Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington,… (Kyle Gustafson/FOR THE…)
When Janka Nabay performs at D.C. nightclub Tropicalia on Friday, the Sierra Leone native will offer a frenetic and infectious take on his homeland’s centuries-old bubu music. It’s a sound that has suddenly made Nabay one of the most celebrated singers in Afropop, a genre whose fan base has swelled in popularity over the past few years thanks to the overwhelming success of the smash musical “Fela!”
Nabay’s biography and stature may not yet rival that of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian firebrand who merged American jazz and funk with African rhythms and politics to yield a style he dubbed Afrobeat. But you could find worse inspiration for a future theatrical production. Nabay rose to stardom by reinventing an ancient musical form, fled his native country in the wake of a civil war and found success in the melting pot of modern American music. And should that musical ever be made, it should open not on Broadway, but in the District.
While Nabay hails from Sierra Leone and the members of his backup quintet, the Bubu Gang, consist of Brooklyn-based indie-rockers, it’s Northeast Washington that Nabay calls home. This is not a widely known fact, no doubt in large part because Nabay didn’t play his first local gig with the Bubu Gang until August, the day before his acclaimed new album, “En Yay Sah,” was released on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. The venue was a bit more upscale than the ones that host most local Afropop performers: the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. There didn’t seem to be much of a hometown crowd for the concert, and the Kennedy Center distributed a program identifying Nabay as a Philadelphian.
“Everyone says I’m from Philadelphia,” the singer protests from the stage. “I only lived in Philadelphia for three months. I live in Dee-C!” Nabay always pronounces D.C. with the emphasis on the first letter.
Afropop is a genre known for its chattering polyrhythms, chiming timbres and call-and-response vocals, and it has long drawn a local audience of expats, enthusiasts and Peace Corps veterans, one that has swelled in recent years. Nabay is not the only notable Washington-based African pop musician, but his story and sound make him the city’s most likely breakout star.
The singer became famous back home in 1994 by updating a highly rhythmic style associated with Sierra Leone’s Temne tribe. Although it probably predates Islam’s arrival in the region, bubu had been used for centuries only for ritual processions during Ramadan. Nabay’s “Dance to the Bubu” changed that and led to a second hit, “Lek U Culture.” The singer’s success was soon overshadowed by the country’s bloody, 11-year civil war. By 2000, the conflict was winding down, but Nabay found the aftermath unendurable.
“Everyone was hiding inside in the bush,” he says. “When they come out, houses are bombed, roads are blocked, no shops, no schools. So I find my way to get here.”
An acquaintance from his homeland lived in Lanham, and got Nabay a job at a nearby carwash. While working there, the musician met a woman who lived in the District. He married her and moved to Northeast. The union didn’t last, but the neighborhood did. Except for that brief sojourn in Philadelphia, he’s been here ever since.
Guided by his former manager, Nabay scouted for players at Zebulon, a Brooklyn club. The Bubu Gang is composed mostly of indie-rock musicians who also perform with such groups as Skeletons and Gang Gang Dance. Not all the Bubu Gang members are American-born — backing singer Boshra Al-Saadi is from Syria and guitarist Doug Shaw from Britain — but none are African.
The Bubu Gang uses modern instruments, notably Jon Leland’s electronic drum kit, which allows the drummer to produce complex polyrhythms. But the songs and their themes are traditional, as are Nabay’s exuberant dancing and the costume he sometimes wears: loose, colorfully patterned pants and tunic, topped by a sort of kilt made of raffia, fibers from an African palm.
“When I perform at clubs, I don’t wear that skirt,” he says. “When I perform at festivals, that’s the time I put on the skirt.” (He wore it at both the Kennedy Center and Comet Ping Pong, where he performed without his band in July.)
Nabay doesn’t know much about the local African music scene, but he has heard go-go. “The go-go beat has a little taste of bubu in it,” he says. “The beat is from the Mandingo tribe. The only difference when Chuck Brown played it was he used Western instruments.”
Western instruments, and Western styles, have been part of Afropop since its beginnings, which are generally traced to the rise of Cuban-influenced rumba in Congo in the 1940s. “A lot of the music that fits under the world umbrella, whether people like to admit it or not, was inspired by American music,” says Jean-Francis Varre, a singer-guitarist born in the District who has often visited his parents’ homelands, Senegal and Cape Verde.