Sierra Leonean singer Janka Nabay exclaims: “All I am about is making history,” a modest goal for someone who revived a fading musical treasure, made it big back home, escaped war and chaos, and still managed to write and play songs while working at American fast-food fryers. Now, at last, Nabay hits his stride with Brooklyn indie experimenters-turned-acolytes The Bubu Gang (with members of Skeletons, Chairlift, Starring, Saadi, and Highlife) on his first album-length release in the West, En Yay Sah (“I’m Scared” Luaka Bop; CD/LP/digital release: August 7, 2012).
Nabay’s “bubu” music may sound utterly hip and futuristic to American ears, but its history spans centuries. The original “bubu” is cloaked in mythology: according to Nabay, a young “bubu boy” took it from witches 500 years ago and brought it to the public at large, sacrificing his own life in the process. When Islam reached Sierra Leone, bubu became a part of indigenous processionals during Ramadan; this is the music Nabay learned and perfected as a child. As Janka says: “Bubu is an old, old music, but people don’t know about it. You can add new things into the beat if you know it really well, and make your own sound out of it.”
Like many other musicians in Sierra Leone, Nabay got his start performing what he liked: reggae. But while auditioning for a national talent contest, Nabay’s performance of bubu music wowed a panel of frustrated judges who were eager to hear something uniquely Sierra Leonean.
So impressed, they decided to sponsor Nabay’s first recording session. From the Forensic Recording Studios of Freetown (Sierra Leone’s capital), he drew inspiration from “Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, and God” and modernized bubu into a hypnotic dance music, adding new instruments and timbres while remaining faithful to the transfixing rhythms that defined the original. “Like any other beat, it has flows, ups and downs,” he notes, pointing to the powerful patterns that pulse at the start of tracks like ‘Eh Mane Ah’ and ‘Kill Me With Bongo.’ “You have to feel the swing. It starts by knowing the bass drum beats,” continues Nabay. “You get the flow and then you do one, two. One is your left foot and two is your right, and then you’re dancing.”
Nabay’s infectious bubu style quickly won dedicated fans across Sierra Leone, where his cassettes sold in the tens of thousands, blasting from local boom boxes across the country. Singing in Sierra Leone’s lingua franca, Krio, as well as his native tribal Temne, English, and Arabic, Nabay considers his work, then and now, a letter to Sierra Leoneans, a call for them to remember the roots of their culture. “I’m the first guy who made it pleasant for people to come back to the culture, to love their culture. I made songs that encouraged them to concentrate on the culture,” Nabay muses. “Even in Sierra Leone, we imitate a lot of Western styles in our music, in our clothes. But the African is in them. They hear it.”
The decade-long civil war that wracked Sierra Leone would bring complex fortunes to Nabay’s music. A firm believer in the power of music to enact social change, Nabay used his modern bubu music as a political platform to address the problems of war. But rebels began using Nabay’s tapes to sound their battle-cry, blasting it out to the villages they invaded to lure people from their hiding spots.
Millions fled the conflict, including Nabay, who moved to the United States with a heavy heart. “People kept talking to me about coming to America. I said I was not going,” Nabay recalls. “But everyone in the whole country was leaving, so I had to go. I went to New York, and I didn’t even have a place to stay. I started missing my people, so I said, ‘I’m here now; I want to form a band.'”
Starting from scratch in the U.S. proved unexpectedly daunting. Nabay found plenty of seeming supporters in the Sierra Leonean émigré community, but few willing to put their money where their mouths were (a frustrating experience Nabay chronicles in “Kill Me With Bongo,” a scathing critique of his fellow émigrés’ bluff and bs). While trying to sell CD-Rs of his own music independently, one of the biggest figures in Sierra Leonean music found himself earning a living working in fried chicken joints and food trucks up and down the East Coast.
What he couldn’t find among his peers in America, however, he discovered unexpectedly in the Brooklyn underground. While working on a show about music in Sierra Leone during the civil war, public radio producer Wills Glasspiegel fished one of Nabay’s CD’s out of a pile he received from the BBC. He was struck by the music and the story, and sought Nabay out in the Bronx. After meeting the charismatic singer, Glasspiegel played the music for True Panther Sounds, and Nabay’s first stateside release, the Bubu King EP soon followed.
Nabay and Glasspiegel began frequenting what became the Brooklyn home of bubu, Zebulon, in search of a band. During one of his karaoke-style performances there, Nabay met musically eclectic Syrian-born singer and bassist Boshra AlSaadi (of Saadi), whose sharp, clear voice swirls around Nabay’s gritty lead all over En Yay Sah. “She told me I needed to have a band, because I make good music,” Nabay recounts. Tony Lowe (Skeletons, Zs) had booked Janka to perform at his Cool Places parties at Zebulon, and soon began adding live guitar to Janka’s performances. Lowe recommended bringing in Jon Leland (Skeletons) on drums so that they could free themselves from the karaoke backing tracks. With some skepticism, Nabay and Glasspiegel agreed to meet with Leland in the basement of St. Cecelia’s in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to hear what he could do. Using an electric kit, Leland played the parts of 3 percussionists simultaneously, wowing Nabay and sparking confidence and vision for a new band.
Leland called on two long-time collaborators to fill out the group, adding Jason McMahon for his growling bass (Skeletons, Chairlift) and keyboardist Michael Gallope (Skeletons, Starring) who dropped in razor-sharp organ lines and whistling synths reminiscent of bamboo flutes. The group met back at St. Cecilia’s the next day. “Three of us went to an underground place and rehearsed” says Nabay. “They were part of Skeletons, and were playing their music. I told them to play a freestyle bubu. And from the first time, they were so good!”
The last piece of the puzzle made its appearance in the form of Doug Shaw on the guitar, who moved in with Glasspiegel around this time, and happened to be a devotee of S.E. Rogie, a Sierra Leonean musical icon and one of Nabay’s favorite musicians. Shaw painted broad psychedelic strokes over the churning rhythms and digital flutes, and added new layers of musical influences with his knowledge of other African guitar styles. Tony Lowe eventually left the group to work on film projects, and the band solidified into the six-piece Bubu Gang. Though Nabay makes it seem easy, the Gang’s musicians painstakingly found their way, sculpting bubu music over the course of two years, electrifying crowds through a barrage of shows in dance clubs, rooftops, and block parties.
“Feba” has a rock-solid, high-energy percussive foundation and lyrical synth textures that create that bubu flow. The bubbling, double-time bass, drums, and electronics of “Somebody”-a tune penned by Nabay while heartsick back in Sierra Leone-underpin Nabay’s bittersweet shout outs, with reverb-drenched, melancholic guitar, and waves of organ.
It’s the natural extension of an unheralded, highly flexible music. “Bubu has always been about collective ideas,” Nabay explains, when discussing his collaboration with The Bubu Gang. “The sounds in my music have been played for hundreds of years, always mixing the new and the old. These guys are taking all the things they have in their heads and what I show them, and they are making new things out of it.”
“And Bubu music is fun,” Nabay adds with a laugh, “once you try it, you never leave it!”