On July 14th I had the chance to meet the American-Ethiopian Debo Band. The drove to our VOA studios in Washington, DC, directly from New York to squeeze in an interview before their next concert in the District at the U Street Music Hall.
The two pieces that the bare-boned quartet performed in the studio, “Ambassel” and “Medinanna Zelesegna,” surprised me for their slow, almost dragging tempos and mellow, if not melancholic mood. The minor tonality of the songs certainly played a role, but I think the lack of timekeeping instruments like drums, percussion and bass were the main culprit, not to mention the absence of the dynamic brass section. When you listen to their recording on either the Flamingoh or Debo Band albums or, better yet, go see them in concert, the band is an entirely different, and wild beast. As Shawn Brackbill of NPR put it: “The blend is best imbibed on a sweaty club floor late at night.”
My favorite tracks from the latest Debo album are actually their three originals: “D.C. Flower” , “Not Just a Song”, and “And Lay,” but I also recommend “Asha Gedawo” and “Tenesh Kelbe Lay” for their high-energy, thrilling interpretations of Ethiopian music. Debo Band seems to be following in the footsteps of the Either/Orchestra who, also based out of Boston, really started the big band, Ethiopia-US diaspora concept by releasing their Ethiopian Suite in 2000. Of course the 27 volume Ethiopiques series that Buda Records has been rolling out since circa 2000 surely offers the Debo artists a generous amount of guidance and inspiration, as well other greats such as Mulatu Astatke and our very own, DC-based Teshome Meteku.
One thing is for sure, though. Debo Band is on the rise to become a great new force in the evolution of global Ethiopian music.