Take nine disparate musicians who play everything from electric guitar to sousaphone. Add a lead singer who usually sings in Amharic, which, despite being the main language of Ethiopia, is going to sound deeply obscure to a non-Ethiopian audience. Mix in traditional and modern Ethiopian songs and a handful of originals. Step back and let the groove roll out.
Despite all apparent barriers, Debo Band — a group from Boston founded by Ethiopian-American saxophonist Danny Mekonnen — is charged up on a beguiling mix of riotous energy and sinuous swing. Its amazing singer is Bruck Tesfaye, whose voice swoops and flutters brilliantly while he stitches hundreds of tiny ornaments into his melodic lines with easy grace. The blend is best imbibed on a sweaty club floor late at night, but plenty of fire still comes through on this self-titled album debut.
Debo Band’s music is inspired by the heady perfume of the phenomenal music scene that existed in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, in the 1960s and early 1970s. Crate diggers have long feasted on this sound, especially via the Ethiopiques reissues curated by French producer Francis Falceto.
But the particular beauty of Debo Band is that you don’t have to be an ethnomusicologist to love it: It’s all about the groove. Debo Band transforms that Ethopian sound through the filter of its members’ collective subconscious as imaginative and plugged-in 21st-century musicians. Klezmer-haunted wails dart in and out between disco thumps. The swooning, hot romance of “Yefeker Wegagene” bursts up from the same ground as the funky horns of “Ney Ney Weleba.” From that hazy shimmer of musical heat from faraway Addis, a thoroughly American sound emerges.