Debo Band is a 12-piece Ethio-groove collective that has quickly earned an ever-growing and enthusiastic following in the loft spaces, neighborhood bars, and church basements of Boston, MA (USA) performing for American, and Ethiopian and Eritrean communities. Since 2006, Debo Band has been immersed in the unlikely confluence of traditional East African polyrhythms and pentatonic scales, classic American soul and funk music, and the instrumentation of Eastern European brass bands, which produced a unique form of dance music that Ethiopian audiences instantly recognize as the soundtrack of their youth, carried from party to kitchen on the ubiquitous cassette tapes of the time. And increasingly, erudite American and European audiences are also getting hip to the Ethiopian groove, largely through CD reissues of Ethiopian classics on the Ethiopiques series.
With a unique instrumentation – including horns, strings, and accordion – that is a nod to the big bands of Haile Selassie’s time, Debo Band is carrying the torch of classic Ethiopian music by giving new life to these old sounds. Their lead vocalist, Bruck Tesfaye, has the kind of pipes that reverberate with the sound of beloved Ethiopian vocalists like Mahmoud Ahmed and Alemayehu Eshete. But Debo Band is not content simply “covering” the older styles – they also perform original compositions and new arrangements of songs from modern and contemporary artists such as Teddy Afro and Roha Band. Their expansive repertoire and spirited performances have earned them respect and recognition, leading to concert opportunities such as opening for legendary Ethiopian greats Tilahun Gessesse and Getatchew Mekuria.
Danny Mekonnen, an Ethiopian-American jazz saxophonist and a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Harvard University, created Debo as a way of exploring the unique sounds that filled the dance clubs of “Swinging Addis” and as an outlet for experimenting with new arrangements, configurations, and compositional techniques. In addition to their dedication to Ethiopian music, the other members of Debo Band are involved in a huge array of musical projects, ranging from free jazz and experimental rock music to chamber and orchestral music. Band members have composed full orchestral works, scored silent films and documentaries, recorded albums with homemade electronic instruments, and for fun, study folk music traditions from around the world, including Balkan folk music, Balinese Gamelan, and Brazilian percussion ensembles.
For the last several months, Debo Band has committed itself to spreading its music to audiences far and wide. In early 2009 Debo toured the U.S. East Coast taking their Ethiopian grooves to diverse venues in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. In each of these cities, Debo Band inspired all kinds of people to get up and dance, whether they had never seen iskista, the Ethiopian shoulder dance, or had been dancing it since childhood.
In May 2009, Debo traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to perform at the 8th Ethiopian Music Festival, an engagement supported by Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation through USArtists International with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. These performances affected Debo Band’s creative and professional development in significant ways, particularly in the collaboration they began with several traditional musicians – vocalist Selamnesh Zemene, dancer Zinash Tsegaye, drummer Asrat Ayalew, and washint (flute) player Yohannes Afewerk. All accomplished musicians in their own right, these musicians have collectively over fifty years of experience at prestigious venues ranging from the National Theater of Ethiopia to Fendika, a leading azmari bet, or traditional music house, in Addis Ababa. Working with these four musicians, Debo Band grows into a forceful, energetic, and authoritative thirteen-piece Ethiopian ensemble capable of delightful, one-of-a-kind performances.
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