There has been a very small explosion of American interest in Ethiopian music in the last few years. The sounds developed by Mulatu Astatke, Mahmoud Ahmed, and the other great Ethiopian pioneers of the last few decades travel very well, and can be now found in many different places, from film soundtracks to dance clubs.
The heroic reissue series called Ethiopiques has brought this music to world attention, and many of the original artists are still alive and making great music. (Did you guys hear Mulatu Steps Ahead from a couple of years ago? You’d never guess he is almost 70 years old.)
Along with this movement have been a few groups seeking to recreate this music in a modern setting. Bands like the Either/Orchestra and Bole 2 Harlem have managed to capture a solid Addis Ababa groove, even building solid followings in Ethiopia as well as here at home.
But the self-titled debut by Debo Band manages to do more than just mimic this fascinating style—it takes it further. In just under an hour, we get a tour through funk, brass band music, R&B and rock, and at least three different kinds of jazz… all filtered through an Ethiopian sensibility.
The band is led by saxophonist Danny Mekonnen, who combines a reverence for the music of his ancestors with a searching musical spirit. “Habesha” starts out as an indie-rock grinder, with muttered vocals by singer Bruck Tesfaye, then mutates into what sounds like the theme song for the Great Addis Ababa Noir Movie, if such a thing were ever to be made. (Brendan Wood’s stinging guitar lines don’t hurt one bit.) “Not Just a Song” is as much free jazz stutter-step as it is anything else; “Ney Ney Weleba” incorporates rockabilly, big band horn punctuation, and a dramatic trumpet line from Danilo Henriquez into its Ethiopian framework.
Debo Band is, at least in its numbers, a smallish sort of big band with interesting instrumentation: in addition to guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, the group includes two violinists, an accordion player, and four brass players. This means they can bring some special colors to classics such as “Akale Wube”.
It also gives them the flexibility to invent. “Medinanna Zelesegna” is a soulful drone that could almost be sourced directly from Eastern Europe, a great showcase for the range and power of Tesfaye’s voice. “DC Flower” sounds like a deconstructed waltz arranged for marching band. And “Tenesh Kelbe Lay” has all the 6/8 time sprightliness of recent Ethiopian pop artists such as Tibebu Workye. It’s so refreshing to hear an American group not treating Ethiopian music as a museum piece, but actively using it to find new paths.
I would love to include some “on the other hand” disclaimer here, but there aren’t any to be found—this is brave, beautiful music that can appeal to just about everybody with either a working brain or an ass to shake. If you have both, this should be your next new obsession.