The Bubu King EP — a four-song collection that marries hyper ramshackle beats with addictive West African chants and singing — breezes past in 20 minutes. On certain days I listen to it half a dozen times in a row. Janka Nabay, the man behind the collection, came to the States from Sierra Leone eight years ago. The sound is all his. Back in the ’90s, during the decade-long Sierra Leone Civil War, he had the idea to update ancient bubu music with synthesizers and drum machines, adding futuristic flavors to processionals traditionally played by larger groups of musicians with bamboo shoots, pipes, percussive wooden boxes, etc. As his US label True Panther explains:
Before Janka, Sierra Leoneans thought of bubu music as a relic of the past, something best left in the hills with the folk singers and witches …. Janka resuscitated and modernized bubu … This new bubu makes a point: that in the rush to modernize and escape the war, Sierra Leoneans risk abandoning their native culture.
The Civil War, initiated by the Revolutionary United Front, technically “ended” on January 18, 2002 after tens of thousands of deaths. More than one-third of the population was displaced. When Nabay left Sierra Leone, he was considered one of its biggest stars — I’m told he sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his cassettes and kids followed him through the streets. This doesn’t mean he was free from the violence: He was forced to perform his music for the Rebels, who misappropriated his songs, using them to get pumped-up for battle.
During his last night in Freetown in 2002, he recorded new songs with his “bubu boys” at Forensic Studios, a place you hear getting a shout out at the end of “Eh Congo,” which I’ve posted below. It appears on the Bubu King EP along with a few other tracks he recorded that night.
For the past nine months, Nabay worked at Crown Fried Chicken in West Philly. He actually quit last week, and has since moved to NYC, where he’s looking for work that will allow him to focus on his music. I caught up with Nabay. We spoke about work, Sierra Leone, the message in his music, his time in the States, and his plans for the future.
STEREOGUM: How did you end up in Philadelphia?
JANKA NABAY: One of my friends told me that Sierra Leoneans had music studios in Philly and that I could play culture music there. But my friend was lying. All those guys in studios were stingy and they weren’t playing my music. Then I met someone named Tito who took me to someone named Leslie and Leslie took me to the head of Crown Fried Chicken named Mohamed Janaka, who loved me because we have nearly the same name — Mohamed Janaka and Ahmed Janka.
STEREOGUM: I heard the story about you being captured by rebels and almost killed until the recognized you. Can you talk about this?
JN: The rebels tricked me. They sent girls to get me to perform in two different cities with my eleven-piece band. We did this, it was natural, our music was popular. Then, two cities into the tour, the rebels appeared and told us to go perform for their commander in the next city. That’s when I knew we’d been tricked. I wouldn’t have wanted to perform for him, but we were far from home and they all had guns. Many days later, when I returned to Freetown, people had thought I had been killed by the rebels. But because I wasn’t dead, they thought I had turned into a rebel. Soon after, I was invited to a musical meeting with one of my dancers. On the way there, someone on the street, a vigilante who I didn’t know, saw me and pointed me out to the ECOMOG [Note: Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group] troupes, saying to them that I was a rebel. This is the closest I got to dying in the war.
ECOMOG was killing anyone suspected of being a rebel. They cut my cultural necklace and told me to take off my shirt. I threw a cassette with my music on the ground and started shouting, “That is my music, that is my cassette. I’m a musician not a rebel.” At that same moment, an SSD — basically an armed police from Sierra Leone – came walking towards us. He saw what was happening. He had a big gun and he pointed it right at the ECOMOG and told them, “No, he’s not a rebel.” Then he told me to pick up my cultural necklace and shirt, and they let me go my way. Everyone was scared though.
You can’t blame ECOMOG — they were just young guys. The Nigerians, they didn’t know. But some Sierra Leoneans, they told lies out of jealousy. They caused ECOMOG to kill a lot of innocent people. Everyone was killing for nothing.
STEREOGUM: I saw this at your MySpace re: the Sierra Leon Civil War: “Unfortunately, Janka’s music was instantly appropriated by the rebel forces — they would blare his bubu music to lure people out of hiding before capturing them.” How did this come about? I mean, the appropriation … I’m curious what this was like for you.
JN: I remember when refugees from the fighting areas, they told me that the rebels have big sets and they would play my music on them. When the rebels played my music, the people who were not rebels would dance and join the rebels on the dance. The rebels would use the music to lead people to come out of their houses and they would lead those people to any location where they could capture them and conscript them, turn them into rebel soldiers, especially the children. When I heard about this, my heart broke. And that the time, I had the idea to compose Sabanoh, an album full of songs focused on peace and telling the rebels to stop what they were doing. Telling them that this land is ours or literally “we own here” — that’s the meaning of “Sabanoh” in my language.
STEREOGUM: In the same statement: “Partly because of this, Janka now makes an effort to clarify his messages and to address humanitarian and political concerns with his lyrics.” What’s the message of Bubu King?
JN: Those songs were made in Sierra Leone and it’s taken a long time for them to come to America. “To Ma Yah” is about what to do next, what to do after the war. “Eh Congo” is about used clothes and aid in Africa. “Congo” is what we call used clothes. “Good Governance” — you will know this one because it’s in broken English. “De Debul” is more African stuff — about our masked parade traditions. In “De Debul” the lyrics are: “J1, we de play play play” which is January 1st, that’s when we play our music. Overall, the message of this album is to introduce the bubu music to people outside Sierra Leone.
STEREOGUM: How did you hook up with True Panther?
JN: Through Dean [Bein, label head]. He met my manager, Wills, who I know because he produced a radio show about music and the war in Sierra Leone.
STEREOGUM: Has your music shifted/changed since you arrived in the States?
JN: A little bit. It’s going on now, but I’m not going to announce anything.
STEREOGUM: As far as the job … How long have you worked at Crown Chicken?
JN: I worked there 9 months and actually just quit last week. Now I’m looking for a new job in NYC and for the time record my new album, maybe the first bubu music to ever be recorded in the US.
STEREOGUM: What was your relationship like with food before you came to the States? How has it changed/stayed the same?
JN: I worked in a 3 star hotel in Freetown before joining the music. I got to know a lot about foreigners.
STEREOGUM: What are your duties at the job? Can you describe a typical day?
JN: I did everything.
STEREOGUM: Do folks who work with you know about your music?
JN: All of them do. Because I’d keep on singing in the place. They saw my CD. They checked my MySpace and Youtube. Also, I had to take time off to perform shows in New York.
STEREOGUM: Were you making music full-time in Sierra Leone? If so, what’s working been like for you?
JN: Yes, if I was in Sierra Leone right now, I’d be making albums. Excellent bubu music. But in America, I’m more alone. I had eleven guys, now I’m figuring out something new.
STEREOGUM: What sort of job are you looking for in NYC?
JN: I want a musical job, anything concerning music. But if I don’t have that, I can do anything from dishwashing to being the mayor of New York. Is that Bloomberg’s position? I want to take that. Vote for Janka.
STEREOGUM: Why did you decide to relocate?
JN: Because New York, the music is playing here and New York is a multi-cultural state — they accept everybody. If you do your thing cool, you’re on.
STEREOGUM: Do you think you’ll be living off your music full-time at any point in the near future?
JN: This music has been paying me since I was 14 years old. I’m 150% sure that my music will pay me. When it’s not paying me, it’s moving me. It’s always moving me.
Here are two tracks mentioned in the above discussion. “Eh Congo” comes from Bubu King. You’ll find “Sabanoh,” translated “we own here,” from the earlier album of the same name.
The “Eh Congo” Video:
Bubu King is out via True Panther.