Nabay is the Bubu King, perhaps the world’s leading popularizer of a music
created for Sierra Leonian witchcraft rituals and adapted,
as the country became Islamic, for Ramadan processions. The music is
fascinating, a multi-layered, multi-rhythmed texture of percussion, chant,
guitar, bass and keyboards, but the story behind it is even more compelling.
Nabay got his first break at a Freetown
music contest when the judges grew tired of imported reggae and asked if anyone
could perform in the local tradition. Nabay could and did and soon became the
country’s best known interpreter of Bubu, selling tens of thousands of cassette
tapes in his native Sierra
Leone. He became a big star just as civil war
broke out in the 1990s and came under protection of one of Sierra Leone’s most vicious
warlords, Sam Bockarie. His music became an instrument of war, performed
against a background of AK-47s and blood diamonds and mutilation. Soldiers would blast Bubu to draw people out of their
homes in captured villages, then
kill or take them prisoner.
Sierra Leone and made his
way to America,
where the former national icon ended up working as a fry cook. He tried to put
a band together out of Sierra Leonian immigrants, but couldn’t get them
interested (“Kill Me With Bongos” is, apparently, about this attempt). Then, in Brooklyn, he connected with a group of indie rock musicians.
John Leland from Skeletons reconstructed the intricate rhythms of his songs.
Michael Gallope of Skeletons and Starring approximated Bubu’s flutes and blast
pipes with organ and synthesizer. Syrian singer Boshra AlSaadi added airy,
intoxicating background vocals to Nabay’s gritty chants. First Tony Lowe (of
Skeletons and Zs) and later Doug Shaw played guitar. Jason McMahon (Skeletons,
Chairlift) played bass.
En Yay Sah (or “I’m Scared”) is Nabay’s first
full-length album, following the En Letah EP on True Panther in January 2012. Like its predecessor, it is not slavishly
traditional. Rather it uses the polyrhythmic structure of traditional music as
foundation for expansive, trippy, electronically enhanced psychedelia. “Feba”,
the opener, is physically irresistible in its circling, swaying dance rhythms,
but also heat-hazily mind-opening. The title track is anchored by hand drums
and buzzing, body-moving bass, but opens up with high, fever-dreaming synths
and interleaved chants. “Somebody”, the lone track sung in English (others are
in Arabic and Temne), rides driving, insistent rhythms, but feels, despite its
pulse and sweat, somehow disembodied.
which is to say that En Yay Sah is
head music as well as body music, borrowing not just from Nabay’s Bubu
tradition, but also from a Brooklyn experimental scene that embraces free jazz,
psych, funk and indie rock. The music
that survived war, immigration and poverty flourishes even among the hipsters,
a happy ending for a tale of struggle.
DOWNLOAD: “En Yay Sah”, “Febra” JENNIFER KELLY