Janka Nabay: The King Of Bubu Music

Aug 21, 2012
Originally published on August 21, 2012 6:36 pm

Janka Nabay is the king of Bubu music. That style has old roots in Muslim Sierra Leone, but it's come to life recently in the clubs of Brooklyn and Manhattan, as well as on a new album called En Yay Sah.

Sierra Leone is a good place to invent a music style: It has 16 ethnic groups, a Muslim majority and a large population descending from freed American slaves who returned to West Africa after the Revolutionary War.

The original Bubu music is a product of Islam in Africa, with processional chants and rhythms with ties to ancient African culture, but also to Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. Janka Nabay gained attention when he transformed Bubu songs he recalled from his youth into modern pop. Nabay's hypnotic mixes began circulating around Sierra Leone on cassettes, and a new Bubu music underground was born.

Sierra Leone's brutal civil war in the 1990s complicates the Bubu story. Nabay's songs sought to remain above the fray, but when rebels began using them as a soundtrack to village raids, Nabay was forced into exile. He left home unwillingly, and it took time for him to find his footing in Brooklyn. But in the past two years, Nabay has built a band fit to bring Bubu music to an international audience.

Re-creating Bubu music in America has not been easy. At first, Nabay found himself surrounded by enthusiastic Sierra Leonian expats, but none were willing to help finance his career. Nabay channeled that frustration into his song "Kill Me With Bongo."

Before Janka Nabay, Bubu music was an all-but-forgotten remnant of Sierra Leone's past. Now, thanks to technology, imagination and the forces of globalization, the Bubu sound is working its mysterious, mesmerizing magic on the world. This is one way old traditions survive: in the hands of single-minded visionaries like Janka Nabay, for whom technology is an ally — not an enemy — of customs and culture.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Bubu is a style of music from Africa with Islamic roots. It's been updated with a modern electronic sound. The style began in Sierra Leone and probably would have stayed there, but the nation's brutal civil war caused Bubu's biggest star, Janka Nabay, to flee to the United States. Now, Nabay is spreading his sound with a new album and Banning Eyre has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BANNING EYRE, BYLINE: Sierra Leone is a good place to invent a music style because the country itself involves acts of invention. It has 16 ethnic groups, a Muslim majority and a large population descended from freed American slaves who returned to West Africa after the Revolutionary War.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EYRE: The original Bubu music is a product of Islam in Africa, processional chants and rhythms with ties to ancient African culture, but also to Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. Janka Nabay gained attention when he turned Bubu songs he recalled from his youth into modern pop. Nabay's hypnotic mixes began circulating around Sierra Leone on cassettes and a new Bubu music underground was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EYRE: Sierra Leone's brutal Civil War in the 1990s complicates the Bubu story. Nabay's songs sought to be above the fray, but when rebels began using them as a soundtrack to village raids, Nabay was forced into exile. He left home unwillingly and it took time to find his footing in Brooklyn, but in the past two years, Nabay has built a band fit to bring Bubu music to an international plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EYRE: Recreating Bubu music in America has not been easy. At first, Nabay found himself surrounded by enthusiastic Sierra Leonean ex-pats, but none were willing to help finance his career. Nabay channeled his frustration with that into a song called "Kill Me With Bongo."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILL ME WITH BONGO")

JANKA NABAY: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Before Janka Nabay, Bubu music was all but forgotten remnants of Sierra Leone's past. Now, thanks to technology, imagination and, yes, the forces of globalization, the Bubu sound is working its mysterious mesmerizing magic on the world. This is one way old traditions survive, in the hands of single-minded visionaries like Janka Nabay, artists for whom technology is an ally, not an enemy, of customs and culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Banning Eyre is senior editor at AfroPop.org. He reviewed the album, "En Yay Sah," by Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.