I might as well get it out of the way at the beginning: Debo Band is not world music. Debo Band is something far more interesting and complex than the safe, de-contextualized commodification of music from the perceived golden age of another country sold in coffeeshop chains to cool dads wearing Keds and visors. Debo Band, organized by saxophonist and leader Danny Mekonnen back in 2006, is a band whose music, though it may initially sound foreign to ears weaned on indie rock, can trace its roots through almost every arena of American music. Since its inception, the band has been deeply involved in the DIY scene in Boston, playing loft parties and rock venues for the young and artistically inclined, while at the same time securing touring grants from respectable institutes like the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. They have performed with and befriended brilliant Dutch anarcho-punx The Ex, who themselves have developed quite an interest in Ethiopian music, collaborating with legendary woolly-toned saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya on their last album.
What is remarkable and just plain sweet about Debo Band is that they manage to straddle a lot of seemingly contradictory positions. On the one hand, their music is deeply traditional, including a lot of covers of Ethiopian folk and pop songs from decades ago, yet on the other it is staunchly contemporary, incorporating original compositions and traces of the individual members other projects, which range from the dramatic post-rock silent-film soundtracks of the Devil Music Ensemble to the dancehall derived experimental electronica of sometime percussionist Daniel D’Errico’s Kiddid project. Even at it’s very inception Debo Band was both a tribute to the Swinging Addis era of Ethiopian music and an outlet for Mekonnen (who is also on his way to an ethnomusicology PhD at Harvard) to experiment with new forms and methods in composition. They play party music and art music at the same time, something uncommon and wonderful that they share with some of the best musicians in pop history as well as a lot of electronic contemporaries. This convergence of art and party is something exemplified by artists like Dan Deacon with his composition-induced dance frenzies as well as the whole booming dubstep scene, and as such it makes perfect sense that Debo Band should collaborate with Kiddid on this digital single. They both know how to make you get up and move.
Organizationally, Debo Band actually bears a resemblance to one of those enormous pop music collectives people always refer to as “ramshackle,” the word ramshackle basically being code for the fact that the band drops and adds members so fast no one can actually keep track of who is in the fold at any given moment. Debo Band live usually consists of between nine and twelve members, playing the sort of Ethio-soul that American audiences, myself included, have recently been hipped to by the fantastic Ethiopiques series (or the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” [it’s okay, you can admit it]). The largely acoustic instrumentation (drums, tuba, accordion, horns, strings and vocals) is a nod that goes a touch further back than the early 70s sound of Mulatu Astatke’s electric Ethio-jazz , all the way to the brass band style that captivated the country back in the first half of the 20th century, during the reign of Haile Selassie.
The A-side here is a stirring live performance of “Aderech Arada”, an Ethiopian song about a woman breaking out of her lawful marriage, traveling to Arada (a central area of Addis Ababa that also happens to be a red-light district) and falling into sin. You know, the usual. The time feel is a kind of loping 12/8 (actually 15/8 for much of this particular tune, if you want to get technical) that is very common in Debo Band’s music, as well as in most Ethiopian pop and traditional music. It pulls back hard whilst keeping the bass drum and hi-hat clicking on the downbeats. The result is a kind of tautly stretched and rolling time feel that locks in perfectly with the wonderfully twitchy and propulsive Ethiopian eskista shoulder dance commonly performed alongside the music.
The track is smartly arranged by Mekonnen, who keeps each element from intruding on the others, yet mingles them into a satisfying whole. The accordion, the only chordal instrument here, takes on more of a melodic role, leaving a lot of open space for the drums and lilting tuba (that phrase sounds ridiculous but listen to the track and tell me that is not lilting) to carry the tense, bouncing rhythm while the horns blare out the melodies in quick, bold strokes. The call and response that happens between horns and vocals in the verses during the second half of the song is a perfect arranging touch, both propulsive and unobtrusive. The vocals themselves (headed by lead singer Bruck Tesfaye, whose verse statements are answered by a chorus of keening female voices) are loaded with ornaments and a rapid vibrato which, alongside the complexity of the alternating glottal and geminated consonants, has the effect of making me sound kind of dumb when I sing along. The track is pulled from an upcoming compilation entitled 8th Ethiopian Music(s) Festival 2009, featuring as artistic director the prestigious overseer of the Ethiopiques series, Francis Falceto. The recording, done by Jeroen Visser of the Swiss F.ishing B.akery L.abs, is amazingly clean and clear for a live performance.
The B-side is Kiddid’s remix of the very same track, a perfect illustration of the past/future, roots/wings kind of confluence Debo Band epitomizes. The opening horn salvo is left intact, leading not into the rolling, organic feel of the live version but rather into a four four backbeat with a fuzzy, unchanging bass pulse that sits perfectly between a shuffle and straight time. Part of me is convinced that the key to good dance music is that it hovers in this middle ground between time feels, much in the way that early rock and roll (Chuck Berry, for example) combined straight eighth guitar solos with swung drums. After a sparse vocal breakdown that turns the chorus of the song into something almost sinister and creepy, setting it over only metronomic ticks, the beat kicks back in, mirroring the Debo Band version by backing the horns with only the drums and aforementioned bass pulse. In this way, Kiddid shares the sparseness that is central to Debo Band’s entire sound, though here it is transformed into something you’d expect to hear at a hip dance night with a one-word name. Throughout almost the entire track there is also a barely perceptible, scratchy, old-vinyl sound, perhaps a jokey reference to the impossible-to-determine age of the original recording.
What with the fracturing of culture brought on by the endless choices of the internet, music is becoming increasingly segregated and niche-oriented, but the real gold is the stuff that opens its arms to all influences and all audiences. Debo Band, in their work with Kiddid and in their collaborations with traditional Ethiopian musicians, in their performances at Ethiopian festivals and Boston loft parties, perfectly synthesizes their influences into something with the kind of musicianship that will please the traditionalists and the kind of forward-looking openness that will satisfy the young bucks. Go see them live and practice your eskista.