When Janka Nabay performs at D.C. nightclub Tropicalia on Friday, the Sierra Leone native will offer a frenetic and infectious take on his homeland’s centuries-old bubu music. It’s a sound that has suddenly made Nabay one of the most celebrated singers in Afropop, a genre whose fan base has swelled in popularity over the past few years thanks to the overwhelming success of the smash musical “Fela!”
Nabay’s biography and stature may not yet rival that of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian firebrand who merged American jazz and funk with African rhythms and politics to yield a style he dubbed Afrobeat. But you could find worse inspiration for a future theatrical production. Nabay rose to stardom by reinventing an ancient musical form, fled his native country in the wake of a civil war and found success in the melting pot of modern American music. And should that musical ever be made, it should open not on Broadway, but in the District.
While Nabay hails from Sierra Leone and the members of his backup quintet, the Bubu Gang, consist of Brooklyn-based indie-rockers, it’s Northeast Washington that Nabay calls home. This is not a widely known fact, no doubt in large part because Nabay didn’t play his first local gig with the Bubu Gang until August, the day before his acclaimed new album, “En Yay Sah,” was released on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. The venue was a bit more upscale than the ones that host most local Afropop performers: the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. There didn’t seem to be much of a hometown crowd for the concert, and the Kennedy Center distributed a program identifying Nabay as a Philadelphian.
“Everyone says I’m from Philadelphia,” the singer protests from the stage. “I only lived in Philadelphia for three months. I live in Dee-C!” Nabay always pronounces D.C. with the emphasis on the first letter.
Afropop is a genre known for its chattering polyrhythms, chiming timbres and call-and-response vocals, and it has long drawn a local audience of expats, enthusiasts and Peace Corps veterans, one that has swelled in recent years. Nabay is not the only notable Washington-based African pop musician, but his story and sound make him the city’s most likely breakout star.Elikeh
The singer became famous back home in 1994 by updating a highly rhythmic style associated with Sierra Leone’s Temne tribe. Although it probably predates Islam’s arrival in the region, bubu had been used for centuries only for ritual processions during Ramadan. Nabay’s “Dance to the Bubu” changed that and led to a second hit, “Lek U Culture.” The singer’s success was soon overshadowed by the country’s bloody, 11-year civil war. By 2000, the conflict was winding down, but Nabay found the aftermath unendurable.
“Everyone was hiding inside in the bush,” he says. “When they come out, houses are bombed, roads are blocked, no shops, no schools. So I find my way to get here.”
An acquaintance from his homeland lived in Lanham, and got Nabay a job at a nearby carwash. While working there, the musician met a woman who lived in the District. He married her and moved to Northeast. The union didn’t last, but the neighborhood did. Except for that brief sojourn in Philadelphia, he’s been here ever since.
Guided by his former manager, Nabay scouted for players at Zebulon, a Brooklyn club. The Bubu Gang is composed mostly of indie-rock musicians who also perform with such groups as Skeletons and Gang Gang Dance. Not all the Bubu Gang members are American-born — backing singer Boshra Al-Saadi is from Syria and guitarist Doug Shaw from Britain — but none are African.
The Bubu Gang uses modern instruments, notably Jon Leland’s electronic drum kit, which allows the drummer to produce complex polyrhythms. But the songs and their themes are traditional, as are Nabay’s exuberant dancing and the costume he sometimes wears: loose, colorfully patterned pants and tunic, topped by a sort of kilt made of raffia, fibers from an African palm.
“When I perform at clubs, I don’t wear that skirt,” he says. “When I perform at festivals, that’s the time I put on the skirt.” (He wore it at both the Kennedy Center and Comet Ping Pong, where he performed without his band in July.)
Nabay doesn’t know much about the local African music scene, but he has heard go-go. “The go-go beat has a little taste of bubu in it,” he says. “The beat is from the Mandingo tribe. The only difference when Chuck Brown played it was he used Western instruments.”
Western instruments, and Western styles, have been part of Afropop since its beginnings, which are generally traced to the rise of Cuban-influenced rumba in Congo in the 1940s. “A lot of the music that fits under the world umbrella, whether people like to admit it or not, was inspired by American music,” says Jean-Francis Varre, a singer-guitarist born in the District who has often visited his parents’ homelands, Senegal and Cape Verde.
In the Washington area, the blend reflects personnel as well as style.
Nearly all local Afropop bands have American-born members, and they’re usually in the majority. Chopteeth, which will perform Nov. 2 at the Black Cat, is a local Afropop big band similar to — but more eclectic than — Antibalas, the New York group whose members played in the house band for “Fela!” Chopteeth has no African-born members, although New Jersey-born percussionist Mahiri Keita was raised in the West African musical tradition.
“If you look at the Afrobeat movement in the U.S., it’s mostly Americans,” Chopteeth singer-guitarist Michael Shereikis says. “White Americans. Which is interesting.”
Shereikis grew up in Illinois, not Africa, but he has strong ties to the continent. It was while living in the Central African Republic, as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1991 and ’92, that he started teaching himself Afropop guitar, which is characterized by its high, sweet tone and densely interwoven patterns. After moving here in 2000, the Silver Spring resident joined bassist Robert Fox in founding Chopteeth and started Grigri Discs, a label that releases music by his band and other like-minded artists.
“The African music community in D.C. doesn’t have a place to plant its flag,” Shereikis says. “We created this label to start to do that.”
From 1982 to 1995, the District had a full-time African music club, Kilimanjaro — although the Adams Morgan venue lost some of its African focus in its final years. Since then, local Afropop groups have mostly played festivals and indie-rock clubs. Sometimes, they get gigs as opening acts for well-known African musicians on U.S. tours.
Elikeh, whose first local gigs were at Takoma’s tiny Mayorga coffeehouse, played an August record-release show for its third album at the 700-capacity Black Cat, its biggest local club date ever. The octet, led by Togolese singer-guitarist Serge “Massama” Dogo, has played every smaller rock club in the city, from the Velvet Lounge to the Rock & Roll Hotel.
At the Cat, Dogo wore an African-style tunic and trousers, and Nigerian-bred guitarist Frank Martins played trebly riffs. But the band was joined onstage by two guests from this side of the world: local rapper Head-Roc and Takoma Park guitarist John Kadlecik, a Jerry Garcia disciple who plays with ex-Dead men Phil Lesh and Bob Weir in Furthur. (The large jam-band fan base overlaps the smaller Afrobeat one.)
“For us to build our audience, we can’t stick to one continent,” Dogo says.
That’s why Elikeh, which counts five Americans among its eight members, titled its album “Between 2 Worlds.” The title recognizes two developments, says Dogo, who lives in Petworth. “The band is not just Africans but also Western musicians. We decided to go with a sound that would reflect who we are more as a band, instead of just one style.
“The second is really about me. Because of my being an immigrant, I’m stuck between two cultures. Sometimes, I don’t know how to deal with situations. And I noticed that when I went back home, it was different, too. I faced the same situation, but in reverse.”
Dogo’s lyrics continue to comment on African culture but now are more likely to do so in English. “The way I wrote the songs, the verse may be in English, but the chorus will be a chant in Mina, my native language,” he says. “Instead of making the band do a song that reflects just me, we did a song that reflects who we are and where we are. Because we are not in Togo.”
Cheick Hamala Diabate, a Silver Spring resident whose regular band is also largely American, plays traditional Malian Afropop, with lyrics mostly in Mandingo. He performs wearing the customary robes and hats of his homeland. “You can wear any kind of clothes,” he says. “But we play better if I wear my African clothes.”
Since arriving in the area in 1995, however, Diabate has dabbled in American music, exploring the kinship between the banjo and its West African predecessor, the n’goni. That connection led to Diabate’s Grammy-nominated 2007 collaboration with banjo player Bob Carlin, “From Mali to America.”
Some African-rooted local bands incorporate reggae, disco or other styles into their music. Such mixtures may lessen the groups’ appeal to white Afropop aficionados. Shereikis, for example, is not drawn to much of the music performed in clubs and restaurants that cater to the city’s large Ethiopian population.
“It doesn’t have that old, crunchy vibe, which is what I like,” he says. “And what I think most Americans like.”
Bassist Aristide Zogdoule is a longtime Shereikis collaborator who also performs with the Lions Band. Unusually for a Washington area Afropop group, the Lions Band has an all-African lineup. In fact, all seven members are Cameroonian. When they play, Zogdoule says, they draw an audience that’s overwhelmingly from Cameroon and nearby countries.
Shereikis is a Lions Band fan, but Zogdoule says “the kind of music the Lions Band plays is more for the African community. Our music is more modern, more electric than traditional.
“When we Cameroonians play, you’re going to see me in a suit,” he says. “When you see Cheick Hamala or Elikeh, or even Chopteeth, they’re going to wear more traditional outfits. Because that’s the vision people have of Africa. We’re trying to say that African people can play African music — and everything else.”
Any divide between African and Western Afropop fans dissolves when stars such as Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour or Mali’s Salif Keita come to town. Local Africans “go see those big acts who are coming from Africa,” Dogo says. “They have a lot of nostalgia; they are homesick. That’s why they are going to see them. The African community, they work hard. Most of them work really late. So they’ll go see music they loved when they were younger. Not music by people they don’t know who are based here.”
Yet Dogo has seen the African portion of Elikeh’s following grow. “I notice a mixed audience now. Do I see a lot of people from Togo? I don’t think so. But I’m seeing them more than I used to. We played a show recently in Baltimore, and I was surprised to see Togolese people in front of the stage and dancing. It was really great.”
Dogo aims to become a full-time, D.C.-based Afropop player — someday. In the meantime, he works for a delivery service. His peers have similar aspirations and current situations. Varre is a building manager for the D.C. government; Nabay is a supervisor for the Fojol Bros. food-truck fleet; Zogdoule manages a restaurant in Alexandria.
“There’s no money in this for anybody,” Shereikis says. “So that’s not what you should be in it for.”
The Chopteeth co-founder, who labels himself a “stay-at-home dad,” would like to see a full-time Afropop venue in the District. But he’s more optimistic about the studio/performance space he’s helping start for some Ivorian friends. “It’s a lot easier to do in Abidjan, let me tell you. I don’t have the millions of dollars it would take to open up a spot here.”
Still, he muses, “if the musical community starts to believe in it, I know that the audience will be there.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.