A Wild Ethiopian Dance Party with Debo Band at Lincoln Center
Debo Band are Lincoln Center favorites. They’ve put on some pretty volcanic shows at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, and their performance at the atrium space there last night was as fun to watch and take in as a listener as it must have been for the dancers who packed the center of the space in front of the stage. Ethiopian dance music as a rule tends to have a hypnotic quality, and the ten-piece group’s lavish arrangements went pretty deep into psychedelia, to the point where it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing what. Was that otherworldly, oscillating lead coming from Endris Hassen’s massenqo fiddle? Nope. That was Brendon Wood’s guitar. Was that snaky, almost subsonic pulse coming from bassist PJ Goodwin, who was celebrating his birthday? No. That turned out be sousaphone player Arik Grier.
They opened with a couple of undulating triplet grooves ablaze with horns, drummer Adam Clark edging toward a classic 70s disco shuffle groove on the second number. Suave frontman frontman Bruck Tesfaye wasted no time getting rid of the mic stand in front of him to encourage the dancers to congregate closer to the stage, and they followed his lead. From there the band rose from a digeridoo-like drone as the rhythm slowly coalesced, the fiddle circling like a vulture overhead; then they lept into a briskly funky, New Orleans-tinged stomp.
To western ears, one of the most ominous-sounding, chromatically-charged numbers was fueled by cumulo-nimbus low brass, Tesfaye’s shivery, melismatic vocals and capped off by a feral Gabriel Birnbaum tenor sax solo. The song’s title? Amharic for “laughter” Like their brothers in Russia and the Balkans, Ethiopians equate minor modes with energy and excitement rather than sadness.
The first of the night’s three covers featured a wickedly catchy chromatic horn riff over a steady, driving backbeat from Clark; the band took it out with a misterioso ambience as the rhythm echoed and then disappeared.Sax player Danny Mekonnen, who’d switched from baritone to tenor, explained that the next number, based on an Okinawan folk song, was inspired by the Ethiopian soldiers sent to aid the Allies in the Korean War, who returned home with a new fondness for Asian sounds. Which make sense, considering that both Ethiopian and much of Asian music employ similar pentatonic scales.
After that, the band romped through Blue Awaze, their reinvention of Duke Elington’s Blue Pepper from the 1966 Far East Suite, the kind of mashup that the Ellington Orchestra and popular Addis Abbaba group the Police Orchestra could have jammed out the night that the American jazz icon played the city on a State Department-sponsored tour.
The crowd was full of New York music cognoscenti. Brooklyn Lutherie fiddle maven Chloe Swantner was in the house, as were at least half of blissful Morrocan trance-dance group Innov Gnawa. Tesfaye got everybody to do the Rock Lobster, up and down, B-52’s style, a couple of times. Throughout the show, there were plenty of edgy solos and some knifes-edge jousting between group members. Hassen built a swirling, upper-register tornado with his massenqo; later, accordionist Marie Abe took centerstage with her acidically shifting sheets of sound. The group wound up the roughly ninety-minute party with a couple of fiery dancefloor numbers, each with a deliriously circling, leaping groove much in the same vein as qawwali music.
Debo Band continue on their current US tour; dates are here. The next bigtime dance party at the Lincoln Center Atrium is on Nov 17 at 7:30 PM with Brooklyn funksters Igbo opening for charismatic, EWF-influenced retro 70s soul/funk personality Boulevards. Since these events are popular, getting to the space early is always a good idea.