Debo Band (Boston Phoenix, 1.26.10)

Posted on February 5, 2010

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Last spring, Danny Mekonnen and Jonah Rapino led Boston’s fledgling Ethiopian pop group Debo Band straight to Addis Ababa. They played a local festival, made friends with nightclub owners, and found an Ethiopian Airlines deal for a free trip down the coast to Tanzania. There, they hung out with expatriated Black Panthers, took giraffe safaris, and met organizers from one of the biggest music festivals in Africa, Zanzibar’s Sauti za Busara.

“It was totally far-fetched,” says Rapino. “When we got to Tanzania, we still had enough equipment to have shows, so we went for it. We played with hip-hoppers and some ’70s free-form thought poets in front of orphans — out in the jungle on the worst PA ever, with a horse wandering around.”

Next month, they’re heading back to Africa to team with singers and dancers they met in Ethiopia to fill a prime spot on the festival in Zanzibar, which puts them in front of thousands of festivalgoers plus the international press, music magazines, and BBC cameras. “Our first trip to Ethiopia seemed like a dream come true,” says Mekonnen, himself an Ethiopian-American who grew up in Texas. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

Debo Band — who wrap up their two-month residency at the Western Front this Saturday — are an 11-piece strings, horns, and accordion collective from all over Boston’s musical map. They were birthed from Mekonnen’s studies of Ethiopian pop. There were no Craigslist ads and no auditions, just the willingness to pick a place and go.

If there’s a music ideally suited to Debo’s try-everything attitude, Ethiopian pop since the late ’60s could certainly be it. The legendary Ethiopiques anthologies served as most Westerners’ introduction, chronicling everything from the small jazz-funk bands of Mulatu Astatke to military horn sections of state-programmed bands like the Imperial Bodyguard Band. Some melodies sounded Arabic or Balkan; others swang like Glenn Miller. (In Boston, the Either/Orchestra recorded its own arrangements of “Ethiojazz” and played live with Mustatke and others.) There were bands with accordions and saxophones and bands with strings strung over trippy organs. Mekonnen wanted to mash them all together.

He started Debo Band when he persuaded Stick and Rag Village Orchestra — the sprawling Balkan/klezmer pick-up street outfit of friends Rapino and Aric Grier — to learn a few Ethiopian arrangements he’d been working on. Rapino has been a member of the experimental Devil Music group for years; Grier played bass and synth in the gonzo noisecore band Fat Day. It was a project that seemed designed for a picky bandleader, but Debo went the other way. “I wasn’t looking for experts,” Mekkonen explains. “I hardly knew anything about it myself — it was just a way for everyone to learn.”

They recruited vocalists whom he’d met through contacts in the local Ethiopian community. “These were amazing people who had completely internalized the rhythms and melodies that we were struggling to learn, but they didn’t know when to begin singing. You couldn’t say, ‘Come in after four bars.’ They didn’t know what a bar was. It was an adventure for everyone.”

Grier had just picked up the sousaphone for Stick and Rag, and Stacey Cordeiro learned the accordion on the job, spending the first year and a half as the Debo melodica player. Keith Waters had never played a drum kit in a band before in his life. But soon, everyone was pitching in on arrangements. Rapino even recently scored an original soundtrack for the band, bits of which they play live now.

Their Western Front show this past Saturday was mobbed. Elastic-voiced crooner Bruck Tesfaye waltzed through the crowd, and Seattle/NYC transplant Gabriel Teodros and founding member Heni-Rap (both Ethiopian-American rappers) made guest appearances, skipping over tricky beats and getting hands in the air. The saxes of Mekonnen and Abye Osman growled cop-show harmonies; the strings of Rapino and Kaethe Hostetter darted through jagged scales. There were folk songs, ’70s Ethio-pop classics, even reworkings of modern hits.

Which is not to say Debo Band turn into organ-thumping evangelists when they head to Africa. “We’re all just there to learn,” says Rapino. “I didn’t even know the names of the scales before we got there last time.”

Mekonnen backs this up: “Our crew goes over there with the idea of exchanging. When we get there, we’re excited just to say, ‘Hello.’ ”

Original article in the Phoenix here.

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