Janka Nabay is from Sierra Leone, a country most people associate almost exclusively with diamonds, oppression and Kanye West. He plays bubu, a style of African music indigenous to his home country that most people have never heard of.
Nabay achieved success in Sierra Leone as a bubu revivalist when most of his contemporaries had turned to reggae; but, like many others, he moved to the U.S. to escape his wartorn homeland. He found his way to Brooklyn, where he took up work as a fry cook before a serendipitous set of circumstances brought him in touch with a number of local musicians who were able to buy into his unique style and energy. The Bubu Gang was formed from members of Skeletons, Chairlift, Starring, Saadi and Highlife, and they quickly began rehearsing and playing shows around Brooklyn.
The group released an EP, An Letah, earlier this year, and Nabay’s first stateside full-length, En Yay Sah, features the songs that appeared on the EP as well as other originals written with The Bubu Gang. While a lot of African music concerns itself with adhering to tradition, Nabay’s bubu is high-energy, fast-paced dance music that is completely unbound by convention. In short, Nabay simply feels it and brings it. On top of a foundation of unwavering, fast-paced bass and percussion lines, effects come and go, reverberating psychedelic guitar swells up from nowhere only to dissipate seconds later, and background singers jump in for call and response sections with Nabay, who seems to be constantly riffing vocally.
It is the group’s disparate influences and musical backgrounds that give Nabay’s brand of bubu a distinct, Western appeal that eludes other African musicians who have found their way into the Western consciousness, musicians whose bands are usually comprised of fellow Africans who have spent their lives mastering a specific, traditional style. Songs like “Eh Mane Ah” and “Somebody” begin sounding almost like they could be LCD Soundsystem songs. The rhythm section is tight and focused and effects and synths are used liberally, stirring up an almost primordial urge to get up and get down.
Album closer “Rotin” might be the best example of this. Kicking off with ratcheted-up hand-clapping and a dirty organ line, Nabay comes in with a string of rapid fire “check it outs,” sounding like he can barely contain himself. The bass soon follows and layers of background singers and myriad other effects are added into the mix as the song progresses, rounding out the album with a bang. If you like to move, En Yay Sah is a must-listen. More importantly, if you have a chance to see Janka Nabay live, make sure to clear your schedule and lace up your dancing shoes.