Debo Band / The Relatives
There’s something dangerous about tales of a Golden Age: especially a brief one. The so-called Golden Age of Ethiopian popular music (or Ethio-jazz, or Ethio-groove) lasted less than a decade. It took hold in the late 1960s in the cosmopolitan circles of Addis Ababa, fed by exposure to American soul and jazz, and boosted by the return of the Berklee College of Music-trained bandleader and arranger Mulatu Astatke. A blossoming scene produced, refined and sprouted new branches of a hitherto unheard synthesis of jazz (and Latin music) with Ethiopian pentatonic scales, distilled by brass-heavy bands adding guitar, vibraphone, and organ. But the 1974 coup that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie plunged Ethiopia into a long and difficult period of military rule and civil war. The swank nightlife of Addis shut down; the musicians scattered and the moment passed.
So the story goes. And it’s not wrong, in its broad outline. Certainly something special transpired in those years in Addis. The era produced an ample trove of recordings that now, decades later, have started to emerge from their hiding places, thanks to projects like the Ethiopiques series, curated by French producer Francis Falceto, and, not least, to the foresight of the Addis players and impresarios of the time who held onto the tapes as they dispersed around the world. The richness—the sheer grooviness—of this work and the seemingly bottomless reserve of material has made Ethio-jazz, not unlike Fela Kuti-era Afrobeat, the target of a growing field of cover and revival projects in hip precincts from New York to Tokyo to Amsterdam.
Debo Band takes a different approach. No doubt, eminences of that time—Astatke; singers Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahun Gessesse, Alemayehu Eshete, Bezunesh Bekele—are core inspirations to bandleader Danny Mekonnen, lead singer Bruck Tesfaye and their nine partners in the Boston-based outfit. So are other bands and players of the period to whom history has been less kind. Mekonnen, an ethnomusicologist by training, speaks with awe of the moment he received several hundred MP3s from an elder in Washington, D.C. (that hub of the Ethiopian diaspora). Other Debo members, like electric violinist Jonah Rapino, credit Ethiopiques for making them aware of the sound. And this album includes songs (some traditional) that one or another of these icons performed in their time, alongside material from the repertoire of Azmari praise-singers, and Debo originals.
Call it Gospel Funk! In truth, the sound of The Relatives is so much more. Formed in 1970 by veteran Dallas Gospel singer Rev. Gean West and his brother Tommie, The Relatives’ sound bridges the gap between traditional Gospel, Soul and Psychedelia. In the early 1970’s, they recorded three obscure singles and a previously unreleased session—all of which are compiled on the acclaimed 2009 anthology, Don’t Let Me Fall. The release of the anthology brought The Relatives back together as a band, planting the seeds for their 2013 Yep Roc release, The Electric Word, which was recorded and produced by Jim Eno of Spoon.
The Relatives are spawned from the same fervent Pentecostal tradition that begat Elder Utah Smith. In the 1950's and 60's, the West family were Dallas Gospel royalty and often hosted traveling musicians including a young Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, Lou Rawls, and O.V. Wright. Rev. Tommie recalls climbing a tree to watch Soul Stirrer Sam Cooke play guitar and sing on their front porch. When Rev. Gean returned home from 1970 tour, a young Tommie had written a song in a new voice influenced as much by traditional Gospel quartets as it was James Brown and Hendrix. "Speak to Me (What's Wrong With America?)" marked the beginning of The Relatives and a new musical direction, dubbed the "Street Sound" by Rev. Gean. The group quickly realized that their contemporary sound would get them bookings in nightclubs as well as churches. As Rev. Gean says, "If the people won't come to church, we'll bring church to the people."