Two weeks ago, I knew nothing about Bubu music. In fact, I still no very little. My depiction of the West African sound was a generalized and largely Americanized one, influenced by the likes of Dirty Projectors' David Longstreth, Paul Simon, and the Very Best. Sure, there is common ground shared by these domestic acts with Sierra Leone's Janka Nabay, but the differences between the two are greater in number.
Wednesday evening, Holocene threw a dance party in honor of West African music. DJs wove samples and synthetic beats around traditional melodies while old footage of gleeful dancers projected on the wall. The bar staff even added a pinch of Allspice Dram to their boozy house slushy. It felt a little like pandering, but not offensively so. Just an outstretched arm clutching for a foreign object. I was, after all, of that arm, clueless in the Bubu music department. But there was ample intrigue and curiosity in the smoke-machine-clouded air, and the night did ultimately evolve into a healthy dance party.
In many ways, Janka Nabay himself is the translator between the tradition of home and the re-imagination thereof in the States. His band, for example, is an All-American cast of Brooklyn-based musicians. Members of Skeletons, Starring and Chairlift joined Nabay after he fled the war-torn streets of Sierra Leone. His vocal counterpart is Syrian-born Boshra AlSaadi, whose fledging harmonies lifted the entire six-piece that night.
Nabay is dishing up a contemporary brand of a music style that's centuries old. Bubu hit Sierra Leone when Islam did, becoming a staple of Ramadan processionals. Nabay learned it young and often, but was not beyond earshot of international pop royalty like Michael Jackson or Bob Marley. His Portland set as educational as it was exuberant. Here are five things I learned about today's Bubu sound:
This is the genre-tag I'd brandish if I had to. Nabay's set was all about pulse, set in motion by repetitive though offbeat percussion by the tireless Jon Leland. His drumming was jagged, ever-present, march-y even. It offered splashing counterpoints to the band's fluid guitar and keyboard rhythms. The rise-and-fall structure, Nabay's vocal timing and recycling, the pronounced bounciness of it all - it all amounted to a hypnotic rearrangement of the airier, traditional Bubu (originally crafted via bamboo cane flutes).
"Feba" should be in heavy rotation
The opening track to En Yay Sah, Nabay's powerful debut, is a summer shoe-in. Warm and resonating, the track caroms about like a moth in a light fixture. A brooding guitar line gives the whole track a noir-ness, while a high-register whistling keyboard setting gives a nod to old-school gangster-rap treble. I think Nabay tried to shelf "Feba" for an encore, but the song proved too tasty and the band caved a few songs into the set.
Bubu demands volume
Played softly, as it is being played now as I try to relive last night's show, Bubu music is awful. It's like dubstep with no instrumentation, sparse and cloying. Played loud—or seen live—the intricacies and pace outweigh the repetition and melodic dwelling. The playful and abstract-jazz-inspired interactions between guitar and bass can only be heard with speakers blaring. Plus, it's fucking dance music, the original batch offeing the soundtrack to witchcraft gatherings. Turn it up.
Bubu is equality
Nabay has stated as much. But live, it's true, from a musical standpoint. In addition to balanced vocal leadership between Nabay and AlSaadi, there's balance in what they're singing itself, alternating from short, linear lyrics to lengthy, melody-before-material gasps. There's balance in influences too, ranging from tribal ceremonial song, to African Highlife music, to psych-pop, to New Wave. Yes, Bubu is an original, but today's Bubu borrows just as much as the artists I mentioned above.
"I met a liar," Nabay said in between songs. "He said that Portland is a ghost-town." Naturally, we all booed in unison. "He was wrong," Nabay said. "Portland is alive and wants to dance." True, at least while you're in town, Janka.