Music can trace a journey, and in the case of Debo Band, this includes the personal along with the spiritual and sonic Its mix of Ethiopian pop with tinges of American soul and funk reflects the heritage of bandleader and saxophonist Danny Mekonnen, but it also holds the story of his arrival in the United States and the band’s birth and continued evolution in the Boston area.
Debo Band will bring their infectious, funky take on the Ethiopian sound to Mass MoCA on Saturday, April 16, at 8 p.m.
Mekonnen was born in a refugee camp in Sudan to an Ethiopian couple in 1980 after they fled the country to escape the continual unrest of the civil war. Leaving for the United States 18 months later through a Lutheran ministry program, the family spent three years in Fargo, North Dakota, then relocated to the Dallas, Texas area.
“I know that many people from that first wave of immigration, and on that first flight, ended up scattered all over the United States,” Mekonnen said.
Though scattered, Ethiopian culture stayed alive for Mekonnen, particularly through music that played in their house thanks to a variety of cassette tapes that his parents gathered to remind them of home. These became a staple in Mekonnen’s childhood.
“Everyone was making dubs on these cassette tapes,” said Mekonnen. “I’ve looked at my parents collection and there may be only a handful out of 100 or more cassette tapes that they still have that are actually commercially produced. Almost all of them are mixed tapes or a dub of someone else’s cassette tape. And there is very little contextual information on any of those cassettes.”
Mekonnen grew to love jazz and into the worlds of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, which included copious liner notes. He pined for the same kind of information about the Ethiopian music that filled his daily life, but his parents couldn’t provide any and those sounds remained mysterious until his early 20s when Ethiopiques, the renowned anthology series of Ethiopian recordings was first released. Now on its 29th volume, the series offered liner notes of a scholarship level that Mekonnen desired.
“I was able to take my interest in the music a step further because of the Ethiopiques series,” he said.
Mekonnen ended up in Boston in 2003, studying at Harvard and connecting with older people who embraced the Ethiopian music. These mentors added to his knowledge, and in 2006, Debo Band was born.
“Most of the musicians who ended up as the founding members of Debo Band were coming out of a post punk scene, or they were comprised of what would be considered a post punk scene,” Mekonnen said. “Our sousaphone player, our trombone player, both of our fiddle players, our drummer, our accordion player, they were all out of that scene. Some of them had a background in classical piano or classical violin, but the way that they were approaching music at the time was really in a defiantly amateur way, like ‘we can do this on our own.’ It was really based in the community, an anti-conservatory model.”
Many were also part of a community that gravitated around an Eritrean restaurant that played Eritrean and Ethiopian music, and included several singers who rotated in performance, including one who rapped in Amharic.
The band’s first album was released in 2012, which meant it had six years to grow and figure out what kind of band they wanted to be. They had pared down to one vocalist and added several members as some players moved on.
The band’s most second album, Ere Gobez, will be released in May and it represents the band’s desire to capture their live sound in the studio. In contrast to the first album, there is very little overdubbing, and the influences broaden and deepen.
“We were also gravitating towards a little bit of a harder sound,” said Mekonnen, “a heavier rock-influenced, a little bit more noisy, all things that were there in the original amalgam, like in the original influence of the music from the 1970s that we loved so much, but also a broader 1970s world psychedelic, like the psychedelic music you would find in Turkey or Cambodia or Nigeria.”
Mekonnen describes the new album as framed by three “guiding” songs that he refers to as “remixes,” since he approached them as a live band bringing together different elements the same way a dee-jay would. One combines the music of Duke Ellington with tunes from an Ethiopian band called the Police Orchestra.
“This idea came to us because we knew that Duke Ellington went to Ethiopia in the 1970s on a state department tour, but we didn’t have much more information than that,” he said. “We had some pictures, we know who he hung out with, but we really don’t know who he collaborated with, so we decided to invent this meeting of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Police Orchestra. “
The other songs are a funk song from Somalia originally performed by a group called Dur-Dur Band, which features Debo Band vocalist Bruck Tesfaye singing Amharic lyrics he wrote for the song, and a popular song from Okinawa, which has the band accentuating an Ethiopian pentatonic scale that is similar to the Japanese one, and also features new Amharic lyrics by Tesfaye.
Mekonnen feels strongly that these songs are an important launching pad for the album, especially in that they are the biggest departures for the band when compared to its first album.
Equally important is that the album as a whole is representative of their live show, and captures the result of relationship between the band and its audience. Its that dynamic, Mekonnen says, is what drives the band’s energy, as much as their love of Ethiopian music.
“We really thrive in a live setting. That’s really where the magic happens. We’ve never been a studio band.”
Originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.