In the 1990s, Janka Nabay became a star in war-torn Sierra Leone by adding high BPM drum machine beats, cowbells, and shakers to traditional folkloric bubu music.
Nabay, who plays at Summer Scream Part 2 at Comet Ping Pong tonight with Video Love and locals Heavy Breathing, tired of performing for rebel generals and emigrated to the U.S. in 2003. While working by day in a Pennsylvania fried chicken joint, Nabay began chanting his call and response, sing-song vocals to pre-recorded backing tracks at evening gigs for expatriate Sierra Leoneans.
In 2010, New York-based singer Boshra AlSaadi heard Nabay and introduced him to other musicians. Soon he was performing his minimalist tunes at South by Southwest and recording with a band composed of members of Skeletons, Gang Gang Dance, White Magic, and other Williamsburg groups. Nabay now lives in D.C. when not on tour.
Tonight at Comet, Nabay will perform with backing tracks, rather than his band. Arts Desk spoke with him by email.
Washington City Paper Arts Desk: Where did you first hear ceremonial music of the Tenme ethnic group and who was singing it and playing it?
Nabay: I heard it since I was a child in my village all around. It’s the first music that I ever heard at the time.
Arts Desk: How is the Bubu music you sing now like or different from the Tenme people’s music you heard during the Sierra Leonean civil war?
Nabay: The only thing that is different is the instruments that are played with it. The Bubu music in Sierra Leone was on local instruments and now over here we have improvised to western instruments more on the electrical side. The rhythm is the all the same but the instruments are different. Right now we want to take Bubu music worldwide and incorporate international flavors. That’s what we’re working on right now.
Arts Desk: Tell me why you reference John F. Kennedy in a song?
Nabay: He was assassinated in 1963 and I was not born at that time and he did a lot of things in a very short time like the Peace Corps in Africa, incorporated various privileges for the poor, free education, free shoes. Africans are still helped so much by those projects. When I was there I thought, “Oh, this man was great.”
He’s a hero. When I think of social movement in the world I think of him. John Kennedy made programs where school was paid for. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have been able to go to school and a lot of people wouldn’t. The guy inspired me so much when I came to America and started with nothing. If Kennedy could dream for people to go to the moon and in ten years it happens, then anything is possible for me. When we first started we had $150 per gig and in three years we have $3,500.So if Kennedy dreamed and it happened, I am dreaming in five years to make a million dollars. It’s coming soon.
Arts Desk: Why and how does your band use blown bamboo shoots and carburetor pipes to help make the music along with a drum machine, keyboards, guitar, and percussion?
Nabay: We don’t use bamboo here. We used it in Sierra Leone. You’re limited there sometimes and it’s easier for me to use the bamboo than electric stuff. You don’t use as many electrical instruments as you see in America. I prefer to do what’s easiest. My band is all American but they are professional musicians. They didn’t know anything about Bubu but I give them songs to listen to and I’d tell them how to recreate the sounds. They can do it well and I think it’s great.In Sierra Leone the people love me and my music, but here it took me seven to 10 years to find an opportunity to play my music. The Sierra Leoneans here ask me if I can play R&B, reggae, or rap and I tell them I want to play music from my own country. The Americans I meet here are supportive and want to hear my traditional music. By God’s grace in America everyone will love me.
Summer Scream Part 2 with Janka Nabay, Video Love (Paris) and Heavy Breathing plus dancers, DJs, and VJs tonight at 10 p.m. at Comet Ping Pong, 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW. $10. cometpingpong.com.