Musician’s trek from Sierra Leone to Williamsburg

Refugee music: Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang, bringing the traditional songs of Sierra Leone to a new sound here in Brooklyn.
Courtesy of Luaka Bop

A ground-breaking musician who turned the traditional tunes of Sierra Leone into the soundtrack of a conflict has reemerged as a star in Brooklyn — even after an eight-year stint as a fast food employee.

Janka Nabay’s journey from Freetown crooner to Park Slope crooner began with a recording of “Bubu” music: a traditional folk style from the Temne tribe that uses bamboo flutes and metal pipes.

But Nabay changed the game, adding catchy beats that made the historic witchcraft chants perfect for dancing.

“Bubu music is very straight-forward — I changed that straight-forwardness to bring in a pattern and a style that people can dance to,” Nabay said. “As a musician, you should try to make a song people can dance to, and that’s what we do with Bubu.”

But when he first started innovating and creating this new brand of music, the world around him was changing, too.

His records first took off during the Sierra Leone Civil War, serving as the soundtrack to both sides of the conflict. Nabay eventually fled the war-torn country and migrated to the United States.

“When I left, I was worried about the system. No water, no food, no public transportation, everyone was hungry” Nabay said. “I had to go somewhere where my family wouldn’t suffer.”

And so, Nabay traded his superstar status at home to become a refugee in America.

He found work at fast-food restaurants and took odd-jobs until the Bubu King discovered the Williamsburg club Zebulon — the home of Bubu music in Brooklyn. That’s where Nabay met several artists and formed the Bubu Gang, an amalgam of many different influences that are now at the forefront of the genre.

“The people I play with, they’ve all got different backgrounds, so the music changes,” said Nabay, whose group’s innovations include the first use of guitar in Bubu music.

The Bubu Gang is now releasing its first album, titled “En Yay Sah,” which translates to “I’m Scared” in Krio, Nabay’s native tongue. Despite the apprehensive-sounding name, the songs feature uplifting and traditional-sounding chants, mixed with grooving electric guitars similar reminiscent to some surf rock tunes.

This will be the first Bubu album ever released in the United States, and Nabay has high expectations for the music’s popularity.

“I don’t want to be famous in America, I want Bubu music to be famous in America,” he said.

Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang [285 Kent Ave. between S. First and S. Second streets in Williamsburg, (718) 388–4306]. Aug. 3, 9 pm. $7.

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