Apr 19, 2011
Debo Band - Flamingoh (Pink Bird Dawn) EP
Since 2006, Debo Band has thrilled Boston-area audiences with their unique interpretations of classic Ethiopian popular music. Their performances bring together the best of the last forty years of Ethiopian music, with a reverence for the vintage sounds of the 1970s and a commitment to discovering contemporary gems, as well as developing new compositions – they scored the Ethiopian-produced short film, “Lezare,” in 2009. The band paid their dues playing neighborhood bars, church basements, and loft parties, and has emerged as an internationally recognized touring band, with performances at two international festivals in the last year alone.
Up until now, Debo Band has primarily existed as a live band, playing at venues across the Boston/New England region. Last year, however, Debo began taking steps towards actively documenting and releasing recordings and is also working with a documentary filmmaker on a project about the band’s mission to bring Ethiopian music and musicians to the forefront of world music. Additionally, Debo Band is currently producing a CD/DVD set and LP version of live performances recorded in Boston, New York, and East Africa.
In May 2009, Debo traveled to Addis Ababa to perform at the 8th Ethiopian Music Festival and several other locations throughout the Horn and East Africa. These performances affected Debo Band’s creative and professional development in significant ways, particularly in the collaboration they began with several traditional musicians – vocalist Selamnesh Zemene, drummer Asrat Ayalew, and dancers Zinash Tsegaye and Melaku Belay. All accomplished musicians in their own right, these musicians work together at Fendika, a leading azmari bet, or traditional music house, operated by Melaku in Addis Ababa. When working with these four musicians Debo Band grows into a forceful, energetic, and authoritative fourteen-piece ensemble capable of delightful, one-of-a-kind performances. The full ensemble (Debo Band plus Fendika, or “FenDeboKa”) recently performed several concerts in Addis Ababa and at the 7th Sauti za Busara Festival in Zanzibar (February 2010).
riends, the wait is over – we’re pleased to announce our first CD release: a four track EP of live performances from our 2010 travels to Africa, lovingly and expertly prepared for you.
This live recording documents the brief period around our second trip to East Africa in Winter 2010, a journey that took our Ethio-groove collective across the world to share our interpretations of 1970s-era brass band-style Ethiopian funk. During this time we played a five-part hometown residency, a cosmopolitan Addis Ababa nightclub, and one of the largest music festivals in Africa. Along the way, we once again collaborated with dear friends and outstanding traditional artists: Melaku Belay and his group Fendika.
The flamingo is a majestic bird that thrives in the volcanic lake regions of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Like many African animals, mystery and myths surround the origins of this long-necked pink bird. Our “flamingoh” is no exception: Flaming feathers (re)birthed from a breaking dawn. A dawn that rips open the sky.
The four tracks offered here are just the beginning: we have a documentary, featuring our escapades with Fendika, and a full-length live album on the way. This is our dawn: Goh qeddede.
Ethiopian Energy Everywhere
Remember how I said that if you weren’t at Balliceaux for the Kings Go Forth show, here, that it was your loss? Okay, same deal, different band, but another limited big-city tour that just miraculously included us: Boston, Philly, NYC and DC. Oh yes, and RVA.
The Debo Band out of Boston had everything they needed to lay down 60s and 70s-era Ethiopian grooves: congas, electric guitar, bass, accordion, sousaphone, saxophone and whatever else they decided to play. Tonight’s show featured them along with the visiting Fendika, a group of traditional Azmari artists from Ethiopia, lending their vocal and dancing talents. This was truly a dream bill.
The place was packed. Bartender Sean told me they’d sold 100 tickets just today and the room only holds 200 people. Add in planning types like me who’d bought their tickets before today and the brave souls who just walked up to the door and you’ve got a full house. It was a tight fit to start and once the crowd started dancing, well let’s just say body parts met body parts.
When I got there, I established my spot with a good view at the corner of the bar, where an Ethiopian guy immediately introduced himself to me; he’d driven from Harrisonburg for this show. Later, I met a girl who’d come from DC.
It was a huge bonus to hear from two Ethiopians who had seen the band before and they only whetted my appetite further for the show we were all so excited about. They tried to verse me on the dancing I was about to see so that I could join in, but you can imagine where that went.
I felt much better when the guy told me he wasn’t any good at Ethiopian dancing either. “Well, if you aren’t any good with your heritage, what chance does this American have?” I asked, making him laugh and give up.
Peter Solomon from WCVE stopped by to chat with me, telling me that he sees me at every music event he attends. He mistakenly assumed that that meant I had musical talent, so I relieved him of that misconception, clarifying that I’m just a music fan.
He was thrilled that the Debo Band had a sousaphone because it was the instrument that made him want to learn to play music. Unfortunately, his dad found a trombone for a dollar, so he ended up learning that instead, but his love for the sousaphone lives on apparently.
But then the entire room was full of music lovers tonight. I was one of many who loved how the Debo Band slipped into a groove and just stayed there. With the addition of Fendika, the music became even more North African sounding and when the dancers shared the stage with them, it was like watching a complete circle of music and dance.
So we had this 14-piece jazz collective who already focus on Ethiopian grooves sharing the stage with traditional Ethiopian musicians, making for the funkiest world music possible in what gradually became an overheated room due to all the moving bodies.
Tonight Balliceaux was a little slice of slinky groove heaven. Like I said, you should have been there. My regrets if you weren’t.
An article: Ethiopiqued
Last spring, Danny Mekonnen and Jonah Rapino led Boston’s fledgling Ethiopian pop group Debo Band straight to Addis Ababa. They played a local festival, made friends with nightclub owners, and found an Ethiopian Airlines deal for a free trip down the coast to Tanzania. There, they hung out with expatriated Black Panthers, took giraffe safaris, and met organizers from one of the biggest music festivals in Africa, Zanzibar’s Sauti za Busara.
“It was totally far-fetched,” says Rapino. “When we got to Tanzania, we still had enough equipment to have shows, so we went for it. We played with hip-hoppers and some ’70s free-form thought poets in front of orphans — out in the jungle on the worst PA ever, with a horse wandering around.”
Next month, they’re heading back to Africa to team with singers and dancers they met in Ethiopia to fill a prime spot on the festival in Zanzibar, which puts them in front of thousands of festivalgoers plus the international press, music magazines, and BBC cameras. “Our first trip to Ethiopia seemed like a dream come true,” says Mekonnen, himself an Ethiopian-American who grew up in Texas. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
Debo Band — who wrap up their two-month residency at the Western Front this Saturday — are an 11-piece strings, horns, and accordion collective from all over Boston’s musical map. They were birthed from Mekonnen’s studies of Ethiopian pop. There were no Craigslist ads and no auditions, just the willingness to pick a place and go.
If there’s a music ideally suited to Debo’s try-everything attitude, Ethiopian pop since the late ’60s could certainly be it. The legendary Ethiopiques anthologies served as most Westerners’ introduction, chronicling everything from the small jazz-funk bands of Mulatu Astatke to military horn sections of state-programmed bands like the Imperial Bodyguard Band. Some melodies sounded Arabic or Balkan; others swang like Glenn Miller. (In Boston, the Either/Orchestra recorded its own arrangements of “Ethiojazz” and played live with Mustatke and others.) There were bands with accordions and saxophones and bands with strings strung over trippy organs. Mekonnen wanted to mash them all together.
He started Debo Band when he persuaded Stick and Rag Village Orchestra — the sprawling Balkan/klezmer pick-up street outfit of friends Rapino and Aric Grier — to learn a few Ethiopian arrangements he’d been working on. Rapino has been a member of the experimental Devil Music group for years; Grier played bass and synth in the gonzo noisecore band Fat Day. It was a project that seemed designed for a picky bandleader, but Debo went the other way. “I wasn’t looking for experts,” Mekkonen explains. “I hardly knew anything about it myself — it was just a way for everyone to learn.”
They recruited vocalists whom he’d met through contacts in the local Ethiopian community. “These were amazing people who had completely internalized the rhythms and melodies that we were struggling to learn, but they didn’t know when to begin singing. You couldn’t say, ‘Come in after four bars.’ They didn’t know what a bar was. It was an adventure for everyone.”
Grier had just picked up the sousaphone for Stick and Rag, and Stacey Cordeiro learned the accordion on the job, spending the first year and a half as the Debo melodica player. Keith Waters had never played a drum kit in a band before in his life. But soon, everyone was pitching in on arrangements. Rapino even recently scored an original soundtrack for the band, bits of which they play live now.
Their Western Front show this past Saturday was mobbed. Elastic-voiced crooner Bruck Tesfaye waltzed through the crowd, and Seattle/NYC transplant Gabriel Teodros and founding member Heni-Rap (both Ethiopian-American rappers) made guest appearances, skipping over tricky beats and getting hands in the air. The saxes of Mekonnen and Abye Osman growled cop-show harmonies; the strings of Rapino and Kaethe Hostetter darted through jagged scales. There were folk songs, ’70s Ethio-pop classics, even reworkings of modern hits.
Which is not to say Debo Band turn into organ-thumping evangelists when they head to Africa. “We’re all just there to learn,” says Rapino. “I didn’t even know the names of the scales before we got there last time.”
Mekonnen backs this up: “Our crew goes over there with the idea of exchanging. When we get there, we’re excited just to say, ‘Hello.’ ”
Another article: A world away and branching out
Just before midnight on a brisk night at the Western Front, an unassuming club outside Central Square, a refreshing scene is unfolding. Soon after a handsome man croons a love song in Amharic (Ethiopia’s official language) over the band’s chunky ’70s funk riffs, a rapper gets up on stage and drops fluid rhymes also in his native tongue. Other times the musicians lock into long instrumental grooves solely in service to the party vibe.
The sounds are as vibrant and diverse as the ragtag players making them and the enthusiastic crowd dancing with abandon, a rare sight around here.
This is how Danny Mekonnen hears and processes the Ethiopian music he makes with Debo Band, an 11-piece group he assembled in 2006. Mekonnen views Debo (pronounced DEH-bo) not as cultural tourism but rather as an outlet to explore and preserve his heritage as an Ethiopian-American raised in Texas and now living in Jamaica Plain.
If he seems hellbent on reviving his homeland’s rich musical history – from traditional folk to soul to pop to hip-hop – you’re getting the idea.
“Yes, it’s totally messy and it’s hard to negotiate, but one of the great things about my band is that not everyone is a working professional musician,’’ Mekonnen says at a coffee shop in JP. “It would be really hard to have kept a band this large together for three years where no one has made it. I just ask people to stick with me, and they have.’’
He’s heartened, then, to see the labor of love is finally paying off. Having recently won a Boston Music Award for best international act, Debo Band is in the middle of a residency at the Western Front (next shows are Friday and Jan. 30). Bigger news yet: Next month the group heads to Ethiopia to play a big music festival in Zanzibar called Sauti Za Busara. It’ll be the group’s second trip to Ethiopia in a year, but this time it’ll hoist Debo onto a world stage with exposure to European audiences, a slot on the festival’s closing night, and a performance on Ethiopian television.
It caps a long and resolute journey for the man who started the band. Mekonnen, who’s 29 but articulates with a sophistication behind his years, is part of a generation of musicians raised on the influential “Ethiopiques’’ series launched in 1997 and now several volumes deep into excavating classic Ethiopian music from the 1960s and ’70s.
Mekonnen grew up listening to his parents’ music collection – a hodgepodge of Maxell cassette compilations sometimes labeled with nothing more than artists’ first names. As a budding jazz musician with a voracious interest in the music’s context, he was hungry to know more about the pivotal players and production notes.
After spending time in Ghana, he came to Boston in 2003 to study jazz saxophone and ended up auditing classes at Berklee before enrolling in a graduate program in ethnomusicology at Harvard.
Shortly after arriving here, Mekonnen reached out to Russ Gershon, founder and leader of the 10-piece Either/Orchestra, which has been exploring Ethiopian music since the mid-’90s and has collaborated with some of its legendary figures, including Mulatu Astatke. Mekonnen was Gershon’s assistant for a while, but now it’s the mentor’s chance to appreciate Mekonnen’s work with Debo.
“I admire that the band has really morphed a lot over the past three years,’’ Gershon says. “The instrumentation has changed, but Danny has a very open idea about how the band should sound and evolve. He has a pretty clear concept of what he wants to do musically, combining elements of classic Ethiopian with a more modern sensibility. He has a tradition-oriented but very forward-looking vision.’’
Gershon, who first became interested in Ethiopian music after his friend Mark Sandman, the late Morphine frontman, gave him a cassette back in 1994, says Debo is already making an important mark in the local music community.
“I think Danny made a conscious decision to plant it more in the rock scene, and because of that, the band is getting noticed by people who aren’t typically world music aficionados. He’s bringing Ethiopian singing into Boston’s rock clubs, which is a nice change of pace.’’
Mekonnen has also been adamant about making Debo Band very much a New England product, enlisting people from the local Ethiopian community (singers, musicians, fans) to flesh out Debo’s sound, but also to envision the future of the music and its potential for cross-cultural understanding.
Debo’s lineup has changed often, ranging from eight to 15 musicians of various ethnic backgrounds and ages, but Mekonnen relishes the challenge of adapting to new parameters. Given that Debo’s repertoire is about 95 percent covers, Mekonnen says he sometimes frets that the band hasn’t written more original material. (He also notes that the group has inched closer to that goal after recently scoring a short film with 10 new instrumentals.)
Besides, Mekonnen’s taste in Ethiopian music leans more toward the esoteric. He’s hip to performing shopworn standards but also wants to resurrect some of the long-lost classics he first heard as a child on those Maxell tapes. If not yet revolutionizing Ethiopian music, Mekonnen at least sees Debo blazing other trails.
“I think the number one innovation we’ve brought to this music is instrumentation and orchestration,’’ he says, referring to Debo’s unusual inclusion of accordion, violins, and sousaphone, a combination unheard of for an Ethiopian band.
Bringing it all full circle, Mekonnen’s parents finally saw the band perform for the first time in September.
“My dad was really shocked because we play all these songs he loves and he knows all the lyrics,’’ Mekonnen says. “He ran up on stage and gave me a kiss. He was so proud. I realized then that Debo Band has given me a chance to embrace my Ethiopianness and to connect to my family in ways that I never would have imagined when I was 22 and trying to figure out who I was.’’
1. Musicawi Silt 06:02
2. Belomi Benna 04:40
3. Mignoten Man Yawkal 04:06
4. Lantchi Biye 05:27
Labels: Debo Band