Janka Nabay and his friends and collaborators in the Bubu Gang spent two years seeking out the right mixture of elements for the follow up to their critically acclaimed debut, En Yay Sah. Then came the bubu horns.
These were samples of West African bamboo horns the sound that accompanies traditional bubu processions in rural areas of Sierra Leone during Ramadan. The bubu horns were recorded by filmmaker, scholar, and journalist Wills Glasspiegel, who first introduced the wider world to Nabay in 2010. In a Brooklyn recording studio this past year, the band and their latest collaborator, producer Matt Mehlan of the band Skeletons, was mapping these sounds onto a keyboard. With drumbeats pumping in the background, Nabay went to work making subtle adjustments to his signature looping, swirling melodies. Tracks gelled, and Build Music took shape.
The slow layering of the resulting album, Build Music (Luaka Bop; release: March 24, 2017), reflects the complicated paths of Nabay’s own story, its contradictions and multiple locales, and his fight for musical and personal recognition and respect. Crafted from field recordings on voice memos, drum and bass tracks sent from Sierra Leone, wild riffs overdubbed in the studio, and topped Nabay’s signature vocals, Build Music mashes up Nabay’s past as a traditional bubu practitioner-turned-studio-maverick, with his modern life in the dramatically different world of the US, where alienation and frustration often overlap with loving support and creative exploration.
“Bubu is an old, old music,” Nabay muses. “You can add new things to the beat if you know it really, really well.” Nabay knows it intimately, and has passed on this knowledge to his bandmates, who include Syrian-American multi-instrumentalist Boshra AlSaadi and keyboard player Michael Gallope. Over six years, they have shaken up bubu, working with Nabay to forge a North American version of his longstanding practice as bubu modernizer.
Nabay first came to the States in 2003 after he gained stardom in Sierra Leone during the 1990s for his genre-smashing update of traditional bubu music. Sung in Sierra Leone’s lingua franca, Krio, his native tribal Temne, as well as English and bits of Arabic, Nabay’s early cassette recordings of modernized bubu music involved layering bubu polyphony onto dance beats and hocketed keyboard lines.
“Much of Janka’s 90s experience as a musician was a studio experience. He would sit down in the only recording studio in Sierra Leone, which had an early digital workstation with a Casio and drum machines,” recounts Gallope, a musicologist at the University of Minnesota. “The studio engineers would help him program the beats and he would sing various parts. Then he’d bring in other musicians to overdub and layer. This is, in effect, a world music tradition based fundamentally in a studio practice.”
Caught in the crossfire of a decades-long war that raged in Sierra Leone during the time of Nabay’s early career, Nabay emigrated to the U.S. in 2003, and carved out a new life as an artist, working in restaurants and hustling gigs among his fellow emigres. In 2010, he finally crossed paths with Glasspiegel and shortly thereafter with an entire crew of musicians in the Brooklyn scene, who were veterans of vibrant experimental, electronic, and indie rock groups.
One of them was AlSaadi, who connected with Nabay from the first time they met after one of Nabay’s early gigs at the now-defunct Williamsburg club, Zebulon. They jammed together, and soon AlSaadi, who was already well versed in the music of her Syrian-American upbringing as well as rock and other forms, found herself to be Nabay’s first student of bubu in the states. “It has its own, very specific aesthetic,” she explains. “The rhythms are different. The pocket is more subtle, where you decide to place the rhythmic emphasis is important. There’s a lot of nuance.” AlSaadi’s ear for the nuance of bubu rhythms grew strong over years of collaboration, and resulted in Nabay asking her to play and record the bass lines herself on this album.
After meeting AlSaadi, Nabay and Glasspiegel gathered a touring band that worked together for a year and a half before hitting the studio to record their Luaka Bop debut, En Yay Sah. The band developed its own idiosyncratic approach to arranging the songs Nabay brought to the table: “Nabay sings the lines to us,” says AlSaadi. “He’s a wizard at creating parts. It’s not easy, but it’s the only way to transmit his idea.” This oral mode of conveying bubu music to his collaborators had its genesis during the band’s early days, and developed further over time. Their result was well documented—En Yay Sah won best-of-year accolades from NPR and The Washington Post, while the Bubu Gang performed everywhere from MoMA to Bonnaroo.
On the heels of their first release, the band began working on new material. They revisited some of Nabay’s hits from back in Sierra Leone. They built jams based on songs that began as an impromptu vocal and found percussion session while on tour in the van to SXSW (“Game Over”). They worked with Nabay to develop new songs, like “Santa Monica,” based on a fraught encounter with a police officer. Always faithful to Nabay’s vision, they wanted the tracks to continue the story of modern bubu. But at some point in 2014, they hit a wall, and nothing felt quite right. “Traditions can get diluted with genres or styles that are really different and not easily compatible,” says AlSaadi. “We did not want fusion; we wanted to maintain the feel, the flavor, the integrity by working slowly. There were many people involved in the record, but Janka always had the final word.”
The album finally took shape as Nabay and his collaborators allowed the diversity of the songs to come to the fore. Instead of pushing for a single and cohesive bubu sound, they decided to let Nabay’s varied materials and methods come to life in different ways. Some tracks are reimagined versions of old songs Nabay had recorded in the 1990s ("Sabanoh", "Angbolieh"), while others are vocals sung over original Sierra Leonean "riddims" ("Sabanoh", "Bubu Dub") that were created by collaborators back at home (Lanzo on D Beat, the late Tunni Boy, and the late Nfagie Kabeh of the Kabeh Brothers). Nabay typically uses Casios to imitate the sound of bubu horns and he continues that technique on Build Music. On a few tracks, he takes the process a step further, using samples of bubu horns that Wills Glasspiegel had recorded on a 2014 trip to the provinces of Sierra Leone ("Angbolieh" and "Santa Monica").
Each song was allowed to be its own world. And this diversity was intimately tied to Nabay’s many facets as a performer, composer, and person. “We decided the album shouldn’t sound perfectly uniform, that it should be a variety pack, a collection of things, because that fits Janka’s process and ideas,” explains Gallope. “There’s no one way you can build on a studio-based tradition. The best approach lets Nabay improvise in different ways, lets him stretch out as an artist.”
A multiplicity of sounds and approaches to recording also reflect Nabay’s philosophy of life—that multiple, contradicting realities always coexist. As Nabay put it, during a mixing session last year: "Everywhere is sorrow, tears, blood and happiness. At the same time."