Sporting fingerless black leather gloves, a sleeveless festival T-shirt, woven armbands, shell necklace, and a full grass skirt, Janka Nabay looked the perfect Afro-Brooklyn expatriate hybrid during his opening set for Syrian dabke star Omar Souleyman this summer. Even the performance space – an open-air, concrete-floored industrial zone surrounded by stacked shipping containers and called The Well – split the difference between Williamsburg and Nabay’s former Freetown home. You couldn’t say the same for Nabay’s Bubu Gang band, however. A remarkable assemblage of three avant-afropopping Skeletons, acid-rocking guitarist Doug Shaw, and Syrian-American singer Boshra AlSaadi (aka Saadi), the Bubu Gang is the transcendent ingredient on En Yay Sah, Nabay’s full-length debut – not counting the 10s of thousands of cassettes he sold back home a couple of decades ago.
Ahmed Janka Nabay arrived in the United States in 2002. “I come here to promote my music and to build up my broken heart,” he says following a return to casual attire and a moment of herbal refreshment in the backstage trailer that serves as a dressing room. Souleyman’s electro-dabke pounds in the background. “Because I was doing very good in Africa, and then they fight. And when they fight, everything stop.” Nabay made his somewhat hasty departure (a protective warlord was involved) at the tail end of his country’s 11-year civil war, which he’d survived in no small part simply because his music – an updated version of the 500-year-old bubu sound – appealed to both sides of the conflict.
Doug Shaw describes the big bubu picture: “It’s an ancient ritual music that takes place over the course of twelve to fourteen hours during Ramadan, maybe even a whole day. It existed for hundreds of years and was played by percussionists and musicians playing single notes on multiple bamboo pipes. Until one day Janka had the idea to make it into an electronic beat. Then he came to the United States and we started playing it with live instruments again.”
The middle-aged Nabay looks fairly timeless himself. “It doesn’t matter!” he exclaims when asked his age. “I was born from creation.” Born and raised in the Central Sierra Leone village of Masimo, Nabay has been singing for his supper nearly as long as he can remember. “I started singing for food when I was, like, six years old,” he says. The fifth of 18 children by his father’s three wives, Nabay cadged food from the younger wife by serenading her with pop songs. He made his public debut singing “Aki Special” onstage with Prince Nico Mbarga in the late ’80s, and a few years later won a musical competition by singing bubu music, which he’d learned from his Temne-tribe mother, instead of the ubiquitous reggae covers favored by his competitors.
Thanks in large part to Nabay, bubu is now played on Sierra Leone’s Independence Day and other occasions in addition to Ramadan. The self-declared Bubu King eagerly hypes the sound he rediscovered, modernized, and delivered to the New World. “Bubu music is the backbone music of Sierra Leone – period,” he explains. “You make wedding, you play bubu music; you make society, you play bubu music; you make everyt’ing, they play bubu music.”
Despite bubu’s popularity, En Yay Sah – the title means “I am afraid” – largely reflects Nabay’s disappointing immigrant experience. “I go to America, Papa, meet with my brothers,” he sings in “Kill Me With Bongo,” a song in Sierra Leone’s national tongue, Krio. “They just overlook me with cold shoulders.” Nabay felt unsupported by the Sierra Leone diaspora upon his arrival. Unable to make a living as a musician, he worked at Crown Fried Chicken branches in Pennsylvania, among other day jobs. Finally, with the help of Afropop Worldwide radio producer Wills Glasspiegel, Nabay hooked up with Matador subsidiary True Panther, who teamed him with the Skeletons for his 2010 Bubu King EP.
Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang dynamically reinvent bubu’s ritualistic power both on record and onstage. Jon Leland distills the beats of several percussionists into a single polyrhythmic web on his electronic kit while keyboardist Michael Gallope’s does the same with bubu’s galloping bamboo pipes on his synth, as Doug Shaw’s guitar sings, screams, and sputters overhead. After the show, Shaw notes how much Nabay was improvising, inverting cadences, and stretching the material – much like Omar Souleyman and keyboardist Rizan Sa’id but with more rock vitality.
After a few appreciative words about Africa superstar Tupac Shakur, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies, and the enduring appeal of Bruce Willis, Janka Nabay steps out his trailer, talked out and ready to party. As I make my departure, I spy the lithe Sierra Leonean beaming delightedly at the end of a snaking line of dabke dancers. Janka Nabay has found his tribe.