A world away and branching out
Ethiopian roots nourish Debo
CAMBRIDGE - 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.’’
James Reed can be reached at email@example.com.