Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang
Ginny’s Supper Club (at Red Rooster)
Tuesday, August 7
Better than: Being an extra in a spy thriller.
Clearly, I’m a bit more of a diva than Sierra Leonean singer-songwriter Ahmed Janka Nabay. The setting for his record release party last night could barely have been more swank, but for all the comforts offered by the downstairs room in Harlem hot boîte Red Rooster, live music presentation is obviously not a priority. That the scene felt like the set of a ’60s spy thriller only enhanced the sense at first that Nabay and his band Bubu Gang were somewhat incidental; the real action might have been the exchange of a flash drive with serious global implications going down in the crowd, with the Gang’s driving dance rhythms serving as its cover. But last night, instead of whining (like me) about the dreadful sound, or lamenting (me again) the fact that Ginny’s has almost no decent sightlines to the stage unless you score the table where David Byrne (Nabay’s Luaka Bop executive producer) was sitting much of the time, the singer and his party band went to work winning folks over.
Turns out that was easier than it looked. Nabay asked the sound engineer for volume at one point, and though the sound got a bit better about midway through the hour-plus performance, that’s not what eventually pulled the crowd into his orbit. It was the insistence of rhythms that reach well beyond the four-on-the-floor base of percussionist Jonathan Leland’s drum programming, a substructure of Western familiarity undercut by the Sierra Leone-specific accents made evident by various little percussion instruments and the textures of Michael Gallope’s keyboards. About a decade or so ago Nabay figured out how to modernize bubu, the indigenous religious music of his country’s Temne people, back when Sierra Leone’s civil war left little time to think about much more than conflict. That push to envision a future when the road ahead seemed gravely uncertain is mirrored in his life since leaving his homeland. Stories of Nabay logging time working in Pennsylvania fried-chicken joints are legion, but it is the act of eventually putting together a band of indie Brooklynites and teaching them to play his music convincingly enough to garner releases on a Matador subsidiary and now Luaka Bop that speak to Nabay’s outsized charisma.
The night’s other surprise was the way the Nabay Gang worked the crowd up without the presence of a dancefloor. Nabay’s baritone is a reedy hiccup that’s more plain-spoken than riveting, and one would have to understand Temne or Arabic to distinguish the subject matter of, say, “Ro-Lungi (Airport City)”—the song about bubu’s current globetrotting with a hypnotic guitar counter-rhythm by Douglas Shaw—from that of “Eh Mane Ah (Take This Advice)”, which talks about population control. (“O my people… we’re having too many children.”) Nabay’s fellow Sierra Leonean expat Pupa Bajah, of Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew, raised the energy even higher by grabbing a mic and spitting his signature rapidfire freestyle, a rousing contrast to Nabay’s plaintive chants. The interplay between two homies who probably know more than their fair share about excelling against all odds was stunning.
Critical bias: It’d be cool if folks chose music more often when given the choice between music and style.
Overheard: “The leather on these couches is so soft it’s like someone skinned a baby something.”
Kill Me With Bongo
Tay Su Tan-Tan
Eh Mane Ah
En Yay Sah
Top Soul Bah