arresting moments, Debo Band channels an
inexhaustible positive energy. 
Authencity for its own sake is never the point. Too much fidelity would
only tie this band down.


Gedawo”, “Akale Wube” JENNIFER

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