Debo Band confronts trying times with heady, hearty sounds
When Boston’s very own Debo Band hits the stage at the Sinclair in Cambridge on May 26, the 12-member ensemble with its blend of 1960s Ethiopian jazz and contemporary transnational funk will have plenty to celebrate.
A new album, for one: their second, “Ere Gobez,” whose release the band was keen to celebrate with this party on their home turf. It’s been ready for a year now, its arrival delayed by various label dynamics. “Being able to talk about the record now feels really good,” says Danny Mekonnen, Debo’s bandleader and saxophonist.
This is also Debo’s 10-year anniversary – an even bigger landmark. Large bands at such an unorthodox crossing of genres rarely boast a run like this, let alone Debo’s success at activating dance-floors worldwide with its finely honed repertoire, stirring horn arrangements, and Bruck Tesfaye’s soaring, tremulous tenor.
There’s a bittersweet tinge too, with the death on April 4 of Getachew Mekurya, the Ethiopian saxophonist who Mekonnen calls “probably the band’s biggest influence.” Mekurya was a major figure in the celebrated 1960s Addis Ababa scene, which produced the rich, cosmopolitan sound encapsulated as “Ethio-jazz.” He played in recent years with Dutch avant-garde band the Ex, which makes him a kind of spirit animal for Debo, with its own mix of Ethiopian and other roots and members.
“Yeah, the year has been intense,” says Mekonnen, between Mekurya’s passing and that of Prince, almost just as crucial an influence; the unsettled vibes of America’s election season; the mounting global refugee crisis, which has seen so many, including from Ethiopia and its neighbors, suffer or perish en route to Europe. “We’re happy to be moving forward in a year that’s been full of unsettling feelings.”
“Ere Gobez” captures that defiance down to its title, which references an Amharic battle cry: the kind of fervent shout you’d bellow as you gallop into the fray. So does the record’s entire sound. “The tempos are faster and we’re hitting harder,” says Mekonnen, compared to Debo’s 2012 self-titled debut, which was already a vibrant affair. “It’s the kind of energy that’s honed over years of touring — something live, loud, visceral, raw.”
The song “Yachat” states the case. With its metal-guitar intro and brittle, hectic energy, it rocks. Out of place on an “Ethiopian jazz” album? Not at all. The song is from Harar, an Islamic desert city in eastern Ethiopia, where a local orchestra played it back in the heyday.
“Their version was similar; we just sped it up and played it more punk,” says Mekonnen. He notes that in Addis Ababa today, there’s a re-emergent rock scene, along with electronica, folk musicians, and Ethio-jazz outfits that carry the flame. Debo played Addis several times; the band’s fiddle player, Kaethe Hostetter, has made her home there, where she gigs with multiple bands on the scene. All this makes Debo part of a vibrant, evolving Ethiopian legacy, rich with outside influences and exchange.
An extra pleasure with Debo is that each song has a cerebral back story. A trained ethnomusicologist with a sense of history, Mekonnen builds his hybrids carefully.
“Blue Awaze,” for instance, is an instantly recognizable cover of Duke Ellington’s “Blue Pepper” reharmonized to shade in and out of an early 1970s song by the Addis Police Orchestra. Ellington traveled to Addis in that time, but Mekonnen says few records of the visit survive. In the end, Debo invented what they imagine a jam session of Ellington’s band and the Police Orchestra might have sounded like.
“Hiyamikachi Bushi,” meanwhile, is a song from Okinawa. Ethiopian soldiers fought in the Korean War; many were stationed in Okinawa and returned to Ethiopia missing the island and lovers there. Mekonnen and Marié Abe, Debo’s Japanese-American accordionist, arranged a beloved Okinawan song, partly to honor this history.
Folk songs by Ethiopia’s Oromo community, obscure recordings of 1960s bands unearthed by collectors in Addis, tracks composed by artists who ended up driving cabs in Washington, D.C. — a lot of preparation goes into a Debo Band party. “It’s all being curated here in Boston by people who’ve devoted 10 years to it,” says Mekonnen. “You can see all these points as a constellation. That’s what the project is.”