The Bubu King Comes to SXSW

Superstar Janka Nabay fled war in Sierra Leone. Now he's starting over.


Michael May

It’s a given that many of the more than 2,000 bands that play SXSW each year have struggled along the way to get there. But Janka Nabay, the bubu music king from Sierra Leone, sacrificed more than most. He’s been forced to give up a successful music career and fame in his native country. He’s been separated from his children. And he courted poverty to bring his band to SXSW last week to play nine shows in three days.

Nabay grew up part of the Temne tribe in northern Sierra Leone, where the Bubu rhythm is played on bamboo flutes during all-night Ramadan ceremonies and other celebrations. Nabay says he grew up playing the music, but when he traveled to the capitol, Freetown, in the mid-’90s to take part in a music competition, he prepared a reggae song. “I know all the Bob Marley songs,” Nabay says. “All the music in Freetown was either funk or reggae. I was one of five musicians chosen for the finals, and the organizer said to us, ‘Can’t you use your own beats?’”

Listen to “Bo Sabi Dance”, traditional Bubu music played by the Tegbe Players of Songo.

The next day, Nabay returned with an electric version of his hometown Bubu music. He won the contest and a phenomenon was born. Nabay released several cassettes that sold tens of thousands of copies each, and he headlined Freetown’s National Stadium. But his career took off at the worst possible time— in the country’s rural areas, a brutal civil war was taking shape. “At first, I didn’t take it seriously,” he says. “I thought it was just another strike or protest. Sure, the conflict would stop us from getting to some gigs in the country. But after around seven years, the war just exploded.”

The rebels used child soldiers and killed and amputated civilians. The leader of the rebel fighters, Foday Sankoh, was a Temne, and rebel commanders would use Nabay’s music to lure new recruits. “Everyone loved the music,” says Nabay. “So the rebels would tell people, Janka is playing here tonight. Then when people showed up, they would surround the crowd and conscript young people into the war. Some people still believe that I collaborated with the rebels.”

Nabay does admit to being naive about the danger. He was invited to play for the brutal rebel commander Sam Bockarie and accepted. “He tricked me,” says Nabay. “He sent five beautiful girls to ask me to come to play. I’m a single musician! And he offered to pay us three times what we were usually paid.” So Nabay and his band went into the rural areas to play for the commander and his troops. “He was a short, charming guy. You look at him and you wouldn’t see any violence on that guy,” he says. “But he is the commander, the only way to get that position is to kill a lot of people.” He says the general paid them well, and sent the band on it’s way with food and palm oil, which were scarce commodities then.

But accepting a lucrative job is not the same as believing in the rebel cause. And when it became clear that some of his countrymen assumed he was sympathetic to the rebels, Nabay wrote a song to set the record straight. The song, called “Sabanoh”— “We own here”— asks the warring parties to negotiate with each other and to stop the violence. “With that song, I let everyone know the truth,” he says. “And the best songs are about things that are happening. The song became a hit, a platinum hit. Politicians started to play it at rallies.”

Nabay hoped the song set the record straight with his countrymen, but the violence was still rampant. There were 50,000 people killed in the war, many of them civilians. “If someone thinks you are a collaborator,” he says, “then three minutes would be a long time to debate your guilt. A very long time. It’s more like, ‘Is he a collaborator?’ ‘Yes.’ Bang. Bang. Bang.”

So Nabay fled to Senegal and got a visa to come to the U.S. His children are with relatives in Africa. “I’m struggling, I can’t raise kids right now,” he says. In 2002, Nabay arrived on the East Coast and started looking for a job. He moved around, eventually finding steady work as the manager of a fried-chicken restaurant. A little over a year ago he was featured on the public radio show Afropop Worldwide, and a NYC-based music promoter named William Glasspiegal heard Nabay’s music and was entranced. He helped put together a band made up of members of Brooklyn’s indy music elite. At first, Nabay kept his fried-chicken gig, but it started to get difficult to gig all night and then open the restaurant at 6 a.m. “I was making more money doing that job,” he says. “But I know I can eventually make more with music.”

From the beginning, Bubu Music has been an amalgam of traditional and contemporary, urban sounds. The latest incarnation pushes this synergy even farther. All the percussion parts are played on an electronic drumset. And the band brings its own American feel to Bubu. Keyboardist Michael Gallope says the band has developed its own loose process to creating the music. “Janka has endless rhythmic and melodic ideas,” Gallope says. “But he gives us free reign to interpret them. It’s not pinned down to one style. We’ll try things, and he’ll let us know—‘That is Bubu Music. That is not Bubu Music.’”

The band paid their way to SXSW by using the online fundraising tool Kickstarter. The eight of them piled into a van and drove from New York. They don’t have much money, and by Friday the strain was starting to show. “We’ve got the band and the power,” says Nabay. “Everyone is committed. We just need a businessman who has some money and wants to invest in us. You’ve got to spend money to make money. But we’ve done the hard part already.”

I caught two of the band’s SXSW daytime performances, at the French Legation and Cheer-up Charlies. The band sounded tight and fresh, an intoxicating mixture of afropop, electronic music and indy jazz. They’re not the only band with young American musicians backing up afropop masters, but the blend feels more natural and collaborative than most. At Cheer-up Charlies, the band was warmed up from playing a half-dozen shows in two days. The audience danced, kicking up dirt in the parking lot. Nabay swayed and improvised lyrics. I told him afterward that I thought the band sounded better and more energetic than the first set I saw. He smiled knowingly. “That’s the way it is with Bubu Music,” he said with a wide grin. “Each time you hear it, you like it more.

Watch a video of Janka