Sierra Leone's Ahmed Janka Nabay was the undisputed king of the country's bubu music. Bubu is a centuries-old folk music with mysterious origins. It is typically performed for high ceremonial purposes, such as the processions held during Ramadan, but its roots precede Islam.
Nabay began his career by playing reggae inspired by one of his idols, Bob Marley, but he also played bubu, whose folk form features instrumentation such as bamboo flutes and blowing on metal pipes (often auto exhaust and building conduit) and handmade drums.
He entered a talent contest with his band (whose members played synths and used electronic drums, guitars, and basses as well). Seeing the judges on the panel become increasingly frustrated with imported brands of reggae and Afro-pop and nothing originating from Sierra Leone itself, Nabay and his band changed up their reggae tune at the last moment and performed a bubu number. They captivated the judges and won the contest. Nabay released numerous cassettes, singles, and (later) CD-Rs of his music in Sierra Leone, changing the shapes and forms of bubu, making it a popular style in secular as well as sacred and ceremonial life. His recordings sold in the tens of thousands, and he became a national star.
Nabay's music eventually became a political force in his nation. Used by the rebels as a rallying cry, it made Nabay a target. He was forced to flee the country for his own safety during the mass exodus in the mid-'90s. He landed in Philadelphia and worked menial jobs for a decade up and down the East Coast before relocating to New York, all the while trying to find a way to form a bubu band in the United States. He was discovered by public radio producer Wills Glasspiegel, who received one of his CD-Rs in a box of releases from the BBC. He sought Nabay out and put him in touch with True Panther Sounds, the label that released his first American offering, the Bubu King EP, in 2010.
Nabay later formed the Bubu Gang with various musicians from groups including Chairlift, Skeletons, Zs, Saadi, and more, in Brooklyn's underground music scene. Janka Nabay & the Bubu Gang released the An Letah EP in early 2012, and were signed to David Byrne's Luaka Bop label immediately thereafter. The band's debut full-length, En Yay Sah, appeared in August of that year. A critical success, the album saw Nabay and his group embraced on American tours and festivals over the following year. Prior to their next release, Nabay traveled back to Sierra Leone for the first time in 15 years. Returning to New York with new material and an adventurous recording approach, the Bubu Gang crafted Build Music, their 2017 Luaka Bop follow-up LP. Sadly, Janka Nabay died of a stomach ailment in April of the following year back in his home country; he was 54 years old. ~ Thom Jurek