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Debo Band: Bringing Ethiopian Music to North America

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On the hills of being featured on NPR in the United States, Debo Band is making noises all over North America. According to NPR -- "the particular beauty of Debo Band is that you don't have to be an ethnomusicologist to love it: It's all about the groove." Indeed.

Their recent performance on David Pecaut's Square in Toronto during the Luminato was a near sell out. The group's founder and Harvard alumni, Danny Mekonnen, explains their inspiration as well as what took expect in their widely acclaimed North American tour.

Boston's Debo Band takes inspiration from a golden era of popular music in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the late '60s and early '70s. During a brief period of cultural freedom in Ethiopia, funk and soul music fused spectacularly with local traditions. Debo Band's debut album both honours and updates the sound of "swinging Addis."

Q: You describe the Golden age of Ethiopian music of the 1960's as "a blossoming scene produced, refined and sprouted new branches of a hitherto unheard synthesis of jazz (and Latin music) with Ethiopian pentatonic scales, distilled by brass-heavy bands adding guitar, vibraphone, and organ." Explain.

A: This period was an incredible time for Ethiopian music. There were some artists playing a Jazz-Latin hybrid in small combos of about six or seven musicians, with or without vocals, and there were others developing a type of large orchestral music with upwards of 15 musicians playing intricate arrangements. Much of this happened on western instruments ranging from sax to accordion to vibraphone, but somehow, remarkably, the music style retained a distinctive sound through an Ethiopian way of approaching timbre, vibrato, intonation, and ornamentation.

Q: The group consists of members who are mostly non-Ethiopians. That is rare for the genre. Tell us about that?

A: We all started playing music together as friends. In 2006, I met some American musicians who were interested in Ethiopian music; around this time I was just starting to study the music of the Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra. I did some arrangements of that music and brought charts into what I first imagined as a practice band. In addition to the Americans, those first rehearsals brought together four Ethiopian vocalists and an emcee who rapped in Amharic.

Q: Debo Band has often been described as being very unique among the great artists of Ethiopia. Tell us about that?

A: I think the unique things about Debo are the range of music we perform and the way we approach that music with an almost fierce love. I mean, we have been to Ethiopia twice and that experience has strengthened our passion for and deepened our knowledge of the music to the point that we are confident to take risks. And because we're American, we bring a certain attitude to the music that is part punk, part folk, part rock, and all our own. I am humbled by the great musicians of Ethiopia, too many to mention here, and strive to find an original way of bringing the music to the masses so fans can make their own discoveries of what that country has to offer artistically.

Q: Ethiopian music was at its best before the military rule of Mengistu took hold of the country several generations ago. The group has mentioned the great Mulatu Astatke as an inspiration. Share with us what those moments meant to Debo Band.

A: There is so much great music even during the time of the Derg. Mulatu is great, but so are musicians like Tsehaye Yohannes, Umar Suleymann, and Mesfin Abebe, who all became prolific in the revolutionary period and who have not yet received their due in the West or even back home in Africa, for that matter. I don't want to call any single period or artist an inspiration. Rather, my creative guidance comes from the richness of all Ethiopian music -- from traditional to modern, both before and after Haile Selassie.

Q: The band is currently in a North American tour. What should your fans expect from their experience?

A: Dancing and joyous exaltation! I was excited about our first show in Toronto and for the chance to share the bill with Abysinnian Roots. It was organized by Batuki Music Society and it was a free all ages concert. I always love afternoon shows because we get to play for children who can't usually see us in clubs. It was a wonderful!