Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ethiopian pop: Debo Band brings its all to The Dance Hall

Let’s just say if Debo Band dines out in Kittery after their gig, they’re not going to fit at a four-top.
The word "debo" is an archaic Ethiopian expression that, at its core, means "collective communal effort." It makes perfect sense then, that Sub Pop recording artists, Debo Band use that word as the base of their band name.
They play Ethiopian dance music, steeped heavily in the spirit of the Ethiopian Pop scene that was at its height from the late '60s into the 1970s. The Boston based collective are a large outfit, currently touring as a 10-piece band (their debut record showcases a slightly larger, 12-piece group), who relish in the working definition of their name. Every member has to pull their own weight.
Not only is it a communal effort to write, practice, and deliver the music they play, it's also a communal effort to make the Debo Band a sustainable touring entity. From cooking meals, to figuring out lodging, and transportation, the Debo Band truly embodies a working, holistic collective spirit.
The spirit, community and mesmerizing blend of musicality that is Debo Band will be making an appearance at the Dance Hall in Kittery, Maine on Friday, March 29 — an event that is sponsored by 3S Artspace, and Education for All Children (EFAC) and the Dance Hall.

Equally as fascinating as the music on Debo Band's self-titled Sub Pop debut is founding member (as well as the man responsible for tenor and baritone saxophones, and embilta within the band), and Ethiopian American Danny Mekonnen.
Mekonnen wound up in Boston after graduating from the University of Texas at Arlington (he also grew up in Texas). In Boston he continued to study music, and found himself as an ethnomusicology Ph.D., candidate at Harvard.
"I didn't finish the Ph.D., program (though he did earn his master's degree at Harvard)," said Mekonnen in a recent interview. "I didn't really have the time. We started Debo Band around the same time I jumped into the program (about six years ago), so time was short. But...; the way I look at it is, the Debo Band is just as good, if not better than a dissertation (laughs). It has taken just as long. Studying ethnomusicology helped get me to where I am as a musician and how I think about music from a historical and ethical perspective."
As mentioned, Debo Band has existed for a shade more than six years. In that time they honed their chops, put together a catalog of 50 to 60 songs, and became the first international flavored group to record an album from scratch for Sub Pop (there had been two international releases before their record, but they were licensed, not recorded after signing a record deal with the company).

"The words Ethiopian Pop and Sub Pop had never been uttered in the same sentence before (laughs). We're humbled to have been the first," says Mekonnen. "Some bands form, write 10 or 15 tunes out of the gate, and have a record out within a year, or even months after said initial formation," he said. "That's not how we wanted to do it. We wanted to make sure we were ready, make sure that we could respectively contribute to the traditions we were studying, and wanted to make our own mark with the music we were/are presenting. We just wanted to do the music justice."
The band has carved out a nice niche for themselves within music communities worldwide. The exposure from the Sub Pop label will only help in their continued interest around the globe.
"The international exposure has been great," exclaimed Mekonnen. "I had never seen tweets from other parts of the country, and globe prior to the distribution efforts of the label. It's exciting, to say the least. I think we're living in a time where people don't associate themselves with a single listening genre as they may have in the past. With today's digital advances in the music industry — especially social media outlets — people are more apt to be exposed to, and interested in a much more varied array of sounds. As a collective whole, I think we're much more eclectic music fans than we used to be. I don't think we, as the Debo Band, are looking for 'world' music fans per se — whatever that may be — I think if you listen to jazz, afrobeat, rock, R&B, funk, or soul, you're going to find elements of our music that you can connect with. We definitely represent a hybrid music."
Ethiopian dance music. It's quite a sound. It's fresh, it's compelling, and it holds your attention the whole way through. It takes you on a ride you've likely never experienced before.
"We're trying to create music that resonates with us, in hopes that it resonates with the world," said Mekonnen. "I think pop music in our own culture is really dumbed down. It's as if someone is making the claim that the status quo can't handle sophisticated songs and song structures. I don't think that's true. If it were, Radiohead wouldn't be as successful as they are."
"I hope people are attracted to the music we are creating and celebrate the cultural significance of the art we are putting out there. I don't want to be a musician's musician. I want any normal day human being to connect and celebrate with us. When you come out to see us, you may hear music you've never heard before. Come with open ears, and an open mind. And have your dancing shoes ready to go. If we can get everyone dancing by the end of the night, we'll go home happy."