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Review: The Debo Band Live

Artisphere - Arlington, VA - 1/10/13

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Debo Band Performs at Artisphere, Arlington, VA

Debo Band Performs at Artisphere, Arlington, VA

(c) Rob Hillard, 2013 / Licensed to About.com

In time, all music comes full circle.

Having originally been introduced to the music of East Africa through Mulatu Astatke’s inclusion on the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s soundtrack for the 2005 film Broken Flowers, it was only a matter of time before I would find my way to the voluminous Ethiopiques series. That acclaimed 20-volume series from Buda Musique is treasure trove of East African music, especially for those seeking a deeper dip into the golden age of Ethiopian popular music and the swinging sounds that reigned supreme in Addis Ababa through the late '60s and early '70s.

Right about the same time that Broken Flowers was released to DVD, the foundations were laid in Boston for an invigorating reemergence of the rich and heady sounds of Ethiopian music. Drawing inspiration in part from the Ethiopiques series, saxophonist Danny Mekonnen and vocalist Bruck Tesfaye originally formed the Debo Band as a one-off trio. But over the course of the next several years, including two prominent festival appearances in Africa, the trio expanded to an 11-piece orchestra. And with last year’s release of their critically-acclaimed eponymous studio debut, they Debo Band has established itself, not only as the premiere Ethiopian dance band in the US, but as one of the most respected in the world.

So with this in mind, I fully embraced the opportunity to witness the Debo Band’s recent headlining appearance at the state-of-the art Artisphere ballroom in Arlington, Virginia. Sitting just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, this also meant the opportunity to share the moment with the increasingly large and influential Ethiopian population of Washington, DC, where it is estimated that one out of five African immigrants originate from the East African nation.

Right out of the gate, Tesfaye and the band set the tone for the night with their thrilling rework of Mahmoud Ahmed’s "Asha Gedawo," one of the highlights of their new CD and an infectious invitation to partake in ecstatic shake. The initial reluctance of the crowd quickly dissipated as the band continued with the slinky funk of "Lantchi Biye" (from their 2010 live EP, Flamingoh) and the festive jump of "Oromo." Tesfaye frequently wove through the crowd, encouraging them to display their impressive skills at modern variations of traditional Ethiopian dance, most notably the rhythmic shimmy style that derives from Guragigna. At moments, the dancers upstaged the band, much to band’s desire and delight.

In time, the Debo Band transcended the space and one could imagine the rich atmosphere of an azmari bet in the heyday of Ethiopian music, especially as the brass and wind section tore through a fiery rendition of Alemayehu Eshete’s "Addis Ababa Bete," which featured some wicked riffs by tenor saxophonist Gabe Birnbaum.

Tesfaye stood alone at mid-set, giving most of the band a break as he vocalized his take on Alemu Aga’s "Medinanna Zelesegna." The chant-like delivery in the Amharic language was reminiscent of a Jewish piyyut, and the respite was both enchanting and relaxing.

The second half of the set focused more heavily on their recent album, from Mekonnen’s soaring "And Lay" to Jonah Rapino’s dizzying salute to "Habesha," the broad cultural reference for Eritrean and Ethiopian immigrants. Modern interpretations of Muluqen Mèlèssè’s "Tenesh Kelbe Lay," Mahmoud Ahmed’s "Belomi Benna," and Sahle Degago’s "Yefeker Wegagene" kept the audience enthralled and dancing, right up until the final swinging notes of Alemayehu Eshete’s intoxicating "Ney Ney Weleba."

For myself and many others in the room, it had been more than an opportunity to experience a glimpse back in time to Ethiopia’s golden age. Rather, it was a reminder that era provides a pathway towards the future, one that is in strong hands with the Debo Band.

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