By Christine Scott
In my conversation with Janka Nabay before his show at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, he was quick to point out that he “is a fun guy” and did he prove it on stage that night! He has a lot of energy and the dizzying dance rhythms of his bubu music, which originated in his home country of Sierra Leone, fueled this energy and kept the crowd dancing throughout his set. Bubu music originates from the Northern part of Sierra Leone and dates back 500 years to the Temne tribe and is used in witchcraft ceremonies. Janka grew up listening to this music and started playing it himself at the age of nine. Later he would become the first musician in Sierra Leone to record bubu music and modernize the sound by adding electronic guitars, drums and an organ. He became a superstar in his homeland and according to Nabay, his sound had created ownership of a rhythm that was unique to his country. “When you hear R&B, you think of America, when you hear Rock and Roll, you think of England, when you hear reggae, you think of Jamaica, when you hear bubu music, I want people to think of Sierra Leone”.
During the show Janka sang, danced and played djembe, while his band, which is from all points of the globe, kept up with an infusion of funk, rock, electronica and reggae. It was electrifying and powerful. I couldn’t help but think of the story Janka told me in our conversation about the ten-year civil war in Sierra Leone, and how the rebels would go through the towns blasting his bubu music to lure people out of their homes. After reading books such as “A Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah, I could only imagine what happened to those people who came out of their house to join the party. Since Nabay was a famous musician, he explained, he was wanted by the rebels and had to flee. It was 2001, before 9/11, and he was able to get a visa to the United States. It took him years to gather together the right mix of musicians to keep his bubu music alive. “My objective in playing bubu music is to send a message for rebuilding….rebuilding my country, rebuild friendship, rebuild trust." He wants his audience to “feel bubu music”, which was evident in his energy that night and his connection to his audience. He is a “fun guy” and wants people to join in while sharing and preserving the ancient music of his homeland.
Also on stage that night at Le Poisson Rouge was Tal National, a group from Niger that combines the rhythms of desert blues, soukous, reggae, mbalax and rock. This might seem like a frenzied mix of genres, but when experienced live, it's utterly electrifying. Led by guitarist Almeida (a judge in Niger), Tal National’s members are from the Songhai, Fulani, Hausa and Tuareg populations of Niger. I had to look on the map to see exactly where Niger falls and learned it borders Nigeria, Mali and Ghana, so I could see where the highlife and electric blues guitar influences originated.
Added to the mix was a female dancer whose movements were mainly West African, but did she power up at the end with a burst of dancehall energy! The crowd loved it, and in typical African tradition, showed their appreciation by throwing dollars at the band. Tal National loved it too and demonstrated it by presenting the set of broken drumsticks to the sound engineer. The night was an education in musical styles that I had never collectively heard before. Whether it was a unique spin on traditional bubu music by Janka Nabay or the rhythms of Tal National’s pulsating tempo, this night was a rare treat of amazing musicianship, accompanied by an array of African dance styles. "Fun" was an understatement.