Record collectors who are familiar with the “Ethiopiques” series may find those records to be a useful reference point for the Debo Band sound.

By Jack Walton  (Sound Bend Tribune) |

Amazing things can happen when different musical cultures come together and blend into new hybrids.

Countless cross-cultural meetings have already taken place and blossomed around the world, but there are always new combinations to try. Debo Band specializes in finding out what happens when Ethiopian big band music mixes with other global sounds.

So far, the results have been impressive and rewarding. The 11-piece band has become a formidable unit.

Debo Band is currently touring in support of a brand-new album called “Ere Gobez,” and the tour makes a stop Thursday at LangLab in South Bend. While traveling in Kenya recently, bandleader and saxophonist Danny Mekonnen conducted an email interview with The Tribune and elaborated on the band’s latest activities.

One striking new piece in the group’s repertoire is called “Blue Awaze.” The composition has its roots in “Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues),” a 1966 Duke Ellington showcase for his alto saxophone player, Johnny Hodges. In Debo Band’s hands, the music transmogrified into something altogether new.

“We were working on an arrangement of Ellington’s ‘Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues)’ and although I had added an Ethiopian flavor in the bass line and some of the harmonies, we were not sure how to incorporate the song into our set,” Mekonnen says. “At around the same time, we (were) working on an arrangement of ‘Behasabe,’ a song by the Police Orchestra, one of the state-sponsored bands during Haile Selassie’s reign. The two songs were in the same key and had a similar feel and tempo, so we decided to put them together. It sounded natural, and from there, we created this fantasy about the two orchestras jamming together during Ellington’s tour of Ethiopia in the early 1970s.”

Emperor Selassie presented Ellington with Ethiopia’s medal of honor in 1973, but, unfortunately, there are no existing recordings from the after-party. Now, thanks to Debo Band, we can glimpse what might have happened.

“I imagine that there was some kind of collaboration between the American and Ethiopian musicians during the tour, and ‘Blue Awaze’ is our idea of what could have been,” Mekonnen says.

The band also writes its own material as well as covering funky Ethiopian classics. Particularly colorful results always happen when Debo Band branches out to distant cultures as well, as in the case of a new arrangement of a folk song from Okinawa called “Hiyami Kachi Bushi.” Debo Band has performed its alchemy on that piece, and just as with the Ellington song, it has emerged as something with the most beautiful traits from both cultures.

Record collectors who are familiar with the “Ethiopiques” series may find those records to be a useful reference point for the Debo Band sound. Beginning in 1998, a label called Buda Musique began compiling and reissuing the groovy, stylish records that typified the hip Ethiopian scene from the 1960s and ‘70s. Today, the Ethiopiques releases are probably the casual fan’s best introduction to the milieu. Mekonnen and his collaborators have added myriad new components of their own too, of course.

The first, self-titled Debo Band album came out in 2012 on the Sub Pop label. FPE Records, an indie label from Chicago, released “Ere Gobez,” and the album is different from the debut primarily in the sense that the newer music is faster and packs more punch, a natural development as the band has gotten stronger, bolder and more confident. (”Ere Gobez” means, roughly, “call of the lionhearted.”)

Mekonnen says that although the bands on the Ethiopiques records were important precursors, Debo Band is no kind of retro act, but rather a group of musicians constantly striving to preserve the music’s vitality while sketching out new possibilities for it to continue to bloom in this new millennium.

“It’s always been important for us to play this music our way, which tends to be raucous and raw,” Mekonnen says. “I don’t want to play it safe. I’d rather our music push the boundaries of what is expected in Ethiopian pop music.”

Source: Sound Bend Tribune
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