Jamaica Plain's Debo Band Breathes New Life into Ethiopian Pop
Leader Danny Mekonnen brings his large group and their new album to the Paradise in Boston
It’s pronounced "debbo," and it means communal labor or collective effort in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. “It’s kind of an archaic word,” said JP resident Danny Mekonnen, 31, who founded and plays saxophone in Debo Band. “It’s not a word that’s in everyday use, but it’s short and easy to remember, and it has a nice definition of people working together.” In fact, Debo Band has 11 members working together, playing exciting, dance-worthy original songs that are sort of a mash-up of traditional and modern Ethiopian pop music. They’ve been together since 2006, most of them live in JP, they have a new self-titled album out on the Sub Pop label, and they’re performing at the Paradise in Boston on Aug. 1. Mekonnen recently spoke about the band and the music.
You grew up in Texas playing jazz, now you’re playing Ethiopian pop. Did you ever listen to American pop music?
I listened to the stuff that was on the radio. I remember a couple of George Michael songs and the Spin Doctors, but one of the very first CDs I bought was by John Coltrane. When all of my friends were getting into grunge and checking out Nirvana, I was listening to Coltrane and Miles Davis.
You also listened to the Ethiopian pop music your parents played at home when you were growing up.
A lot of the music that I originally brought into the band blurs the line between what folk music is and what modern music is. In Ethiopia in the early 1970s you would have a band like Mulatu Astake, primarily interested in jazz; you would have the Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra, made up of several singers and lots of Western instruments playing what sounded like an orchestrated traditional folk song. And you would have singers such as Mahmoud Ahmed, who were doing real funk music. Our new album is our interpretation of what Ethiopian music is, from the ’70s to modern day, and mixing all of these things together.
Have you come up with a simple, straightforward description of Debo Band’s sound?
It’s a lot of things at once. I’ve been calling it Ethio-groove, but that word doesn’t really conjure a sound to a lot of people.
Has the group changed much over the years?
We started out as a trio – me, our singer, and a guitarist. And that band laid the seeds for what Debo Band was to eventually become. I was interested in a raw, kind of messy large ensemble.
So what happened when it became raw, messy and large?
Our very first public performance was in Hyde Park, in the Artists-at-Large Gallery. There were maybe three people in the audience. Our first official gig as Debo Band was in Chinatown at a friend’s birthday party. Soon after, it became clear to me that people were hearing about the band, and we did a few gigs at the old Milky Way in JP, and we’ve played the Midway.
How far away from home have you played?
We played at a festival in Los Angeles, and we’ve played a couple of times in Ethiopia, and once in Zanzibar.
What will happen at the Paradise concert?
One of our goals is to have people dancing. I call it Ethiopian dance music because our whole thing is to get people to move. For instance, there’s a song on our album called “Asha Gedawo.” When you hear that song, from the first few bars of the music you feel there’s a lively, energetic, celebratory vibe to it. That’s what it comes down to. I like it when people call us a party band.
Can you recommend a local place for good Ethiopian food?
Blue Nile on Centre Street in Hyde Square.