“When people travel, their music travels with them”, says Debo Band´s founder and leader Danny Mekonnen, adding, “…for example, immigrant communities, they take their record collections or mixtape collections.” Speaking by phone from his Boston home, Mekonnen is describing the source of inspiration for many of the ensemble´s musical homages to the classic sounds from the ‘70s in Ethiopia. When they fled the land during the revolution in that decade, many Ethiopians, including Mekonnen’s parents, took this music with them – the fruits of a vibrant, prolifically creative period where large ensembles melded traditional Ethiopian grooves, bombastic horn sections rooted in earlier military marching bands, African American R&B and soul and funk sounds.
Debo Band´s sound, nevertheless, is all its own and fresh and new, in part due to their unique instrumentation. Mekonnen, who is also a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in Ethnomusicology, clarifies that instruments played by the group´s eleven members do all actually have a historical reference in Ethiopia. For example, the accordion, he explains, was adopted by some of the land’s folk music traditions. I am fascinated by his story of the squeezebox might have arrived to the Ethiopia in the hands of Eastern European émigrés, and possibly through Armenians who emigrated there through the connection of the two countries’ common ground in Orthodox Christianity – in fact, a small population of Ethio-Armenians still exists today. No doubt music is a most beautiful record of peoples and cultures in contact.
I had the chance to see Debo Band perform just days ago in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center. For their summer tour, which includes an upcoming Chicago SummerDance performance, they are joined by four accomplished Ethiopian musician/dancers who play at Fendika, a renowned azmari bet (traditional music house) operated by Melaku Belay, one of the guest artists. Fendika´s collaboration with Debo began several years ago when the band traveled to Addis Ababa to participate in the 8th Ethiopian Music Festival. The concert displayed an extensive range of rich, complex music – both original compositions as well as arrangements of classics – that layered jazzy, funky riffs upon traditional Ethiopia grooves, accompanied by Belay and his fellow artists dancing with amazing speed, rhythm, precision and grace.
At some moments in the concert, the members of the audience sang along to Debo Band´s music, affirming what Mekonnen himself had said about their music being the soundtrack of an entire generation in exile: “Music is all about time and memory, it offers a sense of timelessness that has to do with history and memory… somehow it reminds you of your past and your history, but it’s such a present feeling.”
Debo Band will be performing as part of the Chicago SummerDance series August 13, 2011. Take a dance class from master dancers and then try out the moves to live music! They will also be at the Old Town Scholl of Folk Music on August 14, 2011 and at the Hideout on August 15, 2011.