The debut album from Boston’s Debo Band uses Ethiopian jazz and pop of the 1960s and 1970s as a starting point for a sound that incorporates numerous musical traditions into a refreshing, catchy whole. In his review of the album for Pitchfork, Joe Tangari noted that “you’ll hear plenty of fresh ideas here, as the band spikes its arrangements with hints of Romany brass and even Celtic melody.” We caught up with saxophonist and bandleader Danny Mekonnen via email.
Many of the reviews of your album have pointed out that, though your roots are in Ethiopian music, you’ve also incorporated influences from other musical traditions. How do you determine what the boundaries of your sound are?
Over the years, we have listened to countless hours of Ethiopian music and have learned dozens of traditional and pop songs from Ethiopia, so we have a pretty good understanding of the basic elements of this music, such as the ubiquitous 6/8 rhythms, unique song structures, and pentatonic scales. Beyond that, we try out different ideas on stage and see how far we can stretch things and still be true to the style. It is important to create a vibe that feels right and not too out of place.
You recently collaborated with the group Fendika — what first led to you working with them? Do you have more collaborations (with them or with other artists) in the future?
We first worked with Fendika in 2009 at a festival in Ethiopia, but I met Melaku Belay, the dancer and group leader, back in 2007 while I was on a researching and teaching fellowship at Addis Ababa University. Melaku and I connected as young Ethiopians dedicated to presenting our country’s music and dance in new ways. I want to tour the states with Fendika again next year, and would love to work with Melaku’s EthioColor, a larger version of Fendika with four dancers, several singers, and a full traditional ensemble including flutes, one-string fiddler, and lyres.
I noticed that the title of the painting used as the album’s cover referenced the writer Chris Abani — are you a fan of his work?
That title comes from the artist Julie Mehretu. We actually used two of her paintings for the album art: the cover is a painting called Black City and the liner notes and LP sleeve use another painting called Highlife (or Graceland after C. Abani). Mehretu introduced me to Abani’s work, and I’ve come to agree with her that his GraceLand is a treasure. For me, Abani is part of a long list of inspiring contemporary African writers, including Dinaw Mengestu, Uzodinma Iweala, and Kodwo Eshun, whose work presents the complex issues of the continent, diaspora, and globalization in ways important and meaningful.
What is the band usually reading when on the road?
It’s a big band so there is a wide range of things that get read on the road; a random sampling from the last few months: Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon, plays by Eugene O’Neil (Desire Under The Elms, Strange Interlude, and Mourning Becomes Electra), the collected stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Chuck Shepherd’s News of the Weird, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Music Business.
Do other artistic disciplines have any influence on the music that you make?
Several of us are really into film, and I’d say that probably has a big influence on us. Guitarist Brendon Wood and violinist Jonah Rapino have scored several films, including contemporary works and old silents, with their band Devil Music Ensemble. And with Jonah I co-composed the score for a Ethiopian short film called Lezare.
Photo: Shawn Brackbill