While he’s lived quietly in Denver in recent years, Ayaléw Mèsfin is deeply connected to his homeland, where he continued to make music underground during the long, brutal Derg reign.

By By Andrew Gilbert (Berkeleyside) |

BERKELEY, Cal.―One of the most memorable concerts in Berkeley last year was the UC Theatre performance by vibraphonist/ composer Mulatu Astatke, the patriarch of Ethiojazz. Vocalist and composer Ayaléw Mèsfin, another giant from Ethiopian music’s golden age of the 1970s, arrives in town with Boston’s Debo Band for a show at Cornerstone on Sunday, but unlike the celebrated Mulatu, who gained Western pop cultural currency after Jim Jarmusch laced his entire 2005 film Broken Flowers with his music, Ayaléw is more of an unseen legend than an active presence these days.

Sunday’s concert is one of only three performances including Ayaléw in a brief Debo Band tour that’s taking place in conjunction with the release of Hasabe (My Worries) on Now-Again Records, the first-ever LP compilation from the Ethio-groove pioneer. Fans of the infectious Ethiofunk sound might have encountered his music on the French label Buda Musique’s expansive Éthiopiques CD series, which features four classic tracks by Ayaléw Mèsfin & Black Lion Band.

Led by saxophonist Danny Mekonnen, who was born in Sudan to Ethiopian parents (and raised in the US), Debo Band has earned international attention with its repertoire of golden age Ethiofunk tunes and originals inspired by the melding of traditional Ethiopian rhythms and pentatonic scales with jazz and R&B. His best known piece, 1974’s fuzzy-funk anthem “Hasabe,” is clearly inspired by his love of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown.

“These performances are an opportunity to pay tribute to Ayaléw and celebrate his legacy,” says Danny Mekonnen, who notes that the first name is the family name in most Ethiopian cultures. “We’re coming at this as a band that’s been playing his music and his contemporaries music from the beginning. Ayaléw is someone we return to over the years for inspiration, though a lot of what we do is interpretive work. Like in jazz, you play the standards and find a way to make it your own.”

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