Janka Nabay’s first international release, En Yay Sah, came out on Luaka Bop in 2012. It was a revelation of the power of Janka’s simple, trance-inducing music to connect with U.S. and European audiences who had no context for traditional Sierra Leonean bubu music, or even Janka’s “modernized” ‘90s hits. Partly, this was because the record was awash with Brooklyn hipster music indicators: synths, reverb-heavy guitars and vintage drum machines. Yet it also retained a live, elastic, flexible feeling, because the album was recorded by a real working band, the Bubu Gang, a group of Brooklyn musicians who had committed to Janka’s vision. This band, unfortunately, went the way of many rock bands (for that is truly what it was): They split up.
Now, five years later, Janka has released a new record, Build Music, undoubtedly a studio creation pulled together from diverse sources, with many collaborators, over time. Yet, somehow, it manages to maintain that tantalizing blend of spontaneity and form that characterized Janka’s previous U.S. output. The title, Build Music, is very apt: The album feels like a physical structure constructed from a wide range of materials, organic and synthetic, supported by Janka’s singular, enigmatic presence, and built upon his semi-improvised organic compositions.
The creative process of this record is embedded in the sound of album. We hear recurring cellphone recordings, voice memos of Janka singing an idea to himself or freestyling with a single instrument, as in the case of “Sabanoh (Interlude)” and “Tek Lak La Gben Ba Kun.” These moments connect the past to the present, joining one man’s creative process to the collective creativity of a team of musicians and producers who helped Janka realize his vision and finish a record that is another testament to the modern bubu music style Janka has built here in United States.
Build Music is a journey across time and space, on wheels of relentless, driving electro-bubu rhythms. On tracks like “Bubu Dub” and “Sabanoh,” Janka returns to the bedrock sound of his classic Sierra Leonean hits, the root formula that launched him to fame as a “bubu modernizer” in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. These beats, from Sierra Leonean producers Lanzo on D Beat, the late Tunni Boy, and the late Nfagie Kabeh, deliver the simple joys of driving digital kick drums, cowbells and snares, and the hocketing, sinuous Casio keyboard melodies and bass lines that echo the bamboo horns of traditional bubu music. On other songs, like “Build Music,” “Santa Monica” and “Game Ova,” the driving beats come wrapped in a semi-organic layer of synths and guitars, courtesy of keyboardist/collaborator Michael Gallope, producer/engineer Daniel Schlett of Strange Weather Studios in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, producers Steve Marion (Delicate Steve) and Matthew Mehlan (Skeletons, Congotronics vs. Rockers). Throughout the album, Janka’s gravelly vocals intertwine seamlessly with high chorus vocals by longtime U.S. collaborator Boshra Al Saadi, a comfortably recognizable combination. Two tracks, “Stop Jealous” and “Combination,” stand out for their happy major-key tonality and distinct summer love song vibe. While there is something saccharine sweet about these songs, they come as a welcome surprise from Janka, who survived a civil war, hustled as an immigrant working menial jobs in a foreign land, and then struggled as a musician trying to make his mark in a new and often-fickle music market. Let the simple words of the chorus of “Combination” serve as a reminder of the potential for cross-cultural understanding and community building that music provides for us humans: “We gotta jump, jump, jump/We gotta live, in combination.” Yes.
[For more about Janka’s mystery and history, the roots of bubu music and Sierra Leone’s civil war, listen to Afropop’s Hip Deep program “Proving the Bubu Myth: Janka Nabay, War and Witchcraft in Sierra Leone.”]