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Debo at Dahlak: Ethiopian Music and Culture from Addis to Z

Debo at Dahlak: Ethiopian Music and Culture from Addis to Z

How one eclectic, Boston-based group is bringing back sounds from the continent, big band style

By MTV Iggy
January 29, 2013

Interview by Greg Scruggs.

The downstairs show at World Café Live in Philadelphia on January 12th was a whirlwind of energy that veered from the orchestral surge of a Balkan brass band to the raw frenzy of punk rock, then smoothed out into extended instrumental solos with an Afrobeat bent. Yet Boston-based Debo Band, the live act responsible for Saturday’s wild musical mood swings, has its roots in Ethiopia, especially the 1960s jazz scene of the capital, Addis Ababa, long neglected but recently resurrected.

Lead singer Bruck Tesfaye – tall, skinny, and charismatic while dressed in black with a fetching yellow scarf – belted out numbers in Amharic with a lilting voice and exceptional pitch modulation, as though he had AutoTune in his vocal chords. He shimmied seductively while bandmates on trumpet and saxophone provided backing vocals.  The propelling brass and woodwind combination, composed of a sousaphone (a klezmer influence brought in by founding member Arik Grier), two saxes and a trumpet, sounded vaguely like a ska band, providing the rhythm needed to send several hundred concertgoers to the dance floor of the occasionally uptight, NPR-affiliated venue. A solo by electric violinist Jonah Rapino became a dreamy, psychedelic interlude before the band picked back up for a wall of sound effect from the ten musicians onstage.

At the bandleader and saxophonist Danny Mekonnen’s urging, the crowd reassembled at Dahlak Paradise, a stalwart of the city’s Ethiopian/Eritrean dining scene in cozy West Philly, for an afterparty edition of Taxi Diamond Kutz, a bi-weekly Afro-Latin-Caribbean night with DJs Brotha Onaci (Sonic Diaspora, a co-sponsor of the concert), Juanderful, and Gregzinho (the latter two both of Tropicalismo) and special guest DJ Ripley (Dutty Artz).  With everything from soca to African house bumping in the background, MTV Iggy sat down with Mekonnen and a plate of injera rolls, a late-night staple at Dahlak.

Let’s start with the show tonight at World Café Live.  It was a great crowd with a lot of energy. With a large band, do you all feel more comfortable on big stages like that? Playing such a wide variety of venues, what is your preference if you have one?

You have to make yourself comfortable on whatever stage that you’re on. If it’s too small and we’re literally standing over each other, that’s not ideal. Big stages are nice because you can see the area, see each other, the whole room. The room at World Café Live is kind of ideal. But sometimes it’s nice playing in a really small place too, where the ceiling is low and it can feel more electric. But tonight was really nice – not too big and not too small.

The venue tonight has the word “world” in its title – as far as the always-complicated game of classifying a band is concerned, do you feel that you tend to fall into a certain circuit or scene of new world music, or have you been able to stay pretty nimble and defy the critics that want to pigeonhole you?

We’ve played lots of rock clubs. Our album release tour last July [their self-titled albumwas released on Sub Pop Records in August 2012] was at a number of rock clubs, places our labelmates will also play. And we’ve played some big rock festivals like Bonaroo and Bumbershoot.  The rock venues are more diverse and the rock festivals are becoming more diverse in their programming. We have been able to remain nimble and play folk, jazz, and rock festivals.

Last night, we played the Winter Jazz Festival in New York City. Then tonight we played essentially a big dance party at World Café Live. I’m not feeling pigeonholed and that’s nice. Our management and our label both understand, and they’re trying to keep things fresh and exciting by presenting the band in different ways.

You noticed that festivals and rock clubs are becoming more diverse.  Does that reflect a changing demographic in the US, represented by your own background as an Ethiopian-American and coming from an immigrant family?

It’s true that our audiences are more diverse because people in big cities are more diverse. I don’t know how our band would do in places that are more conservative or less diverse – but in major cities like Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago – these cities have large immigrant communities and are more open to sounds from around the world. I think the United States is still a long ways behind Europe in this respect, which is more open to sounds from different parts of the world. But I think that the diversity of venues and festivals reflects the diversity of our culture.

How long have you been on Sub Pop and what has that experience been like?  Do you feel like pioneers on such a tired and true indie rock label?

I feel a lot of support from the label and I didn’t know early on if we were going to be on the fringes. As far as feeling like pioneers, Sub Pop has been a pretty diverse place for a long time. They’re certainly known for grunge and indie rock, but they’ve had artists on their label doing everything from folk to electronica to hip-hop. A couple years ago the Shabazz Palaces project really redefined what the label is doing. I think that Sub Pop are pioneers and maybe they saw in us that we also reflect that pioneering spirit. I don’t think that Debo Band came along and changed the label, I just think the label has a really fluid and flexible way of imagining itself.

Many members of the band are neither Ethiopian nor of Ethiopian descent.  What is it about Ethiopia that attracted them in the first place? Ethiopia is a culture that you don’t hear so much about foreigners – Americans in particular – gravitating to.

In our case a lot of people in the band got interested in Ethiopian music because of the food and the culture. Through the Éthiopiques series, a collection of reissues, many people in the band starting listening to the music. In many ways, it took me and Bruck coming into this community of folks who didn’t have an Ethiopian background and essentially opening them up and exposing them to more of the culture and music. The founding members of the band, they got excited about the language, learning to cook the food themselves, and the music was just a way to open them up to that culture, to all things Ethiopia. Certainly it helped traveling to Ethiopia on two occasions – in 2009 and 2010 – and collaborating with Ethiopian musicians and dancers and doing a couple of tours in the United States with those folks, an ensemble called Fendika. For myself and our vocalists, it reconfigured and gave us a new perspective on Ethiopia.  It’s one thing to grow up as an Ethiopian-American, but it’s another thing to have a new way to connect and explore your roots through music.

As a band, have you had to fight against negative stereotypes about Ethiopia?  

Our band recognizes that there are negative stereotypes about Ethiopia. Part of it is showing another side, that the culture is quite rich.  here are a lot of ways to think about wealth.  It is a country very rich in spirituality, community, and music – and life. They know how to celebrate life through music. Certainly it’s something that the media and our basic textbooks that we teach children from in elementary and middle school, I think that they have a way of accentuating the negative and focusing in on things like famine, poverty, civil war, and HIV/AIDS. I feel that’s only one part of the story and Debo Band, all of us, acknowledge and understand those parts of the story but we choose to celebrate other things. A lot of other communities have had a stronger foothold in the U.S. than the Ethiopian community has.

How has the band been received in Ethiopia, especially with regards to instrumentation choices?

Most of the instruments that we play are in one shape or form used in Ethiopia. Electric violin is an adaptation – saxophone, accordion, and violin are all instruments that you can find over the history of Ethiopian music. With regards to the saxophone and the accordion, there are artists that have been very innovative. A couple people still play the accordion today in Ethiopian. The saxophone is used in almost every Ethiopian band that has a horn section.  In the first couple years of the band, we only had a sousaphone, no electric bass, which we added later to reinforce the sousaphone line. That’s something unique to Debo Band, but then the sousaphone exists in military marching band context. The instrumentation is more about adaptation than bringing something completely new to Ethiopia. Taking the focus away from your typical rock band setup as well as the contemporary Ethiopian trend of drum machines and synthesizers to an ensemble setup.  For us it’s really been about going back to acoustic instruments and focusing on an orchestral sound. We have a vocalist who has a commanding stage presence, but I think that the musicians really go for it too, they’re not just backing up a singer. We all go full throttle. That’s something you don’t find so much in Ethiopia. If there is a band, it has to play a supportive role and that’s something we wanted to do different in Debo Band by really featuring a strong instrumental section.

As you said, contemporary Ethiopian music relies heavily on drum machines and synthesizers – no different from many music cultures that have taken advantage of inexpensive and widely available digital music production technology – but are there any parallel efforts in Ethiopia to rescue the Golden Era of Ethiopian music that is at the core of Debo Band’s project?

There are lots of primarily acoustic ensembles starting to develop now and also throughout the Ethiopian diaspora there are connections between Ethiopians and Europeans. This one group in particular called Addis Acoustic is a group that actually focuses on an even older period of Ethiopian jazz music from the 1950s and they have clarinet, mandolin, accordion, Gibson guitar, upright bass and two percussionists. They are at the forefront of this rekindling of older acoustic sounds. But there are more and more ensembles coming out of Ethiopia – also a funk band called Nubian Arc, very similar to Debo Band. Francis Falseto from Éthiopiques hosted a bunch of European and American bands in Ethiopia at a festival. For the last ten years, Ethiopian musicians have been seeing top-level ensembles come in and play this music.  I am sure some people have had the thought process: If Europeans and Americans can do it, why can’t us? Not to say that there weren’t acoustic players before, but they may have struggled to find a place themselves. There are a lot of people who were quite proficient and accomplished but they just taught at the university.  They didn’t have an ensemble outlet for what they were doing. The acoustic sounds and ensembles have become more and more popular.  I’ve even heard of some audiences that have gone to bands and asked why are you using a synthesizer when there are instrumentalists around.

We’re here at Dahlak Paradise, an Ethiopian restaurant in West Philadelphia.  What does it mean to you as a band to connect with the Ethiopian community in the cities where you play?  Is that something you always strive to accomplish when you are on the road?

It is something that we are always seeking out.  Sometimes we are luckier than others.  Dahlak is a perfect place for us – West Philadelphia, there’s lot of cool stuff happening, good people that live around here. If every city had a place like Dahlak, we’d be a very happy band. We first had an afterparty at Dahlak spontaneously back in 2009 after playing a concert for the Crossroads Music Series at the Calvary Center. A close friend of the band in Philadelphia lives just down the street from Dahlak.

We stumbled upon it but we were really happy when Brotha Onaci told us that he hosts a bi-weekly party at Dahlak. We started off talking about diversity and that’s something that’s important to us because of the makeup of the band.  We have varying degrees of connections to Ethiopia, but what I like the most is when we can play to an Ethiopian audience or eat at a restaurant. It’s a special bond for Ethiopians to look at the band and feel more connected with people from outside their community. And it’s a special thing when we can reach across these artificial borders and I think places like Dahlak make that possible for our band and we really thrive in that environment.

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