If you don’t yet know about Debo Band then you are truly missing out! The band, whose sound is unlike anything you’ve ever heard before, is made up of 11 different talented artist and wrangled together by Ethiopian-American saxophonist Danny Mekonnen. Debo Band performs Ethiopian pop music, but don’t be too confused because the rhythm and soul of their music is inspired by a staggering number of genres and sounds. Latin Times was lucky enough to sit down with Danny Mekonnen to discuss how Debo Band got its start, what they are all about, and most importantly, what is next for the groundbreaking group!

How did you start playing music?

I started playing saxophone at age 12 in middle school bands back when they were supported widely across the United States. I'm fortunate that I had a good public school music education because I was not able to begin private studies until I was 16.

What were you doing before Debo Band’s inception in 2006?

I moved to Boston in September 2003 just after graduating from the University of Texas in Arlington with a bachelor's degree in jazz studies. From 2003 to 2006, I was getting settled in the Boston area playing music with several groups, studying privately with a few different teachers and beginning my graduate music studies at Harvard University. It was a busy and productive few years.

How did you all find each other?

In 2005, I connected with Bruck Tesfaye, who at the time president of an Ethiopian student group in Boston. Soon after we met, his organization was hosting a national conference of Ethiopian students and planned a talent show. I put a group together to perform a few songs and this grew into one of the cores of Debo. Around this time, I also met Arik Grier, Debo ­founding member and tuba player, through Bikes Not Bombs, a progressive advocacy group and bike shop in Jamaica Plain (their work focuses on youth empowerment and international development in Nicaragua and Ghana, among other places). Arik was the office manager and volunteer coordinator, and I was training to become a youth programs instructor. We started sharing ideas about music and Arik introduced me to like­minded members of his musical community.

What is the band chemistry like?

I've really enjoyed watching this develop over the last few years. We're a group of good friends that come from different musical circles and backgrounds yet somehow our chemistry stays healthy and grows with each tour. I would expect a lot more drama from an 11­piece touring band but it's been smooth for the most part.

Give us a rundown of an average rehearsal. Are all 11 of you in the studio at one time?

There are usually 8 to 9 people at rehearsals -- it's almost impossible to get all 11 of us in the same time and space. One person usually brings an arrangement or musical idea to try out. The others in the group will add their musical input to the arrangement. New material grows in live performance and we return to the practice space to discuss how to improve or further develop from there.

What is your favorite song off the album and why?

I don't have a favorite song, but I love the "D.C. Flower" because it grew in a way very different from the rest -- almost entirely in the studio with overdubbed interlocking flutes called imbiltas and goat skinned drums called kebero. I also love the song "Ambassel" because of the spacious vibe we were able to create. Those two have a special place in my heart. 

What is your preferred venue: something intimate like a Mercury Lounge or the larger festival stages at Bonnaroo?

All venues offer something unique but I have a fondness for smaller more intimate spaces like Mercury Lounge.

In a world of electronic pop reigning supreme, and radio hits growing more and more popular, how important do you think Debo Band is to the next generation’s experience with music?

I think as electronic pop reigns supreme, the next generation will continue to be drawn to groups that focus on the performance of live instruments. The last few years we've seen the growth of groups like Mucca Pazza and Red Baraat and events like the HONK! Festival and its offshoots that attest to that, as well as the touring bands of Bon Iver and Arcade Fire which lean towards large orchestra-­like line ups.

I feel like you guys have created a new genre of sound. Where do you find inspiration?

We find inspiration in all of the great music that has come out of Ethiopia and East Africa for the last forty years. I think our interest in these diverse music has created a sound that digs deeper than "the golden 70s" of funk and jazz coming out of Addis. Since the early days of our project, we've been listening to rare cassette tapes from the 1980s by artists like Hailu Mergia and Omar Souleyman (not the one from Syria, but the Oromo musician) who both pioneered the mixing of horns and live drums with synths and drum machines. The Ex from The Netherlands are also an enormous inspiration––any fan of African music should check out their collaboration with Getatchew Mekuria and their label Terp Records.

Aside from Ethiopian sounds, what else do you most frequently experiment with?

Modern rock and free jazz probably. But we love everything from fuzzy garage coming out West and Central Africa to rare cuts from Prince.

What is the next step for Debo Band? Where do you see yourself in five years?

The most important next step for Debo Band is to release more music. We've been writing and experimenting for most of the last two years, since recording our Sub Pop debut in the autumn of 2011 and I think if we stay focused we could release two more albums in the next two years. Beyond that, we'd love to be doing more touring internationally to places like Europe, Japan, and Australia.