Sierra Leone musician Janka Nabay returns with another collection of joyous bubu sounds. His greatest theme remains unchanged: how bubu music makes you dance.
“Bubu Dub” — Janka Nabay & the Bubu GangVia Bandcamp / Buy
Janka Nabay’s path as a pop musician—first in his home country of Sierra Leone in the ’90s and then in the U.S. in the 21st century—has been circuitous to say the least. First discovered in Sierra Leone, he was a big star at home before a long civil war and its brutal aftermath forced him to come to the U.S. in 2003 as an émigré. And while his 2012 Luaka Bop debut, En Yay Sah, introduced Nabay’s “bubu”—a restless, churning percussive gallop—to fans of world music and eclectic indie alike, work on a follow-up bogged down after a few false starts. The album was abandoned in 2014.
Three years on, Nabay and cohorts including Skeletons’ Matt Mehlan, Syrian-born Boshra AlSaadi, and journalist/ethnomusicologist Wills Glasspiegel helped get Build Music built. At first blush, the formula for Nabay’s bubu seems to be largely unchanged. It originates from the Tenme regions in the north and west of war-ravaged Sierra Leone—a mesmerizing sound that was once the province of witches, and is now a part of the Ramadan holiday. Originally enacted on bamboo horns, bubu is now transcribed for synths. It’s a relentlessly joyous beat and at times it brings to mind the velocity of South African shangaan electro, though bubu feels more spry, as Nabay lets the rhythms rubber band between the drums, bass, and the call-and-response vocals of himself and AlSaadi.
On “Santa Monica,” Nabay reflects on a fraught incident he had out on tour, and sets it to itchy accompaniment. “Investigation, interrogation yay,” he enunciates, to which AlSaadi chirps back, “Ay/A-Cali-fornia San-ta Mo-nica,” letting the keyboards slowly arch across the song like a Pacific sunset. Nabay doesn’t go into detail about just what occurred. But with a history of Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, and the like, an encounter with the LAPD that involves interrogation doesn’t always end so well. It speaks to Nabay’s buoyancy and spirit that he defuses it just so until it’s a nonchalant—perhaps even celebratory—moment.
“Bubu Dub” bubbles like a case of cola, the Casio beats coming from one of the original Sierra Leonean “riddims” that Nabay had access to in the ’90s. So while the hiccuping, lo-fi presets percolate and give the song a vintage feel, the vocals are crisper and a keyboard whinnies with a sample of bubu horns, courtesy of Glasspiegel’s recordings made while traveling through the country in 2014. A curious blend of past, recent past, and the present, Nabay’s greatest theme remains unchanged: how bubu music makes you dance.
The album straddles a line between being thin and casual, at times pulling back the curtain on the finished product to show Nabay chatting, humming, and tapping out the building blocks of the songs to his bandmates. “Tek Lak la Gben ba Kun” finds Nabay just riffing along with a bass lick for two minutes. “Sabanoh” also eavesdrops on a session, with Nabay just chanting along with a droning synth line, before the fully formed version bursts into frame, wiggling with a cartoonish vivacity. But no matter the energy of the music around him, Nabay retains a languid calm in his delivery, the sound of a veteran in music across two continents and three decades just taking it as it comes.