As a teenager, Ahmed Janka Nabay wrote his first song; improbably for an eventual émigré of wartorn Sierra Leone, his course has been a straight one since. His musical course, at least. In the past decade, Nabay has traced an arc from elbow-rubbing with African heads of state and rebel generals to working at a Pennsylvania fried-chicken joint to sweating it out in Brooklyn DIY venues with a new band featuring most of noisy ex–Silent Barn denizens Skeletons. His aim, though, remains true.
“Bubu is number one,” he sang in that inaugural tune, establishing his talking (singing?) points for years to come, praising the homegrown sound he aims to export more or less by himself. “It’s an ancient style of music, but when you try it, you never leave it.” His faith in this statement is absolute; he demands such devotion from both audiences and fellow musicians. “Do you have any plans for bubu music in your future?” he asks me when we speak. “I will play this music to my last breath.”
Especially now, there is reason for that faith, which has provided Nabay with one path and many myths. He is the self-proclaimed Bubu King.
Originating from the Temne people in northern and western Sierra Leone, the bubu rhythm’s percolating circular tumble evolved during 36-hour Ramadan processionals. By Nabay’s youth, musicians played bamboo horns and, for the bass notes, exhaust pipes. In the mid-’90s, he traveled to Sierra Leone’s largest city, Freetown, to audition for SuperSound, an American Idol–like talent contest; he prepared a reggae song. As did nearly everyone else. After nearly 80 entrants, the producer grew exasperated. “What about your own country’s music?” he asked the assembled. “Do any of you know how to play something like that?”
Nabay volunteered, and the music of his childhood was on its way to a new audience. When it re-emerged—now regularly played by a full band instead of relegated to a once-a-year village-wide march and eventually aided by drum machines—Nabay was en route to Sierra Leonean superstardom. Four cassettes, including Sabanoh, sold upward of 30,000 copies each.
“I was a little boy in a village, and everybody was bumping to Ahmed Janka Nabay’s bubu beat,” remembers Dovy Dovy of current Sierra Leonean stars Dry Eye Crew. “There was no radio station, so some of the people from the city came with his music, and it started playing all over the village, all over the little houses, all over the farms, some people walking and listening.”
Soon, Nabay and his 10-piece band were headlining Freetown’s National Stadium. During Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, rebel troops played his music from boomboxes, luring people into the open and then conscripting them, or worse. Later, the infamous rebel general Sam Bockarie, known as “General Mosquito,” took in the band. “They gave us money—they gave us food,” says Nabay. “Everything they gave us, but our minds.”
Seventeen days and several performances later, Nabay approached Bockarie—”I’m tired, I have to go,” he remembers saying. ” ‘OK, Janka, you can go.’ They gave us money, palm oil. They gave me rice. And the next morning, he came out with his pistol and shot it in the air: ‘Nobody gets any boats until Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang can get back to Freetown.’ We didn’t use speakers then. We could play anywhere in Sierra Leone. So we started blowing. On the boats.” They paddled away.
Soon, Nabay left Sierra Leone altogether. Like many other expatriates with established lives and careers in their homelands, he arrived in the United States anonymous, with no immediate entry point into the music scene here. He continued to perform for the Sierra Leonean diaspora spread between Baltimore and Philadelphia, where he worked at a Crown Fried Chicken; the chain then transferred him in-state to Colesville, just outside Allentown.
Meanwhile, when his home country’s war-fog cleared, Nabay’s recordings found their way into an Afropop Worldwide radio documentary, where assistant producer Wills Glasspiegel was transfixed. He hunted down Nabay and paired him with Matador subsidiary True Panther, which, in turn, connected the Bubu King with Brooklyn’s Afro-cubist–leaning Skeletons. And so it was that bubu brought Janka Nabay into Brooklyn’s DIY nexus, a strangely serene connection point to the global indie pipeline.
“My phone is very busy now,” Nabay says. “Me? I’m not.” Perhaps it is the spirit of bubu, set to vibrate. Lately, he has been collaborating with White Magic guitarist Doug Shaw (notably on a wonderful S.E. Rogie palm-wine number, “My Lovely Elizabeth”) and pestering the Skeletons guys to let him try singing one of their songs. An album produced by Gang Gang Dance’s Tim DeWit is potentially in the works.
Though he wore traditional Temne garb during his earliest American performances, Nabay has recently favored more stylish urban fare. Likewise, the latest incarnation of the Bubu Gang—all the guys in Skeletons, minus singer Matt Mehlan—brings bubu a step further from its roots. “It was taking a bunch of single lines that weren’t meant to be played by one person, then figuring out how to play them,” recalls drummer Jonathan Leland. “There’s a cowbell, and a shaker, and a drum-machine bass drum doing four-on-the-floor. I had to start very slowly, one part at a time, and gradually put them on all my limbs. Janka’s never really explained it. He can be like, ‘That’s not bubu,’ or ‘Yes, that’s bubu.’ But he seems to think it’s good to go.”
Live, Nabay often spends some time addressing the lyrics to “Eh Congo,” whose only English words—”John Kennedy”—naturally stick out to American audiences. “It was a provocation,” Nabay says, to countrymen too proud to take humanitarian aid. “But John Kennedy was the first to send wheat, flour, clothing.” Likewise, he praises the Peace Corps, and the attraction is easy to see. Bubu, coupled with the power of the American dream, becomes limitless.
Self-promotion offers a similar joy. “Bubu is everything to me right now,” he gushes. “I’m the first guy that recorded bubu music, and I’m the first person to make people learn about bubu music. I love the music. It’s so cool.” He giggles.