During the mid-’90s, Ahmed Janka Nabay traveled to Freetown, Sierra Leone’s largest city, to audition for “SuperSound,” a music-oriented TV talent contest not unlike “American Idol.” He had planned to do a reggae tune, but, because the judges were looking for something a little closer to home, Nabay decided to perform bubu, a style of traditional music originated by the nation’s Temne people, which he had grown up listening to. The sounds resonated with the judges and also with the people of Sierra Leone, who eagerly purchased his cassette releases. Nabay became something of a celebrity, the Bubu King.
Since then, the singer has relocated to the United States. After a few years of relative anonymity, much of it spent working in the fast-food industry, the singer was rediscovered by Brooklyn Afro-pop aficionados, who connected him with a U.S. label, True Panther Sounds, and a new band, the Bubu Gang.
On Monday evening, Nabay and the Bubu Gang performed a one-hour set at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. The ancient and folky origins of bubu aside, it’s not a traditional arts or revivalist act.
In its original form, bubu is played on bamboo flutes and metal pipes, but when Nabay popularized the music in Sierra Leone, he added production flourishes, mainly drum machines and synthesizers. His new band tweaks the formula yet again. Though Nabay is now based in Washington — indeed, you can sometimes find him working the stove in a Fojol Bros. food truck — the Bubu Gang is made up entirely of Brooklyn-based indie-rock musicians, including guitarist Douglas Shaw of Gang Gang Dance and drummer Jon Leland of Skeletons. They put a cosmic spin on Nabay’s sound, incorporating elements of jazz fusion, psychedelic music and dub reggae. Traditional riffs are expanded with swirling echo trails and plush synthesizer tones. The result is a hypnotic, woozy and spirited form of African pop music.
The songs rely less on chord changes or traditional harmony than a collection of intricately layered phrases. It’s meant for dancing and even at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage — not the easiest place to get hot and sweaty without feeling self-conscious — the Bubu Gang was able to bring audiences to their feet.
And while the backing music was realized and tightly rehearsed, it was Nabay who really brought the star power. Wearing a grass skirt, he worked the stage with James Brown-style vigor, bobbing, jiving, giving the audience the heads up that “Bubu is No. 1.”