Thursday, August 2, 2012

Show review: Janka Nabay & The Bubu Gang, Natural Information Society, Jamaican Queens at The Empty Bottle, 7/30

By Gene Wagendorf III

Janka Nabay and Boshra Al-Saadi
When you call yourself the "king" of anything, you'd better have the chops to back it up. Janka Nabay, the Sierra Leonean leader of The Bubu Gang, did just that at The Empty Bottle on Monday night.

When I spoke to the singer last week he confessed, "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." The Bubu Gang wasted no time in inspiring their audience to move, beginning their set with a tropical jam featuring rolling bass lines and springy percussion. Nabay traded vocal flutters with Syrian chanteuse Boshra Al-Saadi, his wild, stream of consciousness raps bending around her smooth, glistening chants. The vocalists showed an incredible musical chemistry, working their voices through the interstices of the groove being laid out by the rest of The Gang.

In taking on the task of revitalizing and updating bubu music, a 500-year old style born from Temne witchcraft ceremonies, Nabay has enlisted the services of an impressive group of Brooklyn-based musicians who did more than hold their own onstage with "The Bubu King." Michael Gallope used his keys to both reference and expand on the traditional role of wind instruments in bubu, bringing elements of highly melodic indie pop and electric dance swirls into the mix. His flourishes and atmospherics swelled over and around Jonathan Leland's tribal drums, combining for what amounted to a futurist's take on African folk. Leland's manic, nerve-wracking percussion on "Eh Mane Ah," from the band's forthcoming En Yay Sah,  pushed the audience out of their dancing comfort zone, forcing speedier rhythms and more challenging steps. Gallope's 8-bit-esque synths unraveled over the bop, snapping to silence only when Nabay reached his own vocal crescendos.

The Bubu Gang didn't just challenge the crowd's willingness to dance outside their norm, they went after their ears as well. With nearly all Western pop drawing on blues structures, the hypnotic and repetitive nature of bubu riffs took some getting used to. Both my ears and my feet kept waiting for the expected changes, from a verse to a chorus or what have you, but they never came, or they came when I wasn't expecting it. Once my brain fully switched to bubu mode Nabay and company had me locked in for the duration. Leland and bassist Jason McMahon were relentless in their timing and precision, deepening the groove of each song as it progressed. The tunes were closer in that sense to dance music than rock, making guitarist Doug Shaw's performance even more impressive. His lazery licks and highlights sizzled through the music seamlessly, allowing him moments of aural bravado before slipping back into the mix.

The Bubu Gang
"Feba" proved to be a solid choice as the first single from En Yay Sah, as it was a testament to everything The Bubu Gang does well. Slick, pulsing and undeniably danceable, the track sounds as celebratory as it does sorrowful. That's a reflection of Janka himself, who has had to overcome quite a bit of personal strife to get to a place when he can celebrate his own transcendence, and that of the genre he's chosen as his outlet. Nabay switches between several languages (Krio, Temne and English), but his message is consistently one of love and understanding, something that comes through in his earnest delivery regardless of which he chooses to sing in. En Yay Sah translates to "I'm Scared." I didn't quite understand what that meant when Janka first told me, but it's impossible not to get after you see his band play live. Nabay has been through the ringer, he knows what horror this world is capable of, but he's made it to a place where he can do what he loves. Luckily for us, he loves to make music.

The Bubu Gang's set wound down with an uplifting, twinkling number that showed off their bandleader's love of reggae. After the group left the stage, Nabay and Al-Saadi stayed on, leading the crowd through and a capella sing along about being lifted up. With lesser performers it might have been a cheesy or heavy-handed moment, but the two singers pulled it off with perfect sincerity and joy. Again, a reflection on the band itself.

Opening the show were Detroit's Jamaican Queens, whose spacious, drifting dream pop was reminiscent of a spankier Suede. At times a bit overinflated, the group seemed to be aware enough of their most gaseous moments, eventually popping them with mellow melodies and dynamic harmonies. Singer Ryan Spencer's nasal delivery was a nice contrast to the synth-heavy buzz of the groups tumbling rockers, as it met every swell and build-up head on. Their softer moments were as charming as their bombast was exciting, and left me looking forward to hearing more.

Natural Information Society
Next up was National Information Society, the experimental outfit of bassist & composer Joshua Abrams. Even at 5 people strong, the band still sounded like twice that many were involved in creating the sounds emanating from the stage. The ambling, instrumental compositions sounded refreshingly organic, opting to craft their weirdness from instruments like a guimbri and a harmonium instead of a macbook. Structurally similar to Michael Gira and Swans in the way each instrument's monologue built on that of the others (the whole being greater than the sum), Natural Information Society couldn't have been farther from that band in result. The compositions felt both magically ancient and incredibly fresh, intense and intricate without a modicum of pretension.

1 comment:

  1. "I love to see people dance. Not just to my music, but to any music" I love this quote! I'm sad I missed out on such a great event at the Empty Bottle with some great artists!