Playlist: Essential Ethiopian Pop
In anticipation of a free show by his group Debo Band at the David Rubenstein Atrium on November 3, Ethiopian-American saxophonist and bandleader Danny Mekonnen takes us on a dynamic, ear-opening tour of Ethiopian pop music, past and present.
“Menew” by Aster Aweke
Aster (first names are considered proper for formal address) is the voice of a generation of folks who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, such as myself. This track features the kraar, a six-stringed lyre, alongside an electric guitar.
“Almaz yeharerwa” by Getatchew Mekurya
A giant of the Ethiopian saxophone, Getatchew, who died earlier this year, was one of the first instrumentalists to record solo albums (without vocalists). His career was revived in the mid-2000s when he began a fruitful collaboration with the Dutch punk band, The Ex.
“The Homeless Wanderer” by Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou
Tsegue-Maryam is a nun who plays and composes impressionistic works for piano. Her unique approach to composition and her contributions to modern Ethiopian music deserve wider recognition.
“How to Save a Life (Vector of Eternity)” by Mikael Seifu
Mikael is one of the most prolific members of a loose DJ collective based in Addis Ababa and Washington, D.C., that includes Dawit Eklund and Endeguena Mulu.
“Kulun” by Mahmoud Ahmed
This is the well-known Amharic wedding song, "Kulun Manquelesh," performed by one of Ethiopia's greatest and most beloved singers, Mahmoud.
“Hedetch alu” by Muluqèn Mèllèssè
Muluken (as it is spelled by Ethiopians) is best known for his 1970s funk cuts and 1980s smooth jams, but this song, "Hedetch Alu," recorded when he was still a very young man with a higher-pitched voice, has a special place in my heart.
“Yefeker Wogagen” by Bezunesh Bekele
Bezunesh sang with many great bands in the 1960s and 1970s but she found her most sensitive accompaniment with the Imperial Bodyguard Band, who provided her with lush arrangements that perfectly complemented her voice. Debo Band covered this song on our self-titled 2012 album.
“Tezeta” by Asnaqètch Wèrqu
No playlist is complete without "Tezeta," here performed by the lovely Asnaqetch, a master of kraar and traditional songs.
“Yalanchi” by Debo Band
Yalanchi is a song from our sophomore album, Ere Gobez. Composed by Debo violinist Jonah Rapino and lyrics penned by vocalist Bruck Tesfaye, the song is loosely based on a bass riff from the wedding song "Kulun Manquelesh."
About the curator
Ethiopian-American saxophonist Danny Mekonnen is the founder and leader of Debo Band, whose self-titled debut was included on NPR’s 50 Favorite Albums of 2012. The group’s groundbreaking take on Ethiopian music has led to performances at the Montreal Jazz Festival, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, South by Southwest, Sauti za Busara (Zanzibar), and the Ethiopian Music(s) Festival (Addis Ababa). He has a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from Harvard University, where he researched Ethiopian popular music of the 1960s and '70s.
Top image: Danny Mekonnen by Devin Tepleski