The first, most important thing to know about Debo Band, an 11-piece group from Boston, is that it’s fronted by ethnomusicologist Danny Mekonnen. By nature, a band fronted by an ethnomusicologist is bound to have its roots in any number of obscure and culturally widespread movements of music, though Mekonnen, who is Ethiopian by heritage, was born in Sudan and raised in the United States, it’s his own familial background that informs much of the group’s work. Ethiopian jazz, the likes of which Alemayehu Eshete and Mulatu Astatke pioneered in the 1960s and ’70s, is the root sound for Debo Band, who then takes that seed and allows it to grow around a diverse array of sounds both funky and psychedelic, and often quite surprising.
Debo Band’s self-titled Sub Pop debut is not simply a genre study, though the way in which the group has committed to incorporating and updating Ethio-jazz is indeed quite a wondrous thing to hear. But there are so many elements going on in Debo Band’s music that it’s not really quite right to say that Ethio-jazz is precisely what they’re playing, despite Mekonnen’s own roots and those of vocalist Bruck Tesfaye, likewise an Ethiopian raised in France who sings in Arhamic. (It’s also worth noting that “Debo” is an Arhamic word that translates, more or less, to collective effort.) Where opening track “Akale Wube” runs some of the classic Ethiopian-style grooves through blasts of horn section funk and wild violin leads courtesy of Kaethe Hostetter, on “Ney Ney Weleba,” they reveal a more prominent klezmer influence, which the band credits in part to sousaphonist Arik Grier, who has played in klezmer bands and circus orchestras. “Asha Gedawo” is one of the rare songs that actually kind of sounds like an indie rock single, albeit one with Arhamic lyrics, and “Tenesh Kelbe Lay,” for all intents and purposes, is a solid funk jam.
Though Ethio-jazz is at the core of Debo Band’s sonic approach, it’s not, ultimately, what they play. Pinpointing that is much harder to do, for the band, as diverse in approach as they are vast in personnel, leaves very little off the table. It’s an impressive feat to behold just how much goes into what this pop orchestra creates, almost all of which are born from influences foreign to many American ears. This could easily be a gateway record to all sorts of obscure gems, but it’s also likely to become a classic merely on the strength of its ambitious arrangements and captivating songs.
Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics – Inspiration Information 3
Various Artists – Nigeria Rock Special: Psychedelic Afro Rock & Fuzz Funk
Fool’s Gold – Fool’s Gold
Stream: Debo Band – “Asha Gedawo”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.