Debo Band, the Ethiopian jazz-funk-inspired group from Boston, releases its debut self-titled album today. The band was in Toronto a month ago, playing a frenzied set at the Luminato festival. I met up with bandleader Danny Mekonnen early on a Sunday morning and we spent a couple hours drinking coffee, walking around downtown and chilling in The Grange park, watching the city come to life.
Mekonnen is incredibly thoughtful and well spoken, and our conversation flowed everywhere from his thoughts about the new album, to his journey into the roots of Ethiopian music to the immigrant experience and his vision for the band.
Highlights of our conversation are transcribed below, or you can click on the play buttons to hear the entire conversation.
Listen Q: You’ve just finished your first album, how does it feel?
A: Well, it feels incredible. I am thrilled with how it turned out, musically, sonically. We worked with an Ethiopian/American producer named Tommy T Gobena. Tommy T is the bass player with Gogol Bordello, a gypsy punk band that have gotten pretty big over the last few years…. Working with him, an Ethiopian, allowed us to make sure we were strong in our Ethiopian presence and concepts…. We worked in a great studio with hands-on engineers. So the process was really fulfilling as an artist, because you worry about that. We were a band who played live shows for six years. We’ve toured Africa twice, so we have a very strong sense of what we want to do musically. But then to take that and have a new person with a very great musical perspective come in with a fresh pair of ears and then help guide it in another way [is great]. So as an artist it was a really enriching and incredible experience and I am really proud of the album.
Listen: Q: Can you tell me how you became interested in Ethiopian music?
A: My parents are Ethiopian…. My parents were young when the music of the '70s was being recorded. They were in their teens. So when you are a teenager you might know music but you might not necessarily know who is the songwriter and you do not have an educated perspective of the music. You just listen to it and you love the music. And I also think leaving the country and not having access to that material you just forget things … so I knew the first name of a lot of artists growing up like Tilahun, Mahmoud, Aster and came to find out later on that these are the giants of the music and [are] actually Tilahun Gessesse, Mahmoud Ahmed, Aster Aweke and, interestingly, even though I had complete access to this music, and as much music as I would ever want to listen to, it was the Ethiopiques series that gave me the context. It took a French producer, Francis Falceto, coming to Ethiopia and tracking down the musicians, tracking down photos and giving it that context, that gave me what I needed to connect to the music and start researching it.
It also drove me back to the cassette collection, going back to my parents’ house and digging through that or finding other people who had digitized these cassettes. So it was two-fold; it was going into the Ethiopian community and finding elders who had collections of music and getting as much as I could from them. Then, on the other hand, turning back to the Ethiopiques and having the convenience of the western packaging. It was these two things that were the initial spark to reinvigorate my interest.
From there, I was already a musician, arranger and composer, and for me the way I research something is to do transcriptions and make arrangements and find people to come practice this music and try and find out what it is about. And because there are unique rhythms and scales and sounds in the music, my instinct is to then go and grab a piece of paper or an instrument and try to play it.
If I was a record collector I would want to go and find the vinyl records and start collecting it, but I am not a DJ producer, I am more of an arranger musician, so I got a band together and sort of innocently said, "Hey, do you guys want to start a practice band?" That is literally how it started.
Watch Debo Band at SXSW:
Listen Q: How do your parents feel about you playing Ethiopian music?
A: They love it. My father practically cries every time they hear me play. It is really an intense thing. I just played at my aunt’s wedding and the special thing about that is my parents are really young parents. My mom is not 50 yet. I’d have to say that or I’d be in trouble. I have young parents and I am in my early 30s and I feel very close to them and very close to the community because in a way I feel like my parents and I grew up together. My mom was in her late teens when we moved. I mentioned Paris, Texas, but our first city we ever lived in was Fargo. We moved from a refugee camp in Sudan to Fargo, N.D. I am not certain, but we may have been the only Ethiopians in Fargo. My mom worked in a Mexican restaurant, Chichi’s in Fargo, N.D.
The way we came to the States was through a Lutheran ministry. We flew into New York and from N.Y. we got assigned to families who would put us up. My parents saved up and my dad went to North Dakota State University and studied engineering. We kind of grew up together, we were really close. Mom was young, we were learning English together and from there we ended up in Texas because there is a strong community in Dallas where my dad had some uncles. For immigrants, music is such a strong identity marker and it is a mystery to my parents and so many people in my family, how it is that I came to America at 18 months and ended up becoming so deeply involved in Ethiopian music.
For me, the thing I am good at is music and I have big ears for sound so I just heard the music and was able to find a way to speak the Ethiopian language of music. It is the sort of thing you can’t learn on paper. Some of the family asked me if I had found a book of sheet music on how to play this music, but you really can’t. It is like cooking. You might find the recipe but to really learn how to cook you have to experiment and some people are great cooks because they have a taste for it, they experiment a lot, they spend a lot of time learning how to cook. I spend a lot of time learning how to play music, listening and doing my own transcriptions, spending six years with the band and learning about 50 songs and really developing an ear for it. My parents are the biggest supporters of my work and what I do.
Q: What are your aspirations from here?
A: Exposing the music to new people…. I talk a lot about Ethiopian identity and try to find myself, and it can be a painful thing for young people to deal with – like misconceptions of Ethiopia, poverty, famine, war, all these kinds of bad things. But for me, Ethiopian music is some of the most joyous music in the world and I think that music can be communicated through live performance and recordings and that is one of the things I would like to do is change the perception of Ethiopia through the music, instead of presenting something that is negative or sort of disparaging or destitute, show something that is life affirming, joyous, celebratory.
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on Jul 10, 2012