One of the most memorable concerts in Berkeley last year was the UC Theatre performance by vibraphonist/composer Mulatu Astatke, the patriarch of Ethiojazz. Vocalist and composer Ayaléw Mèsfin, another giant from Ethiopian music’s golden age of the 1970s, arrives in town with Boston’s Debo Band for a show at Cornerstone on Sunday, but unlike the celebrated Mulatu, who gained Western pop cultural currency after Jim Jarmusch laced his entire 2005 film Broken Flowers with his music, Ayaléw is more of an unseen legend than an active presence these days.
Sunday’s concert is one of only three performances including Ayaléw in a brief Debo Band tour that’s taking place in conjunction with the release of Hasabe (My Worries) on Now-Again Records, the first-ever LP compilation from the Ethio-groove pioneer. Fans of the infectious Ethiofunk sound might have encountered his music on the French label Buda Musique’s expansive Éthiopiques CD series, which features four classic tracks by Ayaléw Mèsfin & Black Lion Band.
Led by saxophonist Danny Mekonnen, who was born in Sudan to Ethiopian parents (and raised in the US), Debo Band has earned international attention with its repertoire of golden age Ethiofunk tunes and originals inspired by the melding of traditional Ethiopian rhythms and pentatonic scales with jazz and R&B. His best known piece, 1974’s fuzzy-funk anthem “Hasabe,” is clearly inspired by his love of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown.
“These performances are an opportunity to pay tribute to Ayaléw and celebrate his legacy,” says Mekonnen, who notes that the first name is the family name in most Ethiopian cultures. “We’re coming at this as a band that’s been playing his music and his contemporaries music from the beginning. Ayaléw is someone we return to over the years for inspiration, though a lot of what we do is interpretive work. Like in jazz, you play the standards and find a way to make it your own.”
Joining Debo Band for a song or two at the beginning of each concert, Ayaléw is more of a special guest that a performer on the tour, and he was reluctant to take even that step because of the unrest in his home region. While he’s lived quietly in Denver in recent years, Ayaléw is deeply connected to his homeland, where he continued to make music underground during the long, brutal reign of the Derg, the Marxist junta that ruled country from 1974 to 1991. The present government overthrew the Derg, but Africa’s second most populace nation continues to be plagued by a central government that seems determined to quash protests by the country’s marginalized ethnicities.
“We’re in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, the ongoing political oppression of minority voices,” says Mekonnen, whose parents fled the Derg government in 1980. “It’s a big messy situation. Ethiopia is a very large and ethnically diverse country, and a several weeks ago there was an uprising in the city where Ayaléw was born. In Ethiopia, you do not perform joyous, secular funk music when people are in mourning. Even though he was deeply involved in this album—the tracks are all taken from his personal tapes, which he managed to hang on to—he didn’t feel okay about doing a whole concert.”
While Debo Band is making its Berkeley debut, the group’s connection to the Bay Area runs through Cal via Japanese-born accordionist Marié Abe. A decade ago she was a PhD student studying ethnomusicology and a regular presence in adventurous Bay Area ensembles like The Japonize Elephants, clarinetist Aaron Novik’s Exploding World, Tango No. 9, and as the third wheel in the duo Ramon and Jessica. She collaborated with Berkeley journalist Julie Caine on the award-winning radio documentary Squeezebox Stories about the accordion’s wily infiltration of musical traditions around the globe.
Now an assistant professor of music in Boston University’s Department of Musicology and Ethnomusicology, Abe hadn’t been in Boston long when she heard that Debo Band needed an accordion player. Though she’d played many styles of music “in the beginning it was anything but intuitive,” she says.
“The accordion was an established part of the Ethiopian music in the 1970s, so there was a lot of listening to understand these quirky idiomatic things around Ethiopian aesthetics around scales. It’s considered untasteful to go outside a pentatonic scale, and the grooves have a very particular feel. And then there are all these different ethnic genres and regions, just a ton of information to digest. This music emerged around the same time as Afrobeat in Nigeria, but it’s not such a driven style. The phrasings are really quirky. The rhythm section but be in three, but melody is phrased in four. There are lots of extra bars, things that make it fun to play.”
Recommended gig: Lisa B at The Back Room
Oakland jazz singer Lisa B celebrates the release of her new album I Get a Kick Out of You: Cole Porter Reimagined (Jazzed Media) Saturday at The Back Room with a superb band featuring pianist Frank Martin, bassist Fred Randolph, and drummer Kelly Fasman. Her previous albums have mostly focused on her original songs, though in performance she’s always explored American Songbook standards. Long fascinated by Porter’s life and music, B brings her poet’s incisive ear to uncovering the roiling emotions beneath Porter’s glittering confections.
“Cole Porter was just very alluring,” says B, who performs with the same excellent band March 3 at Saratoga’s Café Pink House. “Part of it is that he’s very unusual as both a lyricist and composer. He was very wealthy, this high society guy who seemed to feel very alone in the crowd. And he was gay in this long-term platonic marriage, which is another layer of isolation. But mostly he was just an amazing creator of songs. The poet in me was drawn to him. There’s this Dorothy Parker/ Emily Dickenson effortless scanning of his lines, and often this sense of longing and heartbreak. I wanted to think through how could we express these tunes to open a new window into Porter.”
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