Musician Janka Nabay brings Sierra Leonean sound to Brooklyn
After becoming a national phenomenon in his home country of Sierra Leone, Janke Nabay struggled for years to break through the American music scene. His eclectic interpretation of "bubu," traditional Sierra Leonean music with roots in 500-year-old mythology, eventually found a home in Brooklyn. Nabay's debut album came out Aug. 7.
Janka Nabay calls himself "the Bubu king."
The Sierra Leonean musician took an ancient style of Muslim ritual music and transformed it into pop, using keyboards and drum machines. It's almost impossible not to dance to its infectious, frenetic beat.
The new style made Nabay a national star in his home country. But after Nabay fled Sierra Leone's civil war — he had become popular with the rebels, and he feared arrest — he fell into obscurity.
Then, producer Wills Glasspiegel found Nabay working in a fried chicken restaurant in Philadelphia and convinced him to get back on stage.
But instead of other Sierra Leonean players, Nabay's new band is made up of Brooklyn-based indie rockers who call themselves the Bubu Gang.
"I remember constantly being surprised by where Janka would decide to come in, or where his phrasing sat in a song," said Bushra El-Saadi, Nabay's back-up singer. "Musically, I was just like, 'What the hell is this? I want to try it.'"
The band’s debut album, "En Yay Sah," just came out on Luaka Bop records.
"It's not like a band covering music from Sierra Leone," said label executive Yale Evelev. "It is really an invention of Sierra Leonean music and other musics — American musics, Brooklyn musics, whatever you want to call it — and it's seamless. It's not something that's a version of something."
But Nabay's success is far from certain. Unlike many indie rockers, Nabay doesn't have a financial safety net to hold him during the long slog of playing shows and trying to sell records.
"I pray to God for things being better, because the musical struggle is too much for me," Nabay said. "But I'm seeing it that sometime it's going to be. I don't know when, but it's going to come."
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