Sierra Leone-born Ahmed Janka Nabay makes a fresh afro-pop dance party out of bubu, the long-derelict ceremonial music of the Tenme ethnic group that he picked up in the ’90s during the Sierra Leonean civil war. His modernized take on this ancient music melds electronica and traditional instrumentation, a combination that brings together blown bamboo shoots, carburetor pipes, a drum machine, keyboards, guitar, and an elliptical jamboree of percussion and totally infectious call-and-response choruses. It became wildly popular and a source of pride in the country during the war, but Janka was eventually forced to flee to safety in the U.S. and continued making bubu in Philadelphia and New York.
A couple of years ago, Janka’s bubu perked up the ears of Brooklyn bands, including Gang Gang Dance and Skeletons, and they back him now as the “Bubu Gang” on the three-track EP An Letah. It’s a taste of more to come. The Janka-led ensemble releases a debut full-length this summer on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, sharing a roster with the likes of Zap Mama, Delicate Steve, and The Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt.
Janka holds the reigns here, expertly blending the warmth of his half-tuneless lyrics amid a mad swarm of instrumentation and voices. Still, the songs come across as a massive group effort. Bubu’s origins as processional accompaniment for ceremonies is immediately evident as the music evokes a street parade that keeps collecting passersby and growing.
Janka’s polyrhythmic dance music, full of heart-skipping drumming and pudding-smooth organ licks, strikes at first listen like a particularly intoxicating session of hypnosis. Unpack it a little more, however, and it gives a heightened sensation of life breathed in the moment, a moment of acute stillness and awareness in the midst of a delirious wig-out. Take it like a hit of acid.
Essential Tracks: “Eh Mane Ah”