Janka Nabay plays Bubu. You’ve probably never heard of it - Bubu, rhythmic horn-driven processional music, is only played during Ramadan by the Temne people in rural northern and western Sierra Leone. Nabay heard the music as a child. When he began playing music as a teenager, however, he favored the popular reggae music of Bob Marley rather than his local Bubu. In the early 90s, Nabay moved to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. When the talent competition SuperSounds auditioned local musicians, Nabay signed up right away. The producers, disappointed in the Western styles they were hearing, asked Nabay if he could play Sierra Leonean music. He had prepared to sing reggae, but then the Bubu music of his childhood came to mind. Nabay recounts:
“So the guy say, “You gotta play bubu.” And I know a bubu song I’d composed, but I haven’t rehearsed it or anything. And I start singing this song, drumming on my legs—and the people, they say, “Stop! We want you! You are the guy!” And the whole office is shouting and feeling happy. Saying I’m the guy they want. I couldn’t even believe it.”
Nabay recorded an album, transforming Bubu by adding modern dance instrumentation and socially conscious lyrics. He took the music from rural religious processions to the urban club, gaining national fame. Nabay’s lyrics commented on the societal problems caused by the ongoing civil war in Sierra Leone.
Between 1991 and 2003, 50,000 people were killed. Troops rebelling against the government co-opted Nabay’s music to lure people out of hiding for capture. Nabay responded with an anti-war tape titled “Sabanoh”, meaning “We Own This Land”, which made him some enemies. “I ahd to make a record to warn [the rebels] to stop. And they hate me right now,” said Nabay. “They forced me to move out of the country.” One of 2.5 million displaced from Sierra Leone, Nabay found refuge in the United States.
With refuge came obscurity. Nabay worked in fast food restaurants while trying to record music independently. He sought assistance from his fellow expatriates, but Nabay’s patron saint arrived in the form of Wills Glasspiegel, public radio producer. Impressed by a CD-R, Glasspiegel connected Nabay to record labels and the Brooklyn indie scene. Signed to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop, the new Bubu Gang includes members of the bands Chairlift and Skeletons, as well as Boshra AlSaadi on backup vocals. Janka Nabay continues to make vibrant Bubu, which in his own words is “humanitarian music … about peace and empowerment of women.” It is a beat that, while remaining distinctly Sierra Leonean, the whole world can dance to.
- John Muyskens