It’d be a hard sell for some: an 11-piece band from Boston, led by an ethnomusicologist, plundering the Ethiopian jazz, pop and folk vaults. It could’ve been so academic, so worthy, so deferent – musical tourism stomping all over the legacy with a big clumsy carbon footprint. Debo Band’s self-titled debut album is none of these things. Unstroke that chin – you’ll need all your limbs free for jerky dancing, air saxophone and trying your best to clap through the polyrhythms.
The ethnomusicologist in question is Danny Mekonnen – Ethiopian by heritage, born in Sudan and raised in the US. As a foundation stone, saxophonist and band leader Mekonnen mines Ethiopia’s ’60s and ’70s ‘Golden Age’ of the capital Addis Ababa, where American jazz and soul twinned with traditional folk to create a whole new movement, compiled on the epic Ethiopiques reissue series – 27 CDs since 1998 and counting.
The past is only a stepping stone though – with the help of Gogol Bordello’s Thomas Gobena producing, re-jigs of Golden Age classics mix freely with original compositions and tributes to Debo Band’s favourite Ethio-jazz lynchpins. Traditional jazz arrangements are bolstered by filthy wah-wah guitars, eastern European Klezmer and Romany strings and Deep South accordion and brass squalls. They can flit from the exotic waltz of ‘Yeketer Wegagene’ and the post-punk leanings of ‘Asha Gedawo’ to their frantic take on Alemeyehu Eshete’s ‘Ney-Ney Weleba’, which sounds like Mr Bungle and Zu have just gatecrashed the party. Keeping with tradition, vocalist Bruck Tesfaye does sing in the Ethiopian language Amharic, but manages to sound like Tool’s James Maynard Keenan while he’s at it.
The self-explanatory ‘Not Just a Song’ is Debo Band’s call to arms, with its tribal drums, handclaps, Celtic whistles, and group chant of: “How can we hope to right what is wrong?” That’s the one we’ll be singing when Debo Band export a little bit of Ethiopia to festival fields over here. It might be a too late to snap them up for this summer, but promoters need to get on the case for 2013.