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Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang Say Kusheo to Harlem

by Jacqueline AlemanyJanka

In an ode to Harlem, Langston Hughes once waxed:

“Take Harlem’s heartbeat, make a drumbeat,

Put it on a record, let it whirl,

Put it on a record, let it whirl,

And while we listen to it play,

Dance with you till day.” 

Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang did just that this past Tuesday at Harlem's Ginny’s Supper Club to celebrate the release of their newest album, En Yay Sah. Just an hour prior to the show, Nabay, a prominent and seasoned star from Sierra Leone, could be found pacing the dimly lit club, anxiously anticipating the introduction of Bubu music to what was once the epicenter of the jazz world.

Twenty years ago, Nabay heard an advertisement on the radio for SuperSounds: a Liberian music company taking refuge in Sierra Leone that was calling on local artists to record. Nabay went in and sang a Bubu song from his childhood, which led to a 1994 album that went on to win Record and Artist of the Year honors. After years spent persuading Africans to focus on their cultural roots rather then mimic Western styles, Nabay was forced to flee to America after war broke out in Sierra Leone.

The Bubu Gang is the result of a seemingly magical genesis that has carried Nabay from working at a fast-food fried chicken joint in the Bronx to finding a new home in Brooklyn and the support of David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. The restless Nabay sharply contrasted with the placid ease of his band, which consists of Boshra Al-Saadi (a.k.a. Saadi), keyboardist Michael Gallope, guitarist Doug Shaw, and bassist Jason McMahon. A flurry of red, green and yellow, fast-paced melodies, a psychedelic guitar, rhythmic flutes, and a sometimes-hypnotic drum effortlessly pulled the crowd in. Even David Byrne’s head bop, nearly hidden in the dark corner directly to the right of the band, was more fervent than usual as he was sucked into the beat of each song. 

Even more hypnotizing were the layering of vocals and the unusual complement of Nabay and Saadi’s rambling vocals. Nabay, sinewy and sauntering in a knit shirt and skirt, and Saadi, writhing in a long dress that rolled off the turns of her hips, played an intense ping-pong game of call-and-responseSeveral songs climaxed with a sing-shout at the crowd in Nabay’s native language of Krio.

While the bubbling crowd waited for the debut of ‘Nar London,’ Nabay’s tribute song to Ola Sesay of the Sierra Leonean Olympic Team, we were plying one another with ginger and Japanese whiskey Harlem Mules. The hospitality nearly rivaled the music, reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance when the neighborhood was bursting at the seams with jazz clubs and everyone was a friend. Owner Andrew Chapman personally recommended the Arugula Watermelon Salad after an invitation to sit at a table of (gaspfriends!  The corn bread with honey butter and the fried yard bird littered most tables, and the bar teemed with industry people who were all warmly greeted by Wax Poetics, our official hosts.

The night was punctuated by rapper Pupa Bajah’s feature on ‘Nar London.’ In an Arsenal Football Club jersey, Bajah took the stage between Nabay and Saadi and fiercely rapped to the rapid-fire pluckings of a guitar and an electronic rhythm. Saadi and Nabay repeatedly sing-chanted a catchy chorus in krio.

Nabay’s native humility was not lost on the crowd, as he profusely thanked all of us at the end of each song in krio, ‘Tehnki, tehnki.” We thanked him in return as best as we could, the bar no less full than it was an hour prior, when Nabay first took the stage. Inviting lyrics such as “What you doing, let me see you grooving,” had put us at ease - though not for long, as the music was infectious, electric, and like nothing any of us had ever heard before. 

Nabay snuck out before anyone had a chance to speak with him, but, as he stated in an interview with Vanity Fair, he is not relenting any time soon:

“No, right now, bubu music is hot. So when you’re trying to do something, things that you’ve prepared for a long time, and then it’s in front of you, you can’t sleep. You’ve gotta do it.”