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Debo Band’s Danny Mekonnen on His Music’s Ethiopian Roots

Debo Band

In an amusing twist, one of the hottest Ethiopian bands going lives in Boston. Led by saxophonist-mastermind Danny Mekonnen, the 11-member Debo Band plays lush, orchestral interpretations of Ethiopian music. But they’re not just ticking off a musical tourism checklist, Mekonnen is quick to point out that his band’s sound is “more than just reverence, it’s something fueled with passion.” Their authenticity doesn’t come simply from meticulous study and tribute to the greats of 20th century Ethiopian pop music — Mahmoud Ahmed, Alemayehu Ehsete, Mulatu Astatke. It’s rooted in the spirit of modernism and re-imagining that allowed those musicians to forge a new, unique sound from Ethiopian folk styles and Western jazz and soul music. “When you really love this music,” says Mekkonen, “The way you get something you like is not by treating it in a precious way, but by wrapping your arms around it and really tearing it apart.”

With Debo Band’s self-titled debut just out on Sub Pop and a smattering of late-summer festival dates looking, Mekonnen discussed some of the Ethiopian music that has shaped Debo’s progressive sound.

Mahmoud Ahmed
“One of the formative artists I listened to growing up was vocalist Mahmoud Ahmed. My parents are from Ethiopia, so even before I knew that I would be playing Ethiopian music as an adult, I heard this music around the house growing up. Ahmed is one of my father’s favorite singers and one of the most beloved singers in Ethiopia. When I started studying Ethiopian music and really listening carefully in my early 20s, Mahmoud Ahmed was one of the first artists who I was really drawn to, and the record in particular I think is really great is called Ere Mela Mela. One of the things that spoke to me as a saxophone player is how the two tenor saxophones are featured very prominently — that’s a classic Ethiopian sound.”

The Haile Selassie I Theater Orchestra
“The Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra was a big influence on me as I was thinking of putting a project together. It was the predominant orchestra while [emperor] Haile Selassie was in power, and was basically a stage band under the direction of an Armenian composer who was living in Ethiopia named Nerses Nalbandian. He’s a pretty important figure in Ethiopian music.

“It was a modern, full ensemble. They wore tuxedos and had a string section, but they were also playing folk music. That sort of piqued my interest. Plus the saxophone players, instead of sounding like they were trying to play like the funk horn players in James Brown’s band, sounded more like Ethiopian vocals or Ethiopian traditional instruments. The funk, horn-driven Mahmoud Ahmed model related to my upbringing in jazz and funk music, but then on the other hand there was this sort of messy, awesome orchestra where I had no idea what was going on. It’s an ensemble that a lot of people haven’t heard, so I felt like I could be more free in my interpretation of the music.”

Getatchew Mekurya & The Ex
Getatchew is the quintessential Ethiopian voice of the saxophone. He played like a warrior in this really gruff, unrefined tone. He’s an influence that a lot of people in the band feel really strongly about, and the violin players have said that they learned how to play Ethiopian music by listening to Getatchew because of the strength of his performance.

“He’s actually an original member of the Haile Selassi Theater Orchestra, then he went on to do a bunch of solo, instrumental recordings. After that he went into semi retirement, playing these piano bars and really fancy 5 star hotels, owned by a billionaire oil tycoon. One of the times I visited Ethiopia, he was playing at a five-star, VIP-only piano bar at this hotel, and I went there to try and hear him play but couldn’t get into this VIP room. I was bummed out about that. But right around that time, I realized he was starting to work with The Ex, which was awesome. Here’s this 75-year-old Ethiopian saxophone player working with these punk musicians from the Netherlands who put out, like, 25 independent records. I think what they heard in his music and what he heard in theirs is this shared spirit of punk. When I hear The Ex with Getatchew, I hear two forces coming at the project 100 percent, exploding, and creating things that you would never imagine in your wildest dreams could work.”

“The Ethiopiques [album reissue] series is a really rich historical project, and with Debo Band, I’m interested in that richness. However, I think the series is really only known for things like Mulatu Astatke, Ethio-jazz, and cool, ’70s funky stuff. The whole notion of the golden age of Ethiopia being the late ’60s to the early ’70s is a disservice not only to Ethiopian music, but also to the Ethiopiques. There’s all this awesome, undiscovered synth stuff that happened in the ’80s and modern stuff that happened in the last decade. One of the last volumes of Ethiopiques even featured recordings from the 1890s of this Asmari troubadour who played a single stringed fiddle.”

Julie Mehretu
“We worked with Julie Mehretu for our cover art. She’s an Ethiopian-American painter based in Harlem, and I discovered Julie’s work about 4 years ago. She was born in Ethiopia about 10 years before me in 1970, although I was born in Sudan. She grew up around the Detroit area, then went to art school and became this really forward thinking artist who was dealing with what it meant to be an immigrant in a place where there weren’t a lot of Ethiopians. I related to that, her biography, and I think what she’s doing at the visual level has some correlations to what we’re trying to do musically. I know she’s taken some aerial views of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and then used those as the basis for things she’s working on. You have to look closely, but there are these small gestures and etchings, and a depth is created through her many layers.”