The once and future Bubu King
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There are profound personal truths in the title of Sierra Leonian music superstar and current expat Janka Nabay’s debut album En Yay Sah, released late last summer on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint.
It translates from his native Krio to mean “I’m Scared,” not an uncommon sentiment for his countrymen who weathered the brutal rebellion that devastated Sierra Leone for almost all of the 1990s and into the 2000s. But when Nabay followed his family and emigrated from Sierra Leone in 2002 with practically nothing in his possession, his fears of bombs and guns were supplanted by the anxiety of the refugee experience.
As one of the country’s most famous performers during the heat of the conflict — its leading practitioner of the ancient, ritualistic Bubu music, even earning the title Bubu King — Nabay was in the center of it, lifting up civilians living in refugee camps and entertaining warlords such as the notorious Sam “Mosquito” Bockarie alike. The messages of peace and solidarity, inspired by his personal musical idols Bob Marley and Michael Jackson, remained the same no matter the audience. The US audience, he hoped, would take to it the same
“It’s too difficult to start over when you come from a different country and you are talented,” Nabay said from his home in Washington, DC. “I have no newspapers, no CDs, nothing that showed you that I’m a musician. I could only play in front of you. In America, it is not possible. They need a r’sum’. For me to build that r’sum’, it cost me seven years.”
Nabay had known little else other than performing since being discovered by talent producers Super Sound, a Liberia-based company that itself relocated to Sierra Leone to escape Charles Taylor’s violent regime. Nabay was one of dozens who lined up to perform in front of its scouts, though nearly all of them were singing reggae, the country’s preeminent genre at the time.
Instead, he presented his variation of Bubu music, a centuries-old Muslim processional style typically performed at length around Ramadan, and its impending popularity would lead him to sell tens of thousands of cassettes around the country, a huge total in a war-torn place that would rank 41st among US states in total area. Despite his celebrity at home, Nabay had little choice but to start over when given the opportunity.
“Even when the gun never shoot no one, people face a different war. A war of sickness, a war of sadness,” Nabay said. “Some people lose their home, some people lose their limbs. That is the worst war. In Africa, the guns stop and the next war begins. Still they’re fighting that war. But by God’s strength, they will conquer.”
As a new arrival, Nabay worked the fryer at a halal chicken joint in Pennsylvania (and is still appalled by how much food Americans throw away), but it wasn’t until he was discovered once again by Afropop Worldwide producer William Glasspiegel that he would return to full-time performing in America. Glasspiegel hooked Nabay up with a backing unit picked from Brooklyn progsters Starring and Afropop fusionists Skeletons, along with Syrian-America vocalist Boshra al-Saadi — the band dubbed the Bubu Gang. The challenge at that point was teaching them music few Americans had ever from a country none of them had ever visited.
Nabay was a dutiful teacher though, pointing out the subtle reggae and country music influences of a musical style that was entirely acoustic back in Sierra Leone — particularly that of Michael Jackson, idolized by practically every youngster in his country. Bubu there was characterized by propulsive polyrhythm and the busy union of multiple bamboo pipes, each playing a different note, requiring an extremely discerning ear to master. But just as Nabay was given a new start in his new country, so too was Bubu music. It was reborn as agitated African electronica, an intricate web of reedy synth melodies, reverbed guitars and pitter-pattering drum beats with Nabay’s granular, pliant voice at the center, always echoed by the cherubic al Saadi who imbues En Yay Sah’s boundless energy with its pop heart.
“When I first met her, she knew nothing about [Bubu]. Now she knows some Temne [one of Sierra Leone’s most widely spoken languages],” Nabay said. “All the words I tell her, she asks the meaning. Now she trains and trains and speaks to me. Before gigs, she says, ‘Oh Janka, en yay sah.’”
The album title retains its significance even though it has evolved into a term of endearment among his band, and though he seldom suffers the stresses of assimilation after 10 years in America, it wasn’t until recently that he expelled fears from his heart created by his family’s rejection of music. He’s been the subject of stern consternation from his father, a deeply religious Muslim, and by extension several of his siblings and cousins. His father refused to hear his music for nearly 20 years and forbade his family’s acceptance of Nabay’s choice to be an entertainer He experienced that upon arrival to the US when he was rebuffed by his brothers, a subject he sings about in “Kill Me with Bongo.” That all changed when they were finally persuaded to attend a performance in Maryland on May 26.
“My dad never supported my music, never, ever. He say, ‘He’s no good, don’t follow that guy. He’s going to hell.’ I didn’t even get along with my family until a year ago. They already know this guy will never stop this music,” Nabay said. “But then they came and the show was jam packed.
It was the first time they ever see me on stage. Over 18 of my family in a hall filled up with people and dancing with them. It was like magic. ‘Is this really what he’s doing?’ they said. Oh, they like it and they proud of me.”
Since that performance two weeks ago, Nabay says, his music has taken on a brand new meaning to him. Because of the emotional distance their indoctrination placed between them, Nabay rarely thought of his parents and family while performing. Now, he says it was liberating like nothing else to see his family, if not simply his religion, appreciate him. His next gigs are going to reflect that, he says.
“I understand that Islam, especially radical Islamists, don’t accept music, period. I’m a Muslim, I like music. They play music in Mecca and in Syria. Without music, I don’t think this world would go ’round,” Nabay said. “But now I don’t have to be scared in my heart because nobody oppose my music no more.”
Janka Nabay & the Bubu Gang will perform Saturday at the Mosaic Festival in Festival Park at 4 p.m. and the Blind Tiger at 10 p.m.