Who would have thought that a series of reissues of Ethiopian music, released mainly for obsessive-compulsive ethnomusicology nerds, would have become such a force in the world of music? But the Ethiopiques series has been a cultural touchstone for a new generation of indie music heads discovering African music, and it arguably helped kickstart the current boom we’re seeing in afro-funk/afro-soul/afro-pop/afro-garage-reissue-compilations-from record-labels-run-by-white-Europeans that we’re currently enjoying.
You know it’s come full circle when young Ethiopians themselves are getting inspired by the Ethiopiques series to search out their own roots. That search for one’s place of origin, the kind of mission that anyone born to immigrant parents in America can understand, is at the heart of the stunning new album from Ethiopian-American ensemble Debo Band. Their self-titled debut full-length is out in July on Sub Pop’s “world music” label, Next Ambiance. Curated by ex-KEXP DJ Jon Kertzer and Sub Pop label head Jonathan Poneman, Next Ambiance has been putting out about an album a year of methodically sourced music, starting with Malian ngoni wiz Bassekou Kouyate, moving on to Garifuna singer Aurelio Martinez, and now bringing Debo Band onboard. With the weight of Sub Pop behind them, here’s hoping this is the start of a new renaissance for the sounds of old Addis Ababa. The album was produced by Gogol Bordello’s bassist, Tommy T Gobena, an Addis-Ababa born musician, and Debo recently opened for Gogol Bordello.
We talked to saxophonist and bandleader Danny Mekonnen to get the scoop on Debo Band, how the project came about, their trips back to Ethiopia, their signing to Sub Pop, and the new album. The bulk of the interview occurred when the band was just wrapping up the album’s recording sessions.
Where are you at right now?
We’re at the recording studio. Just actually wrapping up the horn tracks. I had a feeling of triumph about 30 minutes ago, when I realized that I don’t have to play saxophone on this record anymore. We finished the horn tracks and that’s a huge release.
Can you tell me about yourself. Where do you come from? Where were you born? Were both your parents Ethiopian?
Both my parents are Ethiopian. They were refugees in Sudan. In the late 1970s, a lot of folks from the northwestern part of Ethiopia fled to Sudan. My parents were part of a lot of people who went to Sudan, and I was born there. I was one of the first Ethiopian kids born in Sudan. And then, when they came to the U.S. in 1982, I was the only baby on the plane, so I’m kind of like one of the first immigrant generation[s]. We found a sponsor, I guess, like a church sponsor, and the sponsor ended up re-locating us to Fargo, North Dakota. So we spent a little bit of time living in a place removed from any Ethiopian communities. But then, eventually, we ended up in the Dallas area, where there’s a huge Ethiopian population. You know, Seattle, Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, and D.C. are kind of the biggest [Ethiopian] communities today.
So, that’s sort of my background. I spent most of my life in Texas, from the age of five to the age of 23 or so. And, you know, majored in music in college and started playing the saxophone when I was a middle school kid. I got really into music, got really into jazz, John Coltrane and Miles Davis and all of the greats from the 1950s and 60s… I was like a jazz kid and I didn’t really listen to music recorded after 1967…
I didn’t purchase or study or listen to any music other than jazz for most of my childhood. That being said, I heard Ethiopian music all the time around the house, but… I didn’t know one artist from the next. I heard a lot of brass music, and as a saxophone player I was attracted to that, but then, I would ask my parents like, “Who is that saxophone player?” or, “What band is this?” and they didn’t really have any of the kind of contextual information that I got out of my Atlantic jazz liner notes or Blue Note Jazz liner notes or whatever. So it was kind of hard for me to really connect with the music, but I did hear it all the time and I went back to Ethiopia when I was 12. So I definitely got a taste of the music and the culture. I always went with my parents to Ethiopian parties and I heard lots of big Ethiopian acts when I was a kid. But none of that really stuck with me.
In Ethiopian culture, there is a very strong appreciation for this, and it’s considered very sophisticated to come up with colloquial poetry. It’s actually called ‘wax in gold.’
Then, as I got older I started thinking more about my identity as an adult, and I was at the end of college. So around then I started really checking out the music. And ironically, even though I had access to it through my parents, and through my family, the source that I turned to was the Ethiopiques series, just because it’s such a well-documented series of liner notes, personnel, and stuff. So it’s a bit ironic. I think a lot of Americans — and a lot of Europeans; non-Ethiopians essentially — go to the Ethiopiques series, or foreign reissue series’ of African music, because it’s so convenient.
Actually, it’s kind of the only source that they have. My parents have a huge cassette tape collection, but it’s all dubbed cassettes; they’re all Maxell cassettes with just a little scribbling of who the artist is or who the mix tape is or whatever, so it didn’t really give me what I was looking for. But then, when I discovered the Ethiopiques series, and was able to tap into my Ethiopian friends and family for more information, I really started learning about this music. That was kind of the beginning of my Ethiopian project.
Right. That makes sense. The Ethiopiques series is kind of like a jazz LP series, you know. It’s just really beautifully put together with really detailed, incredible notes. Did you ever touch base with the people who curated that series?
Yeah. I know Francis Falceto, the series director. I actually met him in Ethiopia when I was doing some teaching there in 2007. I first met him in Boston. He was doing a concert with Mulatu Astatke and I met him there. But then we actually hung out a bit in Ethiopia in 2007. So I know him pretty well and he’s a big fan of the band, and we’re on this new compilation that just came out in Europe. It’s like an Ethiopiques compilation but it’s called EthioSonic and it focuses on bands around the world that play Ethiopian music now. So we’re one of the bands on that. He’s definitely an important figure in the music just for his curating of that series. He’s a really important source.
Where did you find the vocalist for Debo Band, Bruck Tesfaye?
Bruck Tesfaye was living in Boston when I was putting the band together. Actually, even before I put the band together, I was involved with the Ethiopian Student Association in Boston and Bruck was the president of the organization, and then I knew someone else who was the secretary. The secretary approached me about putting a little group together for an Ethiopian Student Summit for some students who were coming to Boston. We put the project together and it was just like a trio; it was me, an Ethiopian guitarist, and Bruck singing. I was playing sax, and we just started playing a few songs and he had never sung before. He had never performed in a band.
The only work he had really done was with a guitar player and learning a few songs when he was in college, and he maybe played some open-mics or something. So I remember when I first started working with him, actually teaching him how to count the music and how to know when to come in. You know what I mean? It was that basic. But he had raw talent. I mean he had amazing chops, I guess you could say, just like a naturally gifted singer. And then, we started working together with Debo Band and it was an interesting project because there are Americans in the band.
Even though I am Ethiopian-American, I am not fluent in the language, so there’s a lot of things that I don’t know about a song when I first hear it. I might hear a song that I think is great; I like the vocal part, I like the melody part, I like the horns, I like the arrangement, and then I bring it to Bruck and I say, “Hey, would you be interested in singing this song?” And then, he’ll say, “Yeah. I like this song, but I couldn’t sing the lyrics with a straight face, the lyrics don’t make any sense or they are really silly or whatever.” But then, eventually, we find really good material that we both like and are excited about. That’s kind of the way that he and I work together and pitch songs to one another…
The band did start as an amateur project. Our tuba player had only played tuba in one other band and he was pretty new. Our drummer, at the time, had never played drums in a band. Our accordion player actually started out on melodica in the band and I convinced her to learn accordion… The other half of the band were professionals, but at least the vocalist and a few other people had never really done anything before, and it really started as a community project. We were all friends that lived in the same neighborhood that were excited about Ethiopian music.
They had heard the music before, you know, at restaurants and through the community. They had met Ethiopian people and they were interested in the music and I came along with this vision to put a band together, and I had this crazy instrumentation that I was interested in that was like strings and horns and accordion and vocals. I had heard the Mohammed Hamid funk stuff and I had heard the Malatu Ethio-jazz stuff, but what really got me was the bigger orchestral sound. That’s why Debo has the instruments and that’s why it has that kind of orchestral make-up.
You went over to Ethiopia, I guess twice, and in 2009 and 2010. Is that right?
Francis Falceto, the Ethiopiques series director, invited the band to go. So, we got a grant from Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation in 2009 and then we got the same grant again in 2010. When we went in 2010, actually, we only went to Ethiopia as kind of a stop-off point, to play some concerts and to practice with some dancers that we work with there, and then we went on to this festival in Zanzibar, Sauti za Busara Festival… We made really great connections with Ethiopian musicians, especially from traditional musicians at this place called Fendika, which is also the name of the group that we work with in Ethiopia…
There were like 17 people flying from Ethiopia to Zanzibar. There were 13 people from Boston and then, we picked 4 people from Ethiopia to play this huge festival in Zanzibar, a big, beautiful outdoor festival, and it was the first time that Ethiopian music had been performed in Zanzibar at this festival. The honor for us, was as a Boston band that plays Ethiopian music to introduce Ethiopian music with Ethiopian guest artists to an East African audience… The Swahili musical culture is really deep and rich, but they had never heard Ethiopian music, which is only several-hundred miles away…
It was a really special thing for the Ethiopians, and I think three out of four of the Ethiopians that were traveling with us had never left Ethiopia, or had never been to another country in Africa, you know. So, we were able to make this happen. I think that’s one of the most inspiring, important things that this band has done. We went to Africa twice before we ever released an album, before we ever released an EP…
That was something that I was very interested in, because this band is more than just a project for gigs. It’s more than just a band. It’s something really deep, in that we’re all interested in learning and I never wanted it to be a cover band. I didn’t feel like the band was ready to release any music until about 4 years into the project, until we had something to say. We actually recorded half of the EP in Africa, and then, when we came back from Africa, the band went from one level to another level. So that’s what traveling meant to us, just really deepening our connection and love of the project.
Tell me more about Fendika and the bet, an Ethiopian music house.
Fendika is a club, it’s a music house, a traditional music house. Bet, b-e-t, just means house. And then, you have different kinds of houses. You have megebe bet, which is a food house, or a restaurant. You have azmari bet; azmari is the name of a traditional musician, so a house of music, a traditional music house. So Fendika azmari bet is like the whole name of it. People just call it Fendika and there are these azmari bets all over the country. And where Fendika is, is a neighborhood that has 20 azmari bets, and then there’s another neighborhood that has another 20 azmari bets, and then there are another two dozen azmari bets scattered all over the city of five million people. So, these are found all over the country. But Fendika is the most progressive and kind of innovative azmari bet.
They do things a little bit differently; it’s more like they actually perform concerts there. The dancer from Fendika, the lead dancer is a guy named Melaku Belay. Melaku has toured the world performing with a punk band doing Ethiopian music. And his mind has really been opened. He has these videos of experimental dance videos working in unusual context. So he’s a really progressive person, although he’s a traditional musician. That’s why he and I work so well together… I think that I’m also very interested in not only experimentation, but combining of different elements and just trying to find my own voice as an Ethiopian musician, you know, not in just re-creating something from the 1970s. I’m not nostalgic for the past. I love the music and the recordings from the 1970s, but rather than try to re-create that or be nostalgic for it, I use that as inspiration to find my own voice in the 2000s. You know what I mean?
And Melaku is the same way. As an Ethiopian, he is influenced by traditional dances and goes to all these traditional festivals in Ethiopia, where thousands of people come from all over the countryside for a religious festival. And at those festivals, there’s like a really transcendent type of dance. So he’s been to all these festivals all over the country and studied and knows them, and he can dance over 30 styles of music, but he’s also danced with all different kinds of jazz and rock dancers from all around the world. Anyway, so that’s who Fendika is. We performed with them most recently; their second U.S. tour was this summer, and we played at the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center. So, it’s a club but it’s also the name of Melaku’s group.
Tell me more about the music at the azmari bets.
It’s kind of hard to explain, but there’s an interaction between audience and performer. The audience will come out with a rhyme, because the Amharic language, the Ethiopian national language, has a lot of double entendres, double meanings. So, like someone in the audience will give a singer, one of the azmari singers, a line of text, and then the singer will come up with a really interesting way to sing the line back almost immediately. It’s just lots of joking, it’s really playful. So, it’s like folk music and it’s much more interactive with the audience…
Is it like an improv kind of event, like improv comedy where the audience interacts? Or are they just kind of hanging out and jamming and singing songs?
It’s more like an improv thing. There might be some groups singing. They might sing a stanza that everybody knows, and then people in the audience start singing. And there’s some dancing too. Oftentimes, a female dancer will go and dance with people in the audience, or, like a couple of people who are there listening, will feel the spirit and start dancing [to] one of the songs. So, it’s still very much a performance, but there is that improv element, which people really love about these azmari bets. That’s actually one of the main reasons why people go because it’s really funny, and there’s a real playfulness to it. So it is kind of like that Drew Carey show…
Whose Line is it Anyway? [laughing]
It’s actually a lot like that. The first time I saw that, I was like, “Hey, that looks like an azmari bet!” In Ethiopian culture, there is a very strong appreciation for this, and it’s considered very sophisticated to come up with colloquial poetry. It’s actually called “wax in gold.” There’s a wax surface meaning, and then when you melt the wax away there’s gold, there’s a richer meaning underneath it. This is a linguistic thing you find in Ethiopia, in the Amharic language. It’s a really sophisticated way of talking, these double meanings.
This is something that the azmaris really excel at. So sometimes the audience will provide the azmaris with this poetry, but the azmaris know tons of it. They’re constantly commenting; I mean, they’re almost like a living newspaper. They can tell you the news of the town in a really funny, creative way. So, there’s this cerebral thing going on, like very sophisticated, intellectual thing going on, while listening to this music, this folk creativity of the language. But then, there’s also music happening on top of that. So, I think there’s a lot of things for people to latch onto and enjoy in traditional music houses.
I’ve been around Ethiopian and Eritrean music, but I’ve never heard of these clubs. Are they in the States?
There might be some in Washington D.C., but I don’t think there’s that level of interaction. The thing is, these clubs like… I mean Fendika is open seven nights a week, and artists in Fendika work until five in the morning every night, so it’s an art form. It would be hard for me to imagine seeing it in the States and having it thrive. This isn’t just like a once-a-night concert. Fendika is a landmark, you know. There’s always stuff going on. It’s a vibrant thing any night of the week, and you hear this thunder-like drumming, it’s spilling out of the place and it’s something that feels very Ethiopian to me. It’s really hard for me to imagine taking it anywhere but Ethiopia.
You mentioned, at one point, meeting ex-patriate Black Panthers near Tanzania. Can you tell me about that?
I was a bit checked out of that experience when I was there, but this was after we had spent two weeks in Ethiopia. Going to Zanzibar, or rather Tanzania, actually had more to do with some other people in the band that had friends in Boston who had gone to Tanzania to hang out with Black Panthers. It’s an organization, the name of which escapes me now [Editor’s Note: United African American Community Center], but it’s former Black Panthers from the U.S. that headed it up… The leader, he was wanted for arrest or something because of his Black Panther activities, so he fled the country and ended up in Tanzania and opened up this Black radical center in Arusha, Tanzania.
Arusha is one of the largest cities in Tanzania, like right in the middle of the jungle practically, at the foot of Kilimanjaro. It’s this big place, down a dirt road, in the middle of the jungle and he’s got a compound: houses and classrooms and a big, central gathering place where you can eat. They serve food to people and they’re pretty much open. I think they primarily exist [through] donations, but he and his wife run the place. The wife’s name is Mama Charlotte and I think his name is Brother Pete [Pete O’Neal]. They run this place and when we were there, there was a college group, a group of students from the Midwest, just hanging out in Arusha. I don’t know a lot about it because, like I said, it’s something I wasn’t involved in the organization of, but it was cool. The band played a couple of concerts there and we collaborated with some Tanzanian hip-hop artists. But it was kind of like a side trip, it wasn’t the main thing that the band did. It was something after the Ethiopian tour.
Do you guys have plans to go back to Ethiopia?
I definitely think we want to go back and everybody in the band asks me, “When are we going to do it again?” I think, though, that we really need to focus on our development as a band in the U.S., like a nationally touring band, and also try to get over to Europe. We’ve been to Africa twice, but we haven’t played in Europe. And also, it’s really expensive. I mean, it costs like $25,000 for us to go to Africa…
It’s a huge undertaking. So, it’s not something that we can really do without grants and without other kind of fund-raising. It’s definitely something that we love and that we want to do again but, I think it’s more important for us to take care of ourselves here in the States.
UPDATE: We interviewed Danny again briefly after the album was finished to get more info about the new full-length from Sub Pop’s Next Ambiance.
I should have asked you about working with the producer Thomas ‘Tommy T’ Gobena. Can you tell me what that was like and how he influenced the album?
Thomas was great to work with. He was always a positive force in the studio and encouraged us through some grueling sessions. Some of the songs on the album have been in our repertoire for three or more years, so it was good to have his fresh perspective on that material. Most importantly, our vocalist, Bruck Tesfaye, benefited from Thomas’s deep understanding of the Amharic language and Ethiopian singing styles.
Give me an idea about how the album turned out. When I interviewed you, you guys were still in the middle of it, so a note about the result would be awesome.
I’m really happy with the way the album turned out. On the one hand, I wanted to make sure it sounded like a live band and not a studio project. But I also wanted to take advantage of the techniques and effects afforded by a modern recording studio. I think we struck a balance between the two. As far as the recorded material, I think it’s a good document of the band’s five years. We cover a lot of territory in an hour of music — funk jams, traditional tunes, original compositions, folk instruments, psych rockers — while still sounding distinctly Debo.