Janka Nabay & the Bubu Gang Shake the Void

Sierra Leone singer Janka Nabay brings African rhythms to San Diego

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.

Nabay’s story is unique. Reviving the legendary bubu music that was once part of Ramadan rituals in Sierra Leone, he became a national star and led a return to local cultural roots at a time when Western styles ruled the African country’s musical landscape. Eventually, though, his war-torn homeland forced many to flee, Nabay among them.
After escaping the fighting and bloodshed, Nabay had to start again from scratch in America. Working at East Coast fast-food joints, the singer continued to write and eventually hooked up with the group of musicians that would become the Bubu Gang.
Under the Void’s Christmas light-adorned backdrop, Nabay and the Bubu Gang took the stage a minute or two before midnight.      
The drum machine-led beats were rounded out with live bass, guitar and keyboard, and the energy of the music was palpable from the get-go. Nabay came to the stage with a huge smile on his face, and it didn’t leave for very long at any point during the band’s hour-long set. The incredibly affable singer, with mic cord firmly wrapped around his hand, danced and sang for the entire 60 minutes, addressing the enthusiastic crowd throughout the night.
“Sahn Diago!” he belted out through his heavy accent. “Hip, hip hooray!”
And the audience responded in kind.
They were dancing and nodding by the end of the first song, and completely engaged by the second: clapping, swaying and giving Nabay as much back as they possibly could.
Nabay’s brand of signature bubu music is all about energy. The relentless beats and rhythms are heaped on top of one another over and over again until each composition reaches a frenzied peak. Only then is there some relief in flourishes of keys, guitar or bass. And this is repeated over and over again in almost trancelike fashion.

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.

Blogger Scott McDonald covers music in San Diego for a few different publications and is the editor of Eight24.com
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