Bubu is played on bamboo flutes, sometimes imitated by metal pipes – updated by Nabay on the keyboard.
He was born Ahmed Janka Nabay in the village of Sedu, in Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province. His father was a diamond miner and fish seller of Mandingo and Temne heritage. Nabay was the fourth of five children.
As a child, Nabay was a keen fan of Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. During his teenage years, the family moved to the capital Freetown and he began to write his own music, combining Marley’s reggae style with lyrics in Arabic expressing his own nascent political beliefs.
However, the songs for which Nabay will be remembered drew on the bubu which Nabay first heard as a child visiting his grandmother in Masimo in the north of the country.
In the 1990s, Nabay brought the bubu sound up to date with an electronic spin. The lyrics of his song “Dance to the Bubu” proclaimed: “It’s an ancient style of music, but when you try it you never leave it.”
He was surely on to something.
His modern, eminently danceable take on the traditional style won him his first taste of fame on SuperSound, a televised talent competition. He went on to record six albums in Sierra Leone, singing in Temne, English, Arabic and the Sierra Leonean official language, Krio – a Creole language based on English.
The country’s political turmoil was a big inspiration for his work and in a country riven by civil war until 2002, his message was one of peace, inclusivity and sexual equality.
Yet his words were horribly twisted for political gain. According to The New York Times, rebel troops changed Nabay’s peaceful lyrics to suit their own aims and actually played his songs on portable stereos to draw civilians out of their homes to be attacked.
Nabay was drawn further into the conflict when he and his 11-strong band were kidnapped mid-tour by rebel general, Sam “General Mosquito” Bockarie.
He headed for the United States where he was granted an artist visa and settled on the East Coast. Unable to find work as a musician, he supported himself by working in fast-food restaurants and washing garbage trucks, while occasionally playing to fellow Sierra Leonean immigrants. In 2007, however, Nabay’s luck changed for the better when radio producer Wills Glasspiegel heard his music while researching an episode for Afropop Worldwide.
Encouraged by Glasspiegel, Nabay formed a Brooklyn-based band, The Bubu Gang, with several indie-rock musicians including Boshra Al Saadi, Syrian-born singer and former frontwoman of Looker. The Bubu Gang’s EP, Bubu King, was the first bubu record to get a commercial release in the United States. The band subsequently became a popular fixture at festivals up and down the country and went on to record two LPs for David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, En Yay Sah (I’m Scared) in 2012 and Build Music in 2017.
On the release of Build Music, Nabay said: “I hope that people will concentrate on my music. I want to hear somebody in London play bubu music, somebody in Germany play bubu music. Somebody in South Africa, Nigeria, something like that. That’s my hope.”
Further explaining the album’s title, he said, “In Sierra Leone, we played borrowed music – reggae, hip hop, R&B – nothing is ours. I tried to build our trend. That’s why I pick the name, Build Music.”
Nabay took his bubu music on tour to Europe for the first time in 2017. However, at the end of the tour, he was prevented from re-entering the US, having finally been refused a green card. He returned instead to Freetown, where he lived with his wife Kadiatu.