The Debo Band Interview
Finally. Debo Band’s self-titled debut – the album we have been most eagerly anticipating the year – is out next week on Next Ambience/Sub Pop. We had a chat with Debo’s initiator, band leader and saxophonist Danny Mekonnen about the new album and the move from doing covers to own compositions, from live shows to studio recordings and back.
Can you explain us about the move from mainly doing covers of old Ethiopian songs from the 60s and 70s to now releasing your own compositions? Has it been a smooth transition?
We wanted to show the range of the band over the years, so the record contains one-third covers of “oldie” songs (like “Yefeker Wegagene”), one-third folk songs (like “Akale Wube”) and one-third original compositions. It’s been a smooth transition because we took our time to develop our own compositions that sound like “Debo Band,” which is part pop, part folk, part funk. All the great bands Ethiopian bands had their sound – Imperial Bodyguard Band, Haile Selassie Orchestra, and Roha Band – and that’s been one of my goals as a band leader.
Debo Band has already achieved a reputation as an excellent live band. Has it been challenging bringing the energy from the live shows to the recording of the debut album?
I think it’s always a challenge to capture the energy of a live band to a studio album, but we recorded the album with as many as nine people tracking at the same time which gave it the feel of a live performance. When musicians go into the studio one-by-one, it not always possible to create that energy.
An Ethiopian groove collective signing for an indie label like Sub Pop doesn’t sound like the most likely thing in the world of music. In your view, what does this say about the appeal and cross-cultural character of Debo Band?
When we started in Boston, we played rock shows almost exclusively and our supporters were mostly drawn to the energy and fun our shows. Being on Sub Pop gives us the tremendous opportunity to reach many people who may not consider themselves fans of “world music,” which I think is a wonderful thing for Ethiopian music.
The Debo Band members have quite a diverse musical background, e.g. within classical music, klezmer, jazz, country, brass etc. What do you see as the key in getting these musicians to play Ethiopian music together and making it sound so incredibly good and original? Is it the Nalbandian link?
I wouldn’t say it was the Nalbandian link, though his contributions to Ethiopian musical arrangements are significant to our band’s early development. Rather I’d say the key for us has been our long-time study and appreciation of this music, the two tours to Ethiopia, and developing strong ties to Ethiopian musicians like Getachew Mekuria and Yohannes Afewerk. For nearly everyone currently in the band, Ethiopian music and culture plays a major role in our artistic development and personal lives.
The influence of the ethio jazz of the 60s and 70s is evident in your music. But do you also find inspiration in modern Ethiopian pop? Or in the azmari tradition or in some of the regionally distinct Ethiopian music, e.g. Gurarge, Tigrinya, Oromo or Amhara?
Yes to all the above! Over the years, we have played the modern music of Teddy Afro, Tewodros Tadesse, and Gossaye and learned arrangements by Abegaz Shiota. The azmari tradition is a big influence, too, especially the folk instruments like mesenko and kirar. Our originals take inspiration from Tigrinya music and we have learned some Oromo folks songs and Gurage music from the repertoire of Mahmoud Ahmed.
You have been performing with Melaku and other of the Fendika/Ethio-Color musicians and dancers from Addis. Does working with these Ethiopia-based artists give Debo Band a more authentic Ethiopian sound and vision or how do you see the outcome of this collaboration?
Melaku and the other members of Fendika are outstanding performers and artists, but I wouldn’t say the main outcome is more authenticity. The collaboration allows us to showcase a different energy and spirit with dance visuals and folk sounds straight out of the azmari bet.
When will we see you perform in Ethiopia again?
Hopefully soon! We’ll be sure to let you know as soon as a plan develops!
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