When you listen to music in a language you don’t speak, it becomes all about vibe and energy. Sierra Leonean Janka Nabay had plenty of both when he performed in Arabic, Krio, Temne and a bit of English at the Void on Friday night. Backed by his four-piece band, the Bubu Gang, Nabay and his friends brought a relentlessly high-energy set to the small club on El Cajon Blvd.
But this music is distinctly Nabay's. His eclectic musical upbringing was evident in his more-than-occasional rap-style delivery and repeated chants of “Rastafari!" -- although bubu is distinctly African, Nabay’s wide-range of influences are generously incorporated into his music.
Much like a traditional rap hype-man, Nabay is flanked by Syrian-born singer Boshra AlSaadi, who punctuates most every lyric that Nabay delivers. She does much more than that, though: While Nabay leads the charge, AlSaadi holds down the fort -- always the anchor, providing the foundation for the internal call-and-response of each song.
I recognized plenty of tracks from Nabay’s recent Luaka Bop release, En Yay Sah, but they were different animals in the live setting. The band feeds off the crowd, and the songs take on lives of their own. Mostly, that freedom added to the band’s amazing performance. The only thing not completely engaging was the uneven endings to some of the songs. The same infectious, impromptu energy that stretched them out culminated in an abrupt or awkward finish more than once. But that’s something that can be worked out; the overall loose vibe remains compelling.
Nabay seems to rejoice in his role as life of the party, and he took time in the middle of the set to address a sharply dressed dancer who had made his way to the front of the stage.
“I love the way you look!,” said Nabay. “The guy with the black suit and the white shirt. Game over. That’s what the ladies like.”
And then he dedicated the next song to him.
So it was no surprise when Nabay later walked right out into the audience and started dancing with a girl in the front row. It was just that kind of party.
After confessing “We’re tired” and leaving the stage, Nabay and his band were lured back at 12:55 for one more. The willing crowd could have danced for another hour or two, but there were nothing but smiles as everyone filed out of the club.
In any language, it seemed, a good time was had by all.