Debo Band branches out from Boston roots

Uses SXSW itinerary to attract new audience

Rahav Segev/
Vocalist Bruck Tesfaye performed with Debo Band on Friday at Austin’s Red 7.

AUSTIN, Texas - Among the more than 2,000 bands that descended on this city last week for the South by Southwest music festival, it is safe to say none had quite the itinerary of Boston’s Debo Band.

It began at noon on Friday at Joe’s Crab Shack, a chain of seafood restaurants of all places. As families picked at plates of fried shrimp, the band squeezed onto the back patio and unleashed its big, brassy take on Ethiopian pop music.

A high-profile admirer sat at a nearby table, grinning and nodding in sync with the beat. Bob Boilen, the host of National Public Radio’s “All Songs Considered’’ and an all-around music tastemaker, had invited Debo to tape a segment for NPR.

In the next 24 hours, with two more performances aimed at different audiences, Debo Band would lay the foundation for what could be a banner year that primes the group for a national stage.

The 11-piece ensemble, which plays a hard-driving strain of ’70s Ethiopian music with elements of rock, funk, and experimental jazz, attended SXSW last year. This time, however, it arrived riding a wave of buzz.

“I think our shows at SXSW represent the two sides of the band,’’ saxophonist and frontman Danny Mekonnen said last week at the band’s rehearsal space in Jamaica Plain, where most of its members live. “There’s the fact that we’re signed to Sub Pop, an indie-rock label. But our show at globalFEST proves that we’re more than just indie rock, and we’re not just world music, either.’’

In January, Debo was considered a breakout artist at globalFEST, the annual barometer of which acts could be big in world music. That is where Boilen first saw Debo, and he has been championing the group ever since.

“They were the band that fired me up the most at globalFEST,’’ Boilen said after the NPR taping. “Of all of my friends, and of all of the bands I saw that night, Debo is the band I’d bring to their party.’’

That globalFEST performance came on the heels of being signed to Next Ambiance, an imprint of Sub Pop Records, the Seattle label whose roster includes indie-rock heavyweights such as Fleet Foxes and Beach House.

It is easy to see why Debo would end up on a rock label. Its sound is fierce - a polyrhythmic collision of horns, electric guitar, drums, violin, bass, accordion, tuba, and an Ethiopian-born vocalist who sings in the country’s native Amharic language.

No other band in Boston sounds like Debo, which is partly why it has stood out so prominently in the local music scene since emerging in 2006. After years of playing around town and even in Ethiopia twice, the band is finally courting broad exposure, much to Mekonnen’s disbelief.

At the recent rehearsal in Jamaica Plain, Mekonnen pointed to the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine. “Did you see page 65?’’ he asked. Among reviews of new songs by Rihanna, Norah Jones, and John Mayer was a 3-star rating for Debo’s latest single, “Asha Gedawo.’’ “That’s crazy, right?’’

Five days later, SXSW was a litmus test for who, exactly, will connect with Debo’s sound. The NPR taping suggested a highly educated, slightly older demographic could be on board.

In the evening, the first showcase was for Sub Pop in a room dotted mostly with 20-somethings. Heads bobbed and knees bounced, but it was clear most of the crowd was hearing Debo for the first time. Unsolicited, a young woman approached a reporter with a question she already knew the answer to: “Aren’t they awesome?’’

Mekonnen’s family - his mother, father, sister, and brother - were also in the audience, having traveled three hours from their home in Dallas. It was a poignant performance for his parents. They have watched their oldest son, who was born in Sudan and came to the United States at 18 months, explore his heritage through the music they grew up. His mother, though, hears more than tradition in Debo’s music.

“It brings me back to the feeling of music I heard in the ’70s, but it’s different,’’ she said. “This is modern - and this is better. It means so much to us that Danny is bringing Ethiopian music to people here.’’

Three hours later, Debo was on another stage, this time as part of globalFEST’s showcase. The audience was similarly young, but it was more attuned to Debo’s groove-based music. Dancing erupted within two songs.

So what is it going to be, an indie-rock crowd or world-music connoisseurs? NPR’s Boilen said Debo could appeal to both demographics, but especially under one condition: “All somebody has to do is go see them in a club.’’

James Reed can be reached at