Janka Nabay hails from Sierra Leone in Western Africa, and started off his musical career by emulating the music of his idol, Bob Marley. Soon, however, he turned to the mysterious and centuries-old music known as Bubu: native to Sierra Leone, originally used in witchcraft ceremonies but later adapted and associated with the Muslim celebration of Ramadan. The music predates Islam and is strongly ethnic and folksy, characterized by bamboo cane flutes, metal pipes and very danceable polyrhythms. The overall message and feeling from Nabay’s music was one of celebration: peace, empowerment and freedom, a universal message that appealed to both the secular and the religious of Sierra Leone. Nabay sold thousands of records and became a national figure. The message that his music projected was so strong, however, that rebels in the Sierra Leone Civil War used it as a rallying cry, and his message of freedom and empowerment made him a threat to the current Government, and he was forced to flee the country for the United States. Penniless and far from home, a nobody in a foreign land but a star in his war-torn homeland, he nevertheless got on with life, working in such places as Philadelphia’s Crown Fried Chicken and in other menial professions. Perseverance eventually brought fruit, however, and over a decade later he relocated to Brooklyn, where he was “discovered” by radio producer Wills Glasspiegel, who pulled some strings to get him a record contract in 2010. After the release of two EP’s and forming The Bubu Gang, whose members had played with Brooklyn indie bands Skeletons, Zs, Saadi, Chairlift and Highlife, Nabay dropped this, his full length debut, in August this year. Quite a story, eh? And of course, one can expect that with this massive overhaul and change in his life in the last two decades that his music has become slightly altered too. Playing in America, with American band mates, it’s only fair to suggest that his environment will in some way influence the direction of his new music, and it has, although this change is less inherent and more about the delivery of the music. Those bamboo canes and metal pipes have been replaced with twangy electric guitars and soft, whistling synthethizers that emulate the sound of flutes, fifes and organs. Nabay’s sensibility hasn’t changed, but he’s now got different tools to express it. It’s a modernization and expression of his music using vastly different cultural equipment, and it works; oh how it works!
|Janka Nabay with the Bubu Gang.|
I’ve never professed to be an expert in music of Africa, but one things I’ve noticed from listening to music from all over the continent, be it Benin, Mali, Sierra Leone, South Africa or wherever is its emphasis on rhythm. The music beats with the heart of this ancient continent; the rhythms are a strong reminder of the synchronous relationship between man and nature. Polyrhythms (that is, two or more different rhythms playing simultaneously) are often emphasized, and on this album in particular, they absolutely dominate. En Yay Sah is filled with strong drum beats interwoven with percussion instruments and looping, complex basslines. The rhythms are so strong that their absence is incomprehensible and their presence never forgotten. These rhythms are breathing life into the music, becoming something much more complex than just a timekeeping utility. Unlike a lot of music where they disappear into the background, forsaken for riffs and lyrics, here they permeate the foreground and never recede, despite their rigid dedication to the same beat. But the beats are so joyous and so complex that this is never boring; in fact it simply excites me all the more. I could easily listen to an album of these beats with no other instruments. Take En Man Ah and Tay-Su-Tan-Tan as examples. The rhythms effervesce with the most potent sunshine and happiness, even the drums themselves are empowering. Good grief, is it any wonder this music inspired begrudged rebels? Maybe if the Sierra Leone government listened to Nabay, they’d have changed their tune and there wouldn’t need to have been a rebellion. But I digress. The wonderful rhythms aside, The Bubu Gang colour Nabay’s compositions with enriching uplifting instrumentation, bursting with vitality. Rolling, almost surf-like synthesizer and organ, guitar drenched in a crystalline ocean of reverb and set off to dry in a blistering golden haze of the strongest sunlight. The basslines are frantic, insistent and complex, nearly bursting from their restraints, forcing their way into the forefront while continuing to act as an extension of the rhythm: Nabay’s intense, charismatic vocals are answered by Boshra Al Saadi’s higher pitched, youthful wails. There is not an ounce of laziness from any band member in the entire 38 minutes: even on extended vamps like Ro Lungi where the rhythm is locked in place for 6 minutes, the musicians still play like their freedom depended on it. Such intense dedication and urgency in music so filled with vivacity is a breath of pure oxygen in the polluted world of mainstream filth, and at 38 minutes it runs not a moment too long. The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long - and you have burned so very, very brightly, Janka.
En Yay Sah, with its unbelievably infectious rhythms and impassioned vocals, layered on a rich tapestry of contemporary Bubu music, just keeps on delivering and delivering. It’s danceable and listenable without compromising any of its integrity, it echoes the deepest motherland of Africa while attaining that sly contemporary edge, it fills the room with sunshine and life when all around is crumbling. It is perfectly understandable that this sort of music could act as an inspiration those oppressed people who knew life had something better to offer them. En Yay Sah has the potential to be a hit in clubs, the soundtrack to summer 2013, and a pat on the back after a hard day. Such energy and pure joy I have not heard from another album this year, and eagerly hope 2013 delivers something of much the same caliber many times over. Happy New Years folks: well, if you have this album, it certainly will be.
Words – Adam.