Rising stars: Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang
The Bubu Gang is currently on a U.S. tour. Credit: The Bubu Gang
Rising stars: Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang

The undisputed “Bubu King” Janka Nabay, and his Bubu Gang of four eclectic New York musicians travel across America in a van, spreading the Bubu music of Nabay’s Temne people of Sierra Leone.

“If you try the Bubu music, you will never leave it,” Nabay said.

Bubu music is an ancient folk music played with up to 20 musicians using bamboo cane flutes, radiator pipes for bass tones, and percussive components. It was born of mystical roots in witchcraft ceremonies, and eventually evolved into Ramadan processional music as it used today.

Ahmed Janka Nabay was the first musician to record Bubu music during the
Sierra Leone Civil War and to add a modern twist: he used electronic drums and modern instruments to replace traditional sounds typical to Bubu music. The product is a frenetically paced dance music with his commanding voice calling out inspiring and hopeful messages.

four successful tape releases in Sierra Leone , the fallout of being a persecuted star in his country, and a trek to Philadelphia in the late 1990’s where he worked at Crown Chicken, Nabay made his way to New York City. There he teamed up with Brooklyn musicians, forming his “Bubu Gang” and releasing the album Bubu King on the True Panther label in 2010.

“The music makes people jump, giving many people ‘souls,'” Nabay said. “You got a strong message behind it. All lyrics are about making people feel good. Making people be themselves.”

Doug Shaw, guitarist for the band, further breaks down the structures of their brand of Bubu.

“Jonathan Leland plays electronic drum kit,” he said “Where there would usually be three to four percussionists, he is playing all those parts at once. We wanted to take the Bubu rhythm which had a house rhythm and pay attention to each drum sound and make it more club-ey or danceable. We were able to layer organs and guitars and vocals and create a much broader sound.”

In addition to Nabay, Shaw and Leland, the band consists of Boshra Al-Saadi singing, Michael Gallope on organ and Jason McMahon on bass.

The Bubu Gang recently played alongside Snoop Dogg and others at
South by Southwest on their U.S. tour. For audiences, the shows are a new experience.

“Any place we play right now, it is the first time ever they have heard that kind of music,” Nabay said. “They believe it is powerful.”

The music has been powerful.

During the civil war,
rebel soldiers would trick people into coming out into the open by playing their beloved Janka Nabay on boomboxes, then they would be captured and conscripted, or worse.

Nabay’s song
“Sabanoh” literally meaning “we own here” addresses the rebel soldiers, reminding them whose land it is, and asking them to stop their heinous acts.

“We give advice to people. How to get along. How to make peace,” Nabay said of the positive and political messages woven throughout his songs. He draws hope and strength from his inspirations: “God, Bob Marley, and Michael Jackson.”

“I am hoping to open a new trend,” said Nabay of his plans in bringing his music to the Western world. “You play the best music in the world and nobody knows you!”

Shaw spoke of each band member’s influence on the new Bubu style, “we are all drawing from pretty wide paths.” Each member has their own projects of various experimental genres, but, said Shaw, “We definitely are every much involved and committed in the project.”

“We listen to Janka and pay attention to him while we play, even at a live show. The structures are not set all the time. Everything we play is transient and we improvise a lot. It’s a very explorative project for us.”

Even while touring the band is working hard on incorporating new influences to Bubu. Shaw said, “We’ve been messing around with trying to make new things on the move and evolving the songs and maybe recording while we are traveling.”

For instance, Shaw shared some influences from South African House music trends and Shangaan Electro.

“Instantly Janka started flowing over,” Shaw said. “When it comes to him when he gets an idea it comes up off the top of his head: it’s a very conscious style, which is something that I really admire about the way Janka creates.”

Nabay also brings style to his performances.

“He is a very enigmatic performer like Fela (Kuti) and James Brown,” Shaw said. “You’ll see for yourself he is one on the most awesome characters I’ve ever met!”

Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang are currently touring in the U.S., and will be playing this
Saturday March 24th at Hi-Dive in Denver alongside local afrobeat act Pink Hawks and headlining act Delicate Steve . For tour dates, song purchases and more go to http://www.truepanther.com/artists/janka-nabay.



About author

Mano Cockrum's picture

Mano Cockrum is a Hopi/Diné artivist in the visual and sonic arts. She performs in her band Sounds For Fathers, and frequents shows to record video for her ManoART10 Youtube channel, featuring her favorite bands on her music blog manocockrum.tumblr.com.

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