Music » Noah Bonaparte Pais: On the Record

Janka Nabay at Foburg

Noah Bonaparte Pais talks with Janka Nabay, who's coming from Sierra Leone to the Foburg music festival

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Janka Nabay with Empress Hotel, Monogold, Tiny Victories and DJ Yrs Truly

9 p.m. Sunday

One Eyed Jacks, 615 Toulouse St., 569-8361;

Tickets $10 (free with Foburg pass)

Janka Nabay's Bubu King
  • Janka Nabay's Bubu King

Ahmed Janka Nabay calls it "the bubu national anthem," and as he hums the opening bars, it doesn't matter much that bubu isn't a nation or that the song isn't really an anthem. It's infectious. "Come on everybody, dance to the bubu," Nabay sings in giddy, kidlike tones, commingling English with his native Temne tongue. By the finish, he's giggling. "How about that?"

  "Basically every single person that I've met in Sierra Leone, even if they don't know Janka's name, if he sings even a little bit of that song, they know it," says Wills Glasspiegel, a National Public Radio producer who discovered Nabay a decade ago and now represents him as a manager. Glasspiegel says he came upon the music the same way Nabay did: by happenstance. "The story Janka often tells is, he was in a musical contest in the beginnings of the Sierra Leonean civil war, and they had some judges there from the U.N. Everybody was trying to play Western music or reggae. They said to Janka, 'Don't you have something from here, from the local style?' That's when he, essentially on the spot, came up with his first original bubu song: 'Dance to the Bubu.'"

  That was 1994. Years later, Glasspiegel recalls, he was assembling a piece on the war for Afropop Worldwide. "Through that show we got access to this trove of music that the BBC had brought back from Sierra Leone, a bunch of stuff that you could never find outside of the country," he says. "As I was soundtracking this show — which was more political in nature than about the music — I heard Janka's music, and I said, 'Holy shit. What is this music?' I'd never heard anything like it. It struck a chord with me because I thought it sounded very modern and resonant with the direction of music here in Brooklyn, and the direction of modern independent music."

  Bubu dates back hundreds of years in Sierra Leone, but its circuitous, chiming tones — blown through bamboo chutes for treble and, more recently, carburetor pipes for bass — had been reserved for spiritual processions during the Muslim observance of Ramadan. Nabay estimates he was 3 when he first heard it. "That's my first music ever that I had in this world," he says. "This music is forever with me."

  Nabay's bubu, which helped influence the 1999 Lome Peace Accord that ended Sierra Leone's civil war, today can be heard in all corners of the country. Nabay loads that tradition into a slingshot and fires it into the 21st century, a digitized dancehall marriage of the original template with rapid Afrobeat tempos, played on synthesizers, drum machines and guitars. With Glasspiegel's help, a septet was culled from progressive NYC bands like the Skeletons and Gang Gang Dance. "When we were first starting to build the band, No. 1 it was like, 'We've got to find Sierra Leoneans who want to play this music,'" Glasspiegel says. "And we couldn't find anybody." At this Janka laughs. "The first person who really wants to play the music is a white person," he says of polyrhythmic percussionist Jon Leland. "Right now, he's the bandleader."

  His only album, Bubu King, captures four songs from 2000 recorded on his final nights in Freetown before fleeing to America. The EP was reissued in 2010 by the Matador Records subsidiary True Panther Sounds. For 2011, Glasspiegel plans on a summertime EP to introduce the band and a full-length debut in the fall. "Essentially the first bubu recording that's been made and released in the U.S.," he says. "The first thing we're going to do when we get to New Orleans is go to Congo Square and make a guerilla field recording — bring the bubu music to Congo Square, a place where it probably never has been, and document that. Janka has said it very well before. He said, 'I took this one music, from a single tribe in Sierra Leone, and made it for all the 12 tribes of Sierra Leone. The U.S. is the next tribe.'"


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