There’s something dangerous about tales of a Golden Age: especially a brief one. The so-called Golden Age of Ethiopian popular music (or Ethio-jazz, or Ethio-groove) lasted less than a decade. It took hold in the late 1960s in the cosmopolitan circles of Addis Ababa, fed by exposure to American soul and jazz, and boosted by the return of the Berklee College of Music-trained bandleader and arranger Mulatu Astatke. A blossoming scene produced, refined and sprouted new branches of a hitherto unheard synthesis of jazz (and Latin music) with Ethiopian pentatonic scales, distilled by brass-heavy bands adding guitar, vibraphone, and organ. But the 1974 coup that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie plunged Ethiopia into a long and difficult period of military rule and civil war. The swank nightlife of Addis shut down; the musicians scattered and the moment passed.
So the story goes. And it’s not wrong, in its broad outline. Certainly something special transpired in those years in Addis. The era produced an ample trove of recordings that now, decades later, have started to emerge from their hiding places, thanks to projects like the Ethiopiques series, curated by French producer Francis Falceto, and, not least, to the foresight of the Addis players and impresarios of the time who held onto the tapes as they dispersed around the world. The richness—the sheer grooviness—of this work and the seemingly bottomless reserve of material has made Ethio-jazz, not unlike Fela Kuti-era Afrobeat, the target of a growing field of cover and revival projects in hip precincts from New York to Tokyo to Amsterdam.
Debo Band takes a different approach. No doubt, eminences of that time—Astatke; singers Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahun Gessesse, Alemayehu Eshete, Bezunesh Bekele—are core inspirations to bandleader Danny Mekonnen, lead singer Bruck Tesfaye and their nine partners in the Boston-based outfit. So are other bands and players of the period to whom history has been less kind. Mekonnen, an ethnomusicologist by training, speaks with awe of the moment he received several hundred MP3s from an elder in Washington, D.C. (that hub of the Ethiopian diaspora). Other Debo members, like electric violinist Jonah Rapino, credit Ethiopiques for making them aware of the sound. And this album includes songs (some traditional) that one or another of these icons performed in their time, alongside material from the repertoire of Azmari praise-singers, and Debo originals.
But what’s different is… everything. The instrumentation, with Debo’s sousaphone, accordion, and electric and acoustic violins. The all-original arrangements, with their infused elements from klezmer (sousaphonist Arik Grier, an early and constant Debo member who once played in a klezmer and circus orchestra, has something to do with that), avant-garde jazz, and groove-based musics of multiple provenances. So there are no covers here: rather, Mekonnen explains, reinventions.
What’s also distinct about Debo is its process—a collaborative enterprise that developed in its own time, starting as a practice band back in 2006, an experiment that took shape in lofts and rehearsal spaces in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, and that only now is releasing its debut album, good and ready. “Debo,” Mekonnen says, is an archaic Amharic word that signifies collective effort. And among his artistic touchstones, he cites Charlie Haden’s late-1960s Liberation Music Orchestra, the pioneering, socially engaged large ensemble. Debo isn’t a “political” group, not in an overt sense, but its cultural commitments are no less sincere.
Among these, plainly, is an investment in an idea of Ethiopian music that overflows the limits of the Golden Age story and gives due, notably, to the pop sounds that followed and also to the renewal of old and rural traditions today. On the band’s first trip as a group to Ethiopia in 2009, they performed—at a prestigious festival, in the presence of luminaries of the scene—one arrangement by Sahle Degago, who had featured with the Imperial Bodyguard Band, but also one song by Abegaz Shiota, an important arranger and producer of the 1990s who is still active today, and finally a flute piece from a folk tradition that is nearly extinct. They picked these three songs very much to make a point, Mekonnen says. He’s even come to find value in some of the simpler, recent synth-pop from Ethiopia that Tesfaye has pushed his way. And one of Debo’s signal achievements—the term “side project” does not do it justice—is their collaboration with Fendika, a young Addis-based acoustic music and dance group in the ages-old Azmari folk tradition, with whom Debo have played in Ethiopia, the US, and at a major festival of African music in Zanzibar.
All this is a long way from Jamaica Plain—and from the rock and folk roots of many of Debo’s non-Ethiopian members. But it’s far as well from Angers, France, where Tesfaye attended high school and university; and even further from Fargo, N.D., and Paris, Tex., where Mekonnen, who was born in Sudan to parents who were fleeing the Ethiopian military dictatorship, ended up spending his teenage years. He always thought of himself as Ethiopian, Mekonnen says, but it’s through Debo that he has figured out for himself what that meant. A good 20 people have contributed to the band over the years, some Ethiopian, others not; all, Mekonnen says, have helped his discovery at the same time as making their own. Rapino, for instance, has taken his violin and wandered solo for months through several African countries, cultivating chance encounters through music. Bassist P.J. Goodwin worked as sound designer on an award-winning short film shot in Ethiopia’s rural South; Rapino and Mekonnen later scored the film. And violinist Kaethe Hostetter has gone further, packing up her Boston loft and setting down roots in Addis where she has started a school and a trio with Fendika members.
Among Mekonnen’s memories of his first trip to Ethiopia, when he was 12 years old and the dictatorship had finally ended, was a six-week sojourn at his grandmother’s house, not in booming, metropolitan Addis but in the ancient city of Gondar, in the North. It was a slow place and steeped in tradition: every few nights, he recalls, Azmari singers would come by and sing the family’s praises. Sixteen years later, in 2009, Mekonnen was back—this time, with all Debo Band in tow, or as he puts it, a bunch of dudes from Jamaica Plain. It was surreal, Mekonnen says, but it also made sense—as much as it does to find Debo Band challenging the easy classifications and manufactured orthodoxies of the world-music scene on the festival circuit, or tearing up the stage in rock clubs from SXSW to the Lower East Side. Whatever the Golden Age might be, Debo Band is in it, today.