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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Debo Band brings Ethiopian-American musical fusion to Milwaukee

Zenash Belay of Fendika dances with musicians of Debo Band in concert. Photo courtesy Peter Bennett.

Take Ethiopian ’70s pop. Add some American funk. Toss in an accordion, saxophone, strings.

The result: an unlikely, yet brilliant synthesis. Debo Band.

This Boston-based Ethiopian rock band will combine forces with native Ethiopian group Fendika to showcase their culture this Saturday at multicultural festival Global Union, sponsored by Alverno Presents.

Ethiopian-American Danny Mekonnen started Debo Band in 2006 as a way to connect to his roots. Although he grew up in the United States, Mekonnen was exposed to plenty of Ethiopian culture, including music, by his native parents.

When Mekonnen moved to Boston, Mass. to be a part of its music scene, he met musicians like himself who were checking out “Ethiopiques,” a series of albums that compiled Ethiopian pop music from the 1960s and 1970s.

Mekonnen said “Ethiopiques” was influential in the creation of Debo Band because it was the most convenient place for people to find Ethiopian music, no matter what their backgrounds were.

“One of the things we tried to do with Debo Band is to bring together the Ethiopian community in Boston with the American community in Boston,” Mekonnen said.

His success in that area is made evident by the band’s composition, a mix of members with Ethiopian heritage and American musicians without cultural ties to the music, and is reflected in the name of the band as well. “Debo” means both “for the communal labor” and “collective effort” in Amharic (Ethiopia’s national language), which Mekonnen said is particularly appropriate to the group.

The group’s sound is a cultural amalgam as well, mixing the sounds of ’60s and ’70s Ethiopian pop with American funk and soul influences.

“I don’t think there is any band out there that sounds like us,” Mekonnen said.

The group incorporates a variety of instruments, including horns, violins, guitars, drums and even accordion and saxophone parts like those used in traditional Ethiopian music. But while instrumentation is important to their sound, Debo Band isn’t instrumental, featuring a vocalist as well.

“So much of the music from the ’70s is pop music, so the lyrics are very important,” Mekonnen said. “We didn’t want to have just an instrumental band.”

Aside from its unlikely combination of musical styles, what makes Debo Band so distinct is its ability to embrace the roots of its music through cross-cultural collaboration.

That collaboration has been made easier by two trips the group took to Africa, their most recent in February 2010. Their first trip was in May 2009, when Francis Flacet, editor of the “Ethiopiques” series, invited them to perform at the 8th Ethiopian Music Festival.

It was during this trip when the band began working with Fendika and its group leader Melaku Belay.

“He (Belay) has performed with a lot of bands internationally,” Mekonnen said. “He is really interested in collaboration and in taking the music in a new direction.”

Belay has made a name for himself as one of the top dancers in Ethiopia and has performed in more than 40 international concerts in the last three years. He created Fendika, comprised of a male and female dance duo, vocalist and drummer, in conjunction with a nightclub to promote traditional Ethiopian music.

Ever since performing with Fendika in Ethiopia last year, Mekonnen has wanted to share the collaboration with audiences in the United States, and their current tour, promoting new EP “Flamingoh” gives him that chance.

“Fendika adds a real, authentic, traditional element to what we do on stage,” Mekonnen said. “I think they embody the best of folk music, which is adding your own modern take on it and making the folk music your own.”

David Ravel, director of Alverno Presents, said the partnership of Debo Band and Fendika is partly what gives this tour its appeal. The fact that artists are traveling all the way from Africa makes the partnership the perfect performance at a global music festival.

“This tour is a very special tour because it’s not just the Debo Band … it’s the combined forces of Debo and Fendika,” Ravel said.

Belay said he is looking forward to performing with Debo Band again and promoting Ethiopian culture and tradition through music and dance.

“I am very lucky to work with them because their orchestration would be very difficult to find in Ethiopia,” Belay said. “Their music is amazing.”

Debo Band and Fendika will be performing at the Global Union festival Saturday, Sept. 25 at 4 p.m. The festival is at Humboldt Park from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. and runs from Saturday to Sunday with musical performances from five other groups.

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