(NPR) Boston’s Debo Band takes inspiration from a golden era of popular music in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. During a brief period of cultural freedom in Ethiopia, funk and soul music fused spectacularly with local traditions. Debo Band’s debut album both honors and updates the sound of “swinging Addis.”
On “Asha Gedawo,” the sunny swing of a brass section playing in march time echoes the military bands of Ethiopia’s regal past. Bruck Tesfaye’s lead vocal brings in an element of Ethiopian folklore and a shot of American soul. This is the sound that made Addis swing, until a military coup in 1974 put an end to an extraordinary music scene.
Debo Band’s founder, Danny Mekonnen, was born in Sudan and grew up in Texas, learning about the golden age of Ethiopian pop through recordings. He says Debo Band aims to reinvent old sounds, not just reproduce them. The band adds sousaphone, accordion, electric guitar and violins to the lineup. And the players are strong, capable of improvising their way to the edges of free jazz.
Debo Band can extend into full rave mode, an ecstatic place beyond even the wildest hybrids of Addis in the ’70s. But at its core, this group remains true to that lost Ethiopian sound.
Debo Band is as much orchestra as a dance band. Its brass section can rally with Tower of Power force and polish, and lock into grooving hooks worthy of Nigerian Afrobeat. But the distinctive scales and harmonies are unmistakably Ethiopian.
Almost no band on the international circuit plays this style of music, and it’s a potent niche. But too much fidelity to a 40-year-old pop style can be limiting. If this album leans more toward reverence than revolution, that’s appropriate for Debo Band’s first outing. Given their energy and talent, these musicians have room to grow, and there’s no telling where they’ll take their magnificent sound next.