Danny Mekonnen: Debo, Ethiopian pop and remix culture

by Patrick Lauppe

Editor note: This post was originally published as a preview to an academic conference that was canceled due to weather earlier this year. The performance details have been updated in the introduction, but the post remains in its original form.

Danny Mekonnen is an alumnus of Harvard’s Music Department and the leader of Debo Band, a Boston group with a jazzy, energetic and critically acclaimed take on the Ethiopian pop music of the 1960s and 1970s. This tradition gained world popularity in the 1990s through Éthiopiques, a series of releases on the French record label Buda Musique. Debo Band will perform 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 7 at Lowell Hall, and is co-sponsored by the Office for the Arts and produced by the Mahindra Humanities Center. FMI click here.

What do you think of the fact that your concert is taking place in the context of an academic conference? How do you think this environment is going to affect the way people listen to your music?

A lot of what’s going to be discussed in the conference about the issues and trends in African music is very close to what my research interests were when I was in a Masters program with the Harvard Music Department. These related to Ethiopian pop music primarily, especially the effects of globalization and remix culture. Therefore, on a personal level, I’m really excited about this conference. And now as a band leader, I’m excited that we’ll have an informed, educated, and interested audience there. This concert is a nice combination of everything I’ve been working on for the last five or six years.

What do you think the tradition of Ethiopian pop music brings to the international stage? What do you think is special about this music that you want people across the world to hear?

What this music has as its essence is a celebration of life. The music is very lively; it’s high-spirited and exciting. Though much about this music is unfamiliar to some people—different rhythms and musical scales—what comes across is a certain joyousness. What the band does is encourage people to get together and to learn about each other through the music. Of course there are aspects that are specific to it, for instance, its musical history, its important figures and its politics. Regardless, at its core, I think it’s really about bringing joy into our lives and making us take the time to slow down and celebrate.

One of the most interesting questions on the conference’s itinerary is that of collaboration versus appropriation. How do you go about maintaining the original authenticity and a sense of the origin of this music while presenting it on an international scale?

That’s a question that we’ve been grappling with, and it’s a really important one. Whether you’re talking about scholarship that’s based on ethnomusicology and interviews, or you’re talking about presenting this music on the world stage, you’re always going to be dealing with issues of power and representation. I think that what you’ve got to do is approach every situation with humility and openness. The best thing you can do is to create opportunities for collaboration. These conferences are a good example, which are free and open to the public, and the list of panelists includes everyone from academics, to presenters, to people who run record labels, to musicians, to DJs. I think that you really have to bring everyone together to discuss this issue.

One thing that your website makes clear is that there are also elements of American soul and funk as well as Eastern European brass bands in your band’s renditions of Ethiopian pop music. What are you trying to accomplish in infusing these international influences?

A lot of what we’re doing is bringing elements that might be more on the periphery of Ethiopian music to the center. In a way, it’s what DJs and producers do when they remix: taking elements that they like from something and amplifying them, or putting them under a microscope. That’s part of what this fusion of different styles is. At the heart of it all, we have our traditional elements in place. I think that once you know your roots, you can expand beyond them.

[Caption: Danny Mekonnen (center foreground) is founder and frontman for Debo Band. ]