Listen to any one of the tracks from Debo Band’s self-titled album and you’ll hear it: Moments, even the broiling hot ones, are meant to be celebrated, not endured. Raise your arms, loosen your body, and find wild joy in the passing of time.
UTA alumni Danny Mekonnen founded Debo (pronounced “debbo”) Band in 2006, three years after moving to Boston to pursue graduate studies in ethnomusicology at Harvard University.
“It was a time in my life where I was searching for something,” he says. “Debo Bandstarted almost as a community project; we were like a practice band.”
“Debo” is an Amharic word that means communal labor or collective effort, and that is precisely what Debo Band is. Mekonnen and 10 friends who share similar musical interests got together and began exploring the sounds of 1970s Ethiopian music: funk– and jazz-influenced, heavy on the groove.
While Mekonnen, an Ethiopian-American, grew up listening to the kind of music Debo Band performs, his interest in creating the sound himself was sparked when he took a trip to Ghana with the UTA Africa program in the summer of 2003.
“It re-opened my ears to the music of Africa,” he says. “I got more and more interested in returning to my roots.”
With a few more years of studying music under his belt and a growing network of people in Boston who were in some way connected to Ethiopia, the time was right. His music collective gathered and began defining its sound: music that galvanizes, that celebrates, that just plain urges you to get up and dance.
“Six years in the making, it really feels like we’ve created an original voice, a unique approach, to Ethiopian music,” he says.
Their infectiously energetic sound has found a home with Next Ambiance, an imprint of indie record label Sub Pop, which launched Nirvana and Soundgarden in their heydays, and most recently The Shins. Reviews of Debo Band’s live show are universally positive. Take a recent review from All Songs Considered, NPR’s web-only music program: “What’s amazing about Debo Band is that they play that music (Ethiopian pop) without any sort of…precious reverence… They play it like it’s NOW, as music of right now, and they play it with incredible energy and passion and excellence. And it just totally rocks. It’s amazing.”
Debo Band has taken its live show pretty much everywhere: the Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, Montreal Jazz Fest, Chicago, New Orleans, and twice to Ethiopia, among many others. This year Debo Band was a standout act at South by Southwest in Austin, one of the largest music festivals in the United States, with nearly 2,000 bands performing. Their searing performance got the attention of SPIN, a popular music magazine, who named the band’s showcase a highlight of the six-day festival.
Mekonnen acknowledges that the group is combating some of the negative perceptions of Ethiopia—war, famine, poverty, AIDS—through its music.
“We’re really telling the other part of the story,” he says. “There is also truly vibrant, celebratory music there, and that’s what we’re here to communicate and to honor. It’s an affirmation of life.”