According to Ethiopian-American saxophonist Danny Mekonnen, given enough time, the origin of an instrument will matter far less than the way it integrates into a given musical tradition. This philosophy informs his group Debo Band, which embraces the saxophone and the accordion as “two of the most beloved instruments in Ethiopia.” These combine with traditional harmonic palettes, American funk influences and European brass instrumentation to create Debo Band’s signature take on Ethiopian pop. With acclaim from top publications, a growing list of studio recordings and tours that have landed the group at top music festivals worldwide, Debo Band is leading the way in modern interpretations of global musical traditions.
Passionate about using music for activism, Danny Mekonnen is also a member of Silkroad, Yo-Yo Ma’s collective of musicians dedicated to cross-cultural music-making. Additionally, he’s involved in The Nile Project, which brings together musicians, students and professionals who are dedicated to the sustainability of the Nile River basin. While visiting DePauw University as part of the Global Musician Workshop, Mekonnen took some time out of his teaching schedule to chat with 21CM director Mark Rabideau, reflecting on the role his activism plays in his music and the artistic goals of his ensemble.
The Boston Globe said of your band, “If George Clinton had come from Ethiopia instead of outer space, the result might have been what Debo Band gives you.” That’s a pretty crazy compliment.
That’s one of my favorite pull quotes. I think there’s a psychedelic, spiritual, otherworldly quality to Ethiopian music in general. When I went to Ethiopia at age 13 with my mother, I experienced this deep, spiritual quality to the music. [Ethiopia is] one of these remarkable places of the world. In the town where my parents are from, there’s this 16th-century castle. You have rock-hewn churches, straight out of the ground. These are architectural marvels, historical marvels. Part of what I do is try to introduce people to the idea of Ethiopia beyond the little facts that they may know from the news.
The psychedelic qualities of the music, I do think that that’s the thing that people – especially folks in the West – that’s sort of what draws them to my band’s sound.
Talk about how that functionally comes up in Debo Band. Your instrumentation reflects some of that.
The accordion is a big part of Ethiopian traditional music. I’d say that the accordion and the saxophone are two of the most beloved instruments in Ethiopia. Neither of [these] originated in Ethiopia, but if an instrument makes enough of an impact, it will just be adopted into a culture. Think of mariachi music from Mexico and Texas. [There,] I don’t think of the trumpet, the accordion or the violin as Western instruments.
People ask me all the time, “Do you play any traditional Ethiopian instruments?” I don’t always answer with “saxophone” – I know what they mean – but if we have enough time, I tell them why the saxophone is considered a traditionally Ethiopian instrument. And with enough time – give it another several decades or a century or so – I think origin will matter less. Who can lay claim to the flute, for example? Especially any kind of bamboo flute. [It’s] a ubiquitous instrument.
The other instruments that make Debo Band unique [include] the violin. What our fiddle players do is draw on a tradition of string music in Ethiopia called Azmari music. Azmaris are like troubadours – they travel from village to village, city to city. Most Azmaris play a one-stringed fiddle called a masenqo.
In a way, what I’m doing with Debo Band is bringing into focus different elements of Ethiopian music as I’ve come to learn about it [through studying] it. And then, by putting the accordion and saxophone and violin together, I can have a conversation with people about instruments and how they travel and become adopted and indispensable parts of a musical culture.
You’ve studied as an ethnomusicologist. How does that inform your music? And now that you’re teaching, what do you hope to share through those experiences?
Ethnomusicology gave me an idea of what scholarship could look like. There are certain things I came to understand about the way that power affects things. … I think a lot about the way that record industries affect what [types of] music become popular [and how] political histories have contributed to the advancement of certain [types of] music. I think a lot about marginalized peoples. If anything, [studying ethnomusicology] firmed up my activism and my sense of justice. [In] conservatories and academia, we can lose sight of bigger-picture things. I try to bring that into all of my teaching, whether it’s music or ethnomusicology.
These conversations about privilege and power are bubbling up across the U.S. I think that most campuses can no longer afford to deny those voices.
It feels like things are different now. It feels like we’re in a social emergency. On the one hand, there’s a natural inclination to want to buffer yourself from that. On the other hand, the urgency is such that I feel like it’s not a time to be passive or casual about any of these discussions. We need to engage in the most direct way possible, to sit in that discomfort and ask, “Wow, what can I do as a man? As a white person? How do we fight racism? How can we work more to be anti-racist, not just not racist?”
Discomfort is where growth and change happen. That’s just a fundamental thing. There’s this moment of optics and feeling like there are words that are trendy like “diversity” and “inclusion,” but at some point, they lose their edge. I think they’re shorthand. What I’d like to do is invite people to say things like “white supremacy” and “rape culture” and “patriarchy” and to talk about those things in direct ways that don’t smooth over the edges. They’re difficult things and they’re uncomfortable. But if we’re going to see anything happen, we’re going to have to be willing to do some hard work as a society.
That’s a lot of heavy stuff to say at a music workshop. But that’s where the work starts. That edge of thinking – I think it makes the art better.
You’re a fascinating guy.
Thanks for having me.
It’s been lovely.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.