Hard-driving African music held court Saturday night at World Cafe Live. And though rhythms of Africa and its diaspora dominated the proceedings, drums had very little to do with this domination.
Debo Band, from Boston, has gone all in on the Ethiopian pop music of the 1970s, a veritable golden age of creativity in that venerable land. Though other groups, including Either/Orchestra, Debo's Hub homeboys, have done homage to this music, none is as adventurous or unabashedly traditional as Debo.
Throughout the set, it was the group's horns, which include two saxes, a trumpet, and a sousaphone, that provided an asymmetrical power, a structural framework, and a rhythmic whip to Debo's music. Arik Grier, on his Rootsesque sousaphone, was a true shape-shifter. He sometimes weighed in as backup to PJ Goodwin's serpentlike bass lines, sometimes joined the horn section in its powerful staccato blurts, and sometimes went his own way, anchoring the bass register and the rhythms at the same time.
Debo's 11 tunes showcased the pentatonic scales and modes common to Ethiopian music while nodding strongly to funk, free jazz, and groove. It is obvious the band's two Ethiopian Americans - leader and saxophonist Danny Mekonnen and shoulder-rolling singer Bruck Tesfaye - have imprinted their ancestral culture on the group's music. The spectres of Mahmoud Ahmed and Tilahun Gessesse made obvious and subtle appearances at Saturday's show.
But at one point, during an extended groove, violinist Jonah Rapino and smiling, bespectacled accordionist Marie Abe combined for a haunting solo, and duet, that owed as much to klezmer and tango as it did to Ethiopia.
The night's prevailing mood was, for sure, one of intense revel and hard partying. But in the middle of the show, the band filed offstage, leaving only a pensive Tesfaye. Solo, with slight electronic augmentation, he mesmerized with "Medinanna Zelasegna," an a cappella traditional Ethiopian hymn.