Friday, July 27, 2012

Interview: Janka Nabay

By Gene Wagendorf III 

Janka Nabay & The Bubu Gang
Even a city as worldly as Chicago doesn't host royalty every day, but the "Bubu King" himself, Janka Nabay, is bringing his band to the Windy City for a couple of shows that should prove to be unlike anything else you'll see this year. What the hell is bubu? Good question. The Sierra Leonean native made his name by adopting a traditional genre born in ancient witchcraft ceremonies and adding his own flair, as well as some electric instruments. Janka took what was once an airy, minimalist harmony of percussion and crude wind instruments and added synths, guitar, bass and a host of globe-spanning influences.  It's fast, it's catchy, and for something that's centuries old, it sounds pretty damn fresh.

After escaping  a war-torn Sierra Leone, Janka set up shop in the US, releasing a solo EP, Bubu King, before forming Janka Nabay & The Bubu Gang with a collection of Brooklyn musicians. The group's first offering, An Letah, features tight, swirling arrangements and toe-tapping rhythms that defy you to sit still and listen. Not possible. Nabay and co. have just wrapped up their first full-length release, En Yay Sah, due out August 7th. "The King" will be performing at Celebrate Clark St. on Sunday, July 29th ($5 donation) and at The Empty Bottle on Monday, July 30th (FREE). Janka took some time from making people boogie to answer a few questions for WCR.

WCR: They say you're the "King of Bubu." What's bubu? How did people react to you adding electric instruments to it?

What is bubu? Bubu music is a danceable rhythm. Bubu music is the sound of God. The reaction? Fantastic. The people like it because it's unique. And people love to dance.

So when people see you live, you want them to dance?

Oh yes. I love to see people dance. Not just to my music, but to any music, because dancing is like medicine. It keeps you fit. That's why we do this. 

Your new record is called En Yay Sah. What does that mean?

It means "I'm scared." I'm scared.

But the record itself, I had a chance to listen to some if it, it sounds upbeat. It's a happy record? En Yay Sah, it sounds like you're celebrating, not like you're scared.

Yeah, yeah. You can't make dancing fearful or the music horrible. I'm very careful with people when I say I'm scared. The beat, the rhythm, they should be danceable, uplifting. It should be superb. You know? So people will love to dance. When I play, there's no translation. The beat has to make people feel good. It's gonna be fun.

Is it different, playing bubu with American musicians as opposed to ones from back home? Is writing music different here? Do you find yourself wanting to sing about the same things?

It's unique. It changes the flavor of the music to another rhythm. Dance music is world music. This bubu music is going off world music. Our audience is Asians, Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Chinese- they all dance. When we play around the universities, around the festivals, these are the people... Yesterday we performed in Youngstown, OH. There was nobody from Africa. So bubu music is world music right now. Recording here is new. America is a different place. A very different place. In Sierra Leone, the musicians, we were eleven people. Right now in America, it's six. If two men can do it in Sierra Leone, one man can do it here. 

What's the most rewarding thing about being a musician?

It's life. I started playing when I was nine. I started performing when I was fourteen. I had my first album when I was nineteen. Everything in life I got is through music.

WCR: What other music interests you? Are there any musicians you'd love to collaborate with?

The music I like today is reggae music. Yes, reggae music, and rap.

I've never met the renowned American musicians. I've met a lot, but not the renowned ones. I'd love to work with Snoop. Snoop Dog and Kanye West. Either one of the two.

WCR: Kanye's from Chicago, so maybe you can get a hold of him when you're in town?

Oh, ok. Kanye is from Chicago? If you can point me towards where he is that would be good. [Laughs] I'd love to meet Kanye or Snoop Dog. Snoop Dog looks like me. Everybody tells me "Janka, you look like Snoop Dog." But you know what? Snoop Dog looks like me! I'm Janka! 

The reason why I want to meet Kanye West, he sings a song about my country, Sierra Leone. Blood Diamonds. A great song. I love it because it seems that he feels our pain. I'd love to meet him so that we could make a song. So see what you can do. [Laughs] 

I've been thinking of Snoop Dog, and I've got songs. I already got a song, I'm just waiting for the call. Right now, right now. Game over. Call me.


You can catch Janka Nabay & The Bubu Gang on Sunday at Celebrate Clark Street (8pm, $5 donation) and at The Empty Bottle on Monday (FREE, 9pm). Oh, and if you know Kanye West, bring him by. Janka will thank you. 

Check out "Feba," the first track from En Yay Sah, below.

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