Debo Band brings its Ethiopian sound to Motorco in Durham

CorrespondentDecember 5, 2013 

Debo Band 1 (2012)

Debo.

COURTESY OF SHAWN BRACKBILL — Courtesy of Shawn Brackbill

  • Details

    Who: Debo Band

    When: 9 p.m. Friday

    Where: Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham

    Cost: $24 ($15 for 30 and under; $10 Duke students)

    Info: 919-901-0875 or dukeperformances.duke.edu

For the record, the Debo Band did not get its name from the 1995 Ice Cube movie “Friday,” where Cube’s protagonist had a climactic throwdown with the neighborhood bully known as Deebo (Tiny “Zeus” Lister, Jr.). But band members still get asked if that’s where it came from.

“We’ve heard that a few times, yeah,” said 33-year-old saxophonist/band founder Danny Mekonnen. “We actually got the name from the Amharic language, from Ethiopia. It means ‘collected effort.’”

This leads us to what the Debo Band (who’ll be performing Friday at Motorco in Durham) is really all about: a crew of stateside musicians – 11, to be exact – playing Ethiopian-style jazz and pop music. What makes this collective of musicians all the more fascinating is that they mostly hail from a city not exactly known for its exotic tastes in music – Boston.

Moving from Texas to Boston in 2003, jazz man Mekonnen soon started calling on Beantown-area friends and musicians who might be interested in putting a band together. From the way Mekonnen tells it, it wasn’t as difficult as you might think.

“We were all listening to 1970s Ethiopian jazz and funk and pop,” he remembers. “And, you know, we kind of settled on a sound we wanted to explore, which was a more, like, large ensemble sound, which mixes a lot of different kinds of instruments together. So, that’s why the band has everything from sousaphone to saxophone to violin and accordion.”

Mekonnen assembled quite the talented crew, including Ethiopian-raised vocalist Bruck Tesfaye and tenor saxophonist Gabriel Birnbaum, who also fronts the side projects Boy Without God and Wilder Maker (whose latest album, “Year of Endless Light” dropped in September).

Together, the Debo Band creates Ethiopian music that’s traditional in its composition, but also gives them space to experiment and play around. (This can certainly be found on their self-titled, full-length debut, which was released last year on famed Seattle indie label Sub Pop Records.)

Given the cacophony of sounds coming from the various instruments in the band, listeners may think it’s a convergence of different musical styles. But Mekonnen says it’s all Ethiopian music.

“I mean, Ethiopian music – it’s not known to the average listener,” he says. “And I think that, you know, whether it’s the fiddle traditions or some of the musical sounds that may sound Middle Eastern, those are the things that are Ethiopian. So what we’ve done, as I think, is mine from the richness of the Ethiopian tradition, you know. And, then, vaguely stumble upon things that listeners can relate to in different ways.”

Of course, The Debo Band has built a reputation for bringing about ferocious energy when they play live, killing audiences at music fests like Bonnaroo, Bumbershoot and the Montreal Jazz Festival, and at showcases like CMJ and SXSW. Says Mekonnen, “I mean, from the beginning -- as early as 2007-2008 – I think at some point we really kind of took it upon ourselves that we would stretch in a live show and try to, you know, draw from, say, the live-show experience of someone like James Brown, which is full energy. I think also rock musicians and all kinds of musicians were influenced by those kinds of ecstatic, larger-than-life performances.”

So, has this Ethiopian-American outfit ever performed in Ethiopia, in front of actual Ethiopians? Why, yes they have – twice.

“Well, we had a great experience doing that,” says Mekonnen. “As I’ve often said, we went to Africa, to Ethiopia – the first time in 2009 – before we left our time zone, before we left the East Coast. What I mean is we never played in Chicago or Los Angeles or anything else … But, beyond Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia, the fifth place we went was Ethiopia. And, I think, for us, that was a pilgrimage we needed to make, you know. We wanted to experience that there.”

And what did the native people think of the music? “When we played, it was clear that the Ethiopians who were listening to our music understood what we were doing,” he says. “They understood the tribute element, but they also understood what we were adding to it.

“So that was an important thing, because I never wanted to feel that the Debo Band was a cover band,” he says. “I wanted it to feel like we were doing our own thing.”

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