Local band signs to famous label

November 18, 2011
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Debo Band, a Jamaica Plain-based Ethiopian music group, has signed to an imprint of the famous record label Sub Pop.

The nine-piece band inspired by Ethiopian dance music of the 1970s, signed last month with Sub Pop’s international music imprint Next Ambiance. It is currently recording its first full-length album, which it hopes to release in 2012.

Sub Pop is a Seattle-based record label most famous for launching grunge rock superstars Nirvana and Soundgarden.

“It reflects that we have one foot in the indie world and one foot in the world music world,” Danny Mekonnen, the group’s Ethiopian-American bandleader, said of the Sub Pop signing.

Mekonnen said the deal came about after the head of Next Ambiance, Jon Kertzer, saw Debo play at a showcase in New York and Sub Pop head Jonathan Poneman saw them play at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas last year.

Kertzer was excited about the band, Mekonnen said, because Debo is “easily accessible geographically, but also because a number of us are Americans, that makes us easier for an American audience to relate to and talk to linguistically and culturally.”

In addition to performing renditions of Ethiopia’s “golden age” popular music of the 1970s, Debo takes inspiration from those tunes and composes original songs, Mekonnen said.

Debo’s line up includes accordion, sousaphone and trombone and features an Ethiopian vocalist. On its website, the band is described as “immersed in the unlikely confluence of traditional East African polyrhythms and pentatonic scales, classic American soul and funk music, and the instrumentation of Eastern European brass bands.”

They have twice traveled to Ethiopia and developed ongoing collaborations with artists there.

Mekonnen credited JP and Ethiopia as the cultural centers that spawned the band, noting that seven of the group’s members are from JP’s fertile and sophisticated music scene.

While he admitted that record labels do not have the same cultural cache they used to, Mekonnen said he believes the Sub Pop affiliation will expand Debo’s audience. And, he said, he is hopeful that the resources the deal provides will make running the band fulltime a “sustainable” enterprise. Mekonnen said running the band has been a full-time gig for him for at least the last year. He is also the primary caregiver for his 2-year-old child.

While he said it is unlikely that the Sub Pop deal itself will provide cash for another trip to Ethiopia, he said he could see a Sub Pop-backed European tour generating the funds to keep the band interacting with the Ethiopian music scene.