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Five years after D.C.-based, Sierra Leone-born Janka Nabay released En Yay Sah—a synthesized, updated version of his homeland’s Bubu music for the Western world—he’s back with another effort: Build Music.
On En Yay Sah—originally released on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label—the Bubu Gang, a six-piece band of Brooklyn indie-rockers, backed their leader’s folksy croak of a voice with bouncy, African dance beats that were both computerized and played on guitar, bass, and drums. When it was released, South African club music had received its fair share of international exposure, but Nabay’s brand of West African-rooted beats hadn’t caught that wave. On his new album, also released by Luaka Bop, Nabay again works with two core members from the Bubu Gang: vocalist/bassist Boshra AlSaadi and keyboardist Michael Gallope, plus an assortment of other New York musicians to create buoyant bubu dance music that’s rooted in both traditional and electronic sounds.
Nabay first achieved fame in Sierra Leone in the 1990s by transforming bamboo horn-blowing—a staple of Bubu music—into programmed beats to support his rootsy vocals. While there are now a number of West African performers utilizing electronic beats with rap and R&B-influenced vocals, Nabay instead sticks with his own hybrid style that features melodies that link to his musical roots.
Build Music is a reference to his method for creating songs; Nabay teaches his band by singing and humming to them the various instrumental and vocal parts (his lyrics are sung in multiple languages, including Temne, Krio, Arabic, and English). After the core of the songs are developed, Nabay and producer Matt Mehlan (of the band Skeletons) flesh out the compositions, adding samples and remixing rhythm tracks. Build Music exhibits that process, which includes several sing-song demo tape verses from Nabay alongside new songs and two reworked older numbers.
Nabay’s sonic blend of old and new remains largely similar to his debut, but, half of a decade later, doesn’t feel stale in the slightest. On Build Music, it’s clear he’s still fond of traditional Bubu melodies, ’70s Afro-rock, and ’90s Casio keyboard funkiness, but Nabay and his band aren’t stuck in the past: They use modern programming to give it a contemporary flair. Underlying rhythms vary slightly from song to song, but remain largely brisk—more flexible than club styles like techno.
The most successful cuts on Build Music contrast Nabay’s narrow-ranged, less musical intonation with the sweet-toned, more tuneful responses of AlSaadi. The title track starts with Casio and modern synth sounds before Nabay chants the chorus with AlSaadi joyously answering “Bubu Music.” By song’s end, their voices are intertwining over playful keyboard notes and insistent drum beats.
“Santa Monica” is more musically fleshed out—it has bass and guitar lines, artsy synth sections, and an urgent beat—but again the key is the vocal shout and rejoinder. Nabay declaims “Investigation, interrogation, yay” and AlSaadi quickly responds more melodically with “California, Santa Monica” in a stretched-out manner so that Monica becomes “moe-neeca.” These cryptic lyrics refer to a time when Nabay was hassled by cops for smoking on a beachfront block where he didn’t know it was banned.
“Bubu Dub,” a simple but effective number, begins with galloping preset Casio beats before Nabay comes in and orates “She loves to dance/ She loves to swing/ And listen to Bubu music all night long.” Then AlSaadi follows with an enchanting higher-noted rendition of the phrase as the catchy beats soldiers on.
“Combination,” the album closer, is the most traditional sounding number with its use of ’70s-era Afro-pop guitar jangle, understated throwback percussion, and a mellower chorus. Nevertheless, the tune seemingly encapsulates Nabay’s philosophy as its pleading lyrics about maintaining relationships find him confiding to a woman: “We have got to jump, jump, jump,” with AlSaadi warbling the follow-up line: “and we have to live in combination.”
It’s a powerful line for Nabay, who left his country in 2003 during a period of civil war: He just wants people to come together and dance.