Everything old is new again—this is the feeling pouring out of the debut LP from bubu artists Janka Nabay And The Bubu Gang. Ahmed Janka Nabay is solely responsible for bringing the bubu style to today’s ears, so it is hard to give context to this album through comparison; there is literally nothing else quite like it. A two-time CMJ Music Marathon performer, Nabay maintains the rhythmic backbone of the Sierra Leone folk style but updates it with electrified instruments on En Yay Sah. This music has deep roots, but Nabay’s version of bubu is more contemporary and club oriented than folksy.
Bubu music is full of mythological history. It is said to date back about 500 years, reaching Sierra Leone as it became a part of processionals during Ramadan. Traditionally, bubu is created by blowing on bamboo cane flutes and metal pipes, but Nabay brings it into the 21st century by including hyper-speed guitar riffs and synth lines. The track “Somebody” encompasses these sounds best, using a clap-like drum line to keep the steady (and quick) pace bounding along while double-time guitars increase the sense of urgency without weighing down the organic feel to the rhythms. The first track, “Feba,” is infectious. The pulsing drum beats beneath a more traditional-sounding flute line, which may actually be a synthesizer, and his female backing vocalists create a call-and-response atmosphere that brings to mind a ritualistic influence.
While all of the songs are certainly catchy, the message behind them is a strong one. The title of the album translates to “I’m scared,” which is apt given the political themes translated through Nabay’s music. Nabay discusses Sierra Leone’s political issues from the viewpoint of an insider living within the war-torn country and as a refugee, having escaped to America. In “Kill Me With Bongo,” Nabay presents a direct attack on the Sierra Leone community in New York. “I go to America, Papa, meet with my brothers, they just overlook me with cold shoulders,” chants Nabay, backed by his gang (consisting of members from Skeletons, Chairlift, Starring and Saadi, among others).
Between the history of the music and the themes behind the lyrics, there’s a lot to unpack in En Yay Sah. But it’s also an album you can just absorb. Even without the background knowledge of bubu, it’s possible to hear how Nabay’s incorporation of old sounds and styles brings a new, contemporary perspective to what is traditionally thought of as electronic dance music.