In his home country of Sierra Leone, Janka Nabay is known as the “bubu king,” referring to his notoriety as the torchbearer for bubu music. Played as a popular Islamic religious processional music during Ramadan, the style was transformed by Nabay, almost single-handedly, when he modernized the bubu sound by adding electronic and studio instrumentation to it. He began recording his work and releasing the tracks on cassette, which resulted in his wide-spread popularity across Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, a few years back, Nabay was forced to flee Sierra Leone due to the tragic civil war going on there. Undeterred, Nabay set up shop on the East Coast, found a job at Crown Fried Chicken and continued playing bubu. After hooking up with some Brooklyn musicians, Nabay released the first ever international bubu record in 2010, fittingly titled Bubu King, via True Panther Sounds.
His latest offering, An Letah, is a new, sonically-rich territory for Nabay, full of driving bass lines, high-end guitars and chiming keys. With past recordings, the instrumentation was minimized to mostly just a beat-up drum machine set to 160 BPM and a cheap Casio, putting the spotlight on the raspy vocal delivery of Nabay and his backing female chorus. On An Letah, Nabay is now backed by a full cast of musicians-- christened “the Bubu Gang”-- that has allowed Nabay to build tracks off the same frantic energy of bubu music with new styles and sounds.
“Eh Man Ah” is an intensely hypnotic opener with feverish percussion paving a foundation that is then coated in guitar and keyboard flourishes amidst churning bass. Nabay delivers his lines (sung throughout in Krio, Temne, and Arabic) aggressively, at one point letting loose a slight growl. The following “Rotin” showcases Nabay in an even more agitated state, unleashing raspy yells and screams through the staccato keys and a furious beat that sounds eerily dark for Nabay. “Ro Lungi” is a bit of a lighter affair, with a cyclical keyboard line modified to sound like a wind instrument, which is fitting, since bubu music is traditionally played with bamboo flutes and metal pipes.
Fans of more experimental stateside groups will hear a lot that sounds familiar to them here. The guitar tone matches that of bands like Fool’s Gold, while the loose, improvisational colorings channel Yeasayer, or even recent Caribou. Not that this record sounds anything like those bands, but as Nabay continues to electrify bubu and explore new territories, shades of western influences --funk, jazz, noise-- have started to find their ways into his sound. Its makes An Letah an intriguing musical exchange that is likely just an introduction of things to come on Nabay’s forthcoming full-length, due out this summer via Luaka Bop.
With every step forward, though, something must be lost. An Letah thrives as a sonically-rich step forward for Nabay and bubu, but it also loses the intimacy found on his stateside debut, and the cassettes he released in Sierra Leone. While Nabay’s brand of bubu has always been built off its frenzied percussion, An Letah is much more serious and dark. Where on Bubu King we heard Nabay singing about John Kennedy and giving shout-outs to the studio, An Letah is an unrelenting force that finds Nabay sounding less loose and his backing chorus almost drowned out in all the action.
Still, the album remains a truly unique offering in a style unheard in the western music landscape. So many recent African artists--like Spoek Mathambo and BLK JKS--have found crossover success in the U.S. and Europe by essentially playing western music with slight variation. Nabay’s music, however, is still very firmly rooted in the bubu style, utilizing western sounds and styles as tools to help the sound grow, while in turn, becoming more palatable for western ears. It’s been a captivating listen thus far, and will likely remain that way wherever he takes it next. Bubu is in good hands.