Release Date: July 10, 2012
Label: Sub Pop/Next Ambiance
There is almost nothing authentic about the Debo Band’s version of Ethiopian pop, jazz, and folk music; and that’s probably one of the nicest things anyone could ever say about it. Not that there’s anything wrong with traditional African music, but for this group — a nine-piece, Boston-based collective led by Ethiopian-American Danny Mekonnen and featuring a diverse cast of characters, many of whom are not remotely Ethiopian — authenticity was clearly never the goal.
Mekonnen is an ethnomusicologist by training, which makes sense when you hear the jumble of far-flung sounds on the band’s self-titled debut. But he also has a mischievous, highly un-academic side: Nothing here is preserved in amber, worshipped on a pedestal, or otherwise treated as a sacred totem. The Debo Band are not trying to reconstruct the so-called Golden Age of Ethiopian pop music — the swinging late-’60s and early-’70s scene in the capital, Addis Ababa, where American jazz and soul mixed freely with traditional Ethiopian folk melodies and polyrhythms to create its own polyglot sound. Rather, they’re using it as a template to mix-and-match musical styles from all over the globe. As such, the resulting full-length, produced by Gogol Bodello’s Thomas Gobena, feels not like a post-graduate thesis, but a wild off-campus party.
The songs here — reimaginations of traditional Ethiopian tunes plus original compositions — blend the exotic and the familiar, making the album easily approachable for fans with little or no knowledge of the country’s musical traditions. On opener “Akale Wube,” a violin plays a wild, weaving melody, but the combination of the bold horn line and a dark, sinister groove can’t help but recall mid-’60s Studio One sides by the Skatalites like “Exodus,” “Alley Pang,” and perhaps not coincidentally, “Addis Ababa.” Notwithstanding the multiple tempo changes and vocalist Bruck Tesfaye’s quavering vocals (in the Ethiopian native tongue of Amharic), “Ney Ney Weleba” also has a bit of a ska vibe at its core, though the upbeat energy and insistent beat feel more drawn from the 2-Tone era of the Specials, Madness, and the English Beat.
Elsewhere, the propulsive epic “Habesha,” with its surf guitar, tension-building violins, tension-releasing horns, and limber groove, might not sound out of place soundtracking the next James Bond film. “DC Flower,” one of the few tunes with English lyrics, has an airy pop feel and loose, free-flowing saxophone parts that sound more than a little like something the Dave Matthews Band’s late saxman LeRoi Moore might’ve conjured.
Those familiar with the Ethiopiques series — which is probably most responsible for introducing Ethiopian pop music to the rest of the world over the past decade and a half — will recognize some of the tunes drawn from those iconic compilations. “Medinanna Zelesegna,” a spare, ominous and very Arabic-sounding meditation that appeared in the series played by Alemu Aga on a bizarre-sounding Ethiopian harp called a begena, shows up here as a plaintive, atmospheric violin elegy. And the yearning, traditional love song “Ambassel” creeps along behind a vocal turn by Tesfaye that manages to build intrigue and interest even among those of us whose Amharic is a little rusty.
The lack of orthodoxy on display throughout Debo Band is consistently refreshing. With horns and an accordion oozing out mournful melodies over a delicate, swaying rhythm — close to waltz time but not exactly — one Ethiopian oldie, “Yefeker Wegagene,” sounds a lot like Eastern European klezmer music. Another, “Asha Gedawo,” comes on like a carnival behind its festive swirl of horns, while “Tenesh Kelbe Lay” sports an indelible, funky, Curtis Mayfield-style bass line.
Albums like this, which dice up and recombine musical traditions, so often run the risk of being more interesting than good — fascinating to study, but not much fun to listen to. Everything here, though, feels strangely organic and effortlessly joyful. Some will surely hear it and go scrambling back to research the original Ethiopian music at its foundation. But more will simply let it wash over them and get swept up in the party.