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.
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.