Read Pitchfork’s take on Debo Band’s self-titled LP on Sub Pop. Available in all thoughtful record stores across America today!
“I’ve listened to a lot of Ethiopian music, and not just from the most widely-known “Golden Age” of Ethiopian pop so masterfully plumbed by Francis Falceto’s Ethiopiques series. I’m talking folk music, modern pop made with synths and drum machines, and the music recorded to cassettes during the long dictatorship of the Derg from 1974 to 1987. Even so, I didn’t really know what to expect when I first put on the debut from Debo Band, an 11-piece Boston band that’s billed as putting its own unique spin on Ethiopian music, a spin that covers that same gamut rather than simply going to the Ethiopiques well.
The band acquits itself amazingly well, mixing in a few originals with a well-chosen selection of Golden Age songs, folk tunes, and Azmari troubadour songs. They don’t limit themselves to a faithful homage to the music. Ethiopian music’s reliance on pentatonic scales and modes makes it harmonically compatible with a wide array of other folk music, and even if you’ve spent hours listening to Mulatu Astatke and Alemayehu Eshete, you’ll hear plenty of fresh ideas here, as the band spikes its arrangements with hints of Romany brass and even Celtic melody.
Those moments are flourishes, though, building off a style born of the distinctive sounds of one of the oldest countries in the world. The band is led by ethnomusicologist Danny Mekonnen, an Ethiopian born in Sudan and raised in the U.S., and its vocalist is French-raised Ethiopian Bruck Tesfaye, who sings powerfully in Amharic, the language whose rhythms this music was primarily built around. They’ve taken their instrumentation in an adventurous direction, giving their horn section a huge low end with sousaphonist Arik Grier and incorporating electric violinist Jonah Rapino and acoustic violinist Kaethe Hostetter (Hostetter has established her own music school in Addis Ababa). Guitarist Brendon Wood also adds a highly original voice to the music. His wild psychedelic leads on “Habesha”, “Asha Gedawo”, and “Ney Ney Weleba” sharpen those songs’ already wickedly funky edge.
All that is what makes Debo Band far more than a genre exercise. These people have clearly spent time in this rhythmic and harmonic world and learned how to use the vocabulary not only to play the music, but to expand it. Tesfaye’s pleading, intense vocal on the group’s spare arrangement of the traditional “Medinanna Zelesegna” owes a debt to Tlahoun Gèssèssè and other powerful Ethiopian singers of the past, but the way it mingles with Hostetter’s melancholy, drone-based violin part doesn’t. Likewise the thrillingly dissonant climax of “Habesha” and the snaking accordion solo that follows it. It’s not an easy feat to pay tribute and transcend that same tribute simultaneously, but over the course of their debut, this band manages the trick. As I said, I’ve listened to a lot of Ethiopian music. Debo Band may be from Boston, but this album leaves no question that they deserve to be included in that count.”