Debo: Classic Ethiopian Pop With a Contemporary Twist

Debo is an energetic Ethiopian funk Boston-based band founded by saxophonist Danny Mekonnen. It specializes in dance sounds directly from four decades of classic pop nourished in Ethiopia. Just as the musicians unleash mystical grooves, so do dance moves by the gravity-defying Fendika leave folks gasping. Mekonnen tracks the history of the music Debo plays…

Debo is an energetic Ethiopian funk Boston-based band founded by saxophonist Danny Mekonnen. It specializes in dance sounds directly from four decades of classic pop nourished in Ethiopia. Just as the musicians unleash mystical grooves, so do dance moves by the gravity-defying Fendika leave folks gasping.

Mekonnen tracks the history of the music Debo plays back to 1966 when Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Ethiopia and other nations with their personal record collections. From that introduction to American jazz, Ethiopian pop graduated, seasoned with traditional styles.

Ethiopian pop music of the 1970s, he points out, is played with the timbre and tone of the indigenous African styles from Nigeria. It was also influenced by the Turkish psychedelic rock bands. The 6/8 rhythm and non-Western scales are foreign to the average ear. The dissonance resembles what you hear in music from the Mid-East and Japan.

There was a period in Ethiopia when big bands contained strings and drums. Debo has two violins and a drum, along with two saxophones, a trumpet, a trombone, a tuba, an accordion, an electric bass and an electric guitar. The accordion has historical relevance, but tubas were only used in military bands. Debo is unique in that there never was a band with the combination it has.

Mekonnen was 18 months old when his parents came to the United States in 1982 by way of Sudan, the pathway of most refugees at that time. He grew up in Dallas, Texas, began saxophone lessons in middle school and entered the University of Texas in Arlington as a music major.

After graduating, he headed to Boston to study jazz. While working on his Ph. D., a Harvard professor with a background in Ethiopian music encouraged him to explore it. Subsequently, he formed Debo from musicians he played with around town. Their specialties ranged from classical music to klezmer and Balkan brass bands.

Since its debut in the Boston area, Debo's popularity has errupted nationwide. Adding to the excitement, the band joins forces at festivals and events with Fendika, an ensemble that they met at an Addis Ababa nightclub. It consists of a male and female dance duo, a female vocalist and a traditional goat-skin drummer.

The vocalist's vibrato is a timbre of singing found in Ethiopian voices and the saxophone. Like native singers, she is often accompanied by a one-string violin and a lyre with six strings and no fret board.

The dancers perform in the style called 'eskista' wearing traditional outfits to display a lot of color and visual elements of the culture. The woman does a shoulder dance to a 6/8 rhythm played by the drum. All the movement is from her shoulders, head and neck. Her movements are emphasized by a scarf and a huge set of beads that accentuates the sound. She contrads with the male dancer who has worked with a forward-looking and trendy Dutch punk rock band.

Mekonnen's ensemble of 15 is large because he wants audiences to see how they bring together folk dances and the big, exciting band with a little bit of dissonance that does not fit tradition.