Debo Band deliver Boston to a world stage

Great expectations
By JONATHAN DONALDSON  |  July 3, 2012

debo band
GLOBAL MARKET Debo Band's upcoming self-titled full-length is the first international-music record to be conceived and recorded with Sub Pop's involvement at every step. 

It's no mystery that the the refreshing clarity, lightness, intricacy, and vibration of Debo Band's forthcoming homonymous debut album is worthy of all of the space dedicated to this article. But how exactly, or why, did an international 11-piece band that plays a uniquely modern but authentic blend of Ethiopian music and sings mostly in Amharic get signed to Sub Pop, the indiest of indie-rock labels?

The story starts in January 2011, when manager (and former Boston booker) Dan Hirsch hooked Debo Band into the 2011 Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference in New York. Known as the SXSW for performing-arts-geared acts (think ArtsEmerson or the Celebrity Series), the conference provided Debo Band with the opportunity to meet Sub Pop A&R rep John Kertzer. Along with being one of the founders of Seattle's Bumbershoot festival, Kertzer is the host of Seattle-based KEXP's The Best Ambiance African music-themed radio show; and since Kertzer and Sub Pop head Jonathan Poneman had just formed a new international imprint of Sub Pop called Next Ambiance, Debo Band were officially the right band in the right place at the right time.

Soon Kertzer was bombing KEXP's airwaves with their music. At SXSW in March, it was none other than Poneman himself who came at Kertzer's urging to see Debo Band's showcase. "Afterwards he came up to me and said, 'Hey, I'm Jonathan Poneman and I work at Sub Pop' or something ridiculous like that," recalls Debo Band founder and saxophonist Danny Mekonnen at Jamaica Plain's Ula Café. It was a pinch-me moment. "I was like, 'Whoa! I know who you are!' " It turned out to be a banner year for the band, with performances at the 2011 SXSW, the Montreal Jazz Festival, Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center. But none topped the opportunity of recording just the third album for Next Ambience's catalog — following Mali's Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba and Honduras's Aurelio.

According to Mekonnen, a cool-demeanored, hyper-articulate Ethiopian-American who grew up in Texas before moving to Boston after college to further his avant-jazz musical studies, Debo Band is the first international-music record to be conceived and recorded with Sub Pop's involvement at every step. Out July 10, it was recorded at Pawtucket's Machines with Magnets studio (which produced Battles, Deer Tick, and others). The label funding and support gave them the time and space to give their new recordings power and clarity not otherwise easily afforded. Vocalist Bruck Tesfaye's tremolo glides fluidly through lean, funky rhythmic fields. Sharp lines from horns and violins bolster one another against unpredictable guitars. Instruments like sousaphone and traditional Ethiopian embilta flutes refresh the ear as each song develops a different rhythm and personality from the one before.

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