Music Review: Debo, Ethiopian pop revival

Elliot Strassman
Spare Change News

Debo, a self-described “Ethiopian pop” group, played the Brighton Music Hall last month to promote the release of its first full-length LP. The group, based in Jamaica Plain and led by tenor saxophonist Danny Mekkonen, draws from Ethiopian pop and folk music of the late ’60s and ’70s to create a unique, fierce and current sound that is infectiously danceable without being watered down.

The 11-piece group held together for nearly two hours, and though the show was longer than much of the weekday night crowd could handle, those who stayed became more loose and passionate as the night went on, much to the elation of Mekkonen and Bruck Tesfaye, the front man and vocalist, who was constantly pushing the crowd members to dance.

Powerful and eclectic, the group moved seamlessly between hard funk, free and exploratory jazz-rock fusion, spiritual folk driven by Tesfaye, and pure party music. At the same time, however, they never lost touch with their Ethiopian influences, as the unique tribal scales and rhythms rang true throughout their lengthy jams.

Highlights of the show included the two wedding songs that bookended the show and the break about an hour in, where the entire band left the stage except Mekkonen, the electric violinist and Tesfaye. Tesfaye belted out a mystical, moving spiritual song accompanied by trills on the saxophone and melody lines on the violin that took the crowd to another level.

This was the only instance where the band played without some of its members and yet they successfully gave each instrument its due. The accordion, the two saxophones, the trumpeter who doubled on bongos and especially the guitar all had memorable solo.

But, more importantly, the band blended together. The horns and rhythm hardly ever overpowered the well-miked violins and accordion; only the sousaphone, a large, tuba-like brass instrument, seemed to get drowned out at times, though the rest of the rhythm section more than compensated for this. The stamina of the group was perhaps most impressive, as they eagerly performed their entire repertoire, including a “fake encore” which pushed the show to well past midnight.

Debo originated six years ago as an Ethiopian pop revival band inspired by Ethiopian music from the late sixties and seventies – a golden age in Ethiopian music. Many of the recordings from this period were presumed to be lost during the political turmoil that the country had undergone since then, but in the late ’90s collections of records, for example the “Ethiopiques,” were compiled, which reintroduced Ethiopian pop music to the rest of the world. While The Debo Band claims a great deal of influence from these recordings, they have managed created an entirely new sound; they are not merely an Ethiopian spin-off on Fela Kuti style Afrobeat, nor are they focused on recreating exactly the lost relics of the past. Rather they are revivalists, infusing music of another time and place with the varied and eccentric tastes of the current Debo musicians.

Debo released its self-titled LP the night of this concert on the Seattle-based Sub Pop label, produced by Tommy T of the “gypsy-punk” band Gogol Bordello. They recently have toured the country and played at festivals such as SXSW, globalFEST and the 2011 Montreal Jazz Festival. The Debo Band will next perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival before continuing on to the West Coast for shows in Portland and Seattle.

ELLIOT STRASSMAN is a Spare Change News volunteer.






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