At a mixing session in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Janka Nabay, the famed modernizer of indigenous Sierra Leonean Bubu music, proclaims: “Everywhere is sorrow, tears, blood and happiness. At the same time.” Nabay is not your typical purveyor of “global grooves” where cultures easily mix in a melting pot of electronic beats. For Nabay, the world is a strange and contradictory place. Violence and joy, the modern and the traditional, inexplicably coexist in our cosmopolitan world. These paradoxes are frequently on his mind when reflecting on the composition of his own music. Build Music, Nabay’s second album for Luaka Bop, embodies the conflicted nature of his own life as a musician in the United States. He considers himself — at the same time — a spokesperson for the ancient Bubu music of his Sierra Leonean homeland, and a self-described “black cowboy” on a trans-Atlantic mission to sculpt his futuristic music with the mindset of a revolutionary artist.
1: Janka had a career making cassettes of hyper-fast electronic bubu music in Freetown during the 1990s, and then survived the Sierra Leonean civil war before leaving for the U.S.
2: Worked a Fried Chicken fryer for years in Washington D.C. until meeting Wills Glasspiegel, who connected him to the New York label, True Panther Sounds in 2010
3: Since then, Janka has worked with dozens of collaborators, and has been able to keep developing his modern vision of bubu music with the help of David Byrne’s label, Luaka Bop
1. What is the biggest inspiration for your music?
To make a rhythm for my home country – like reggae for Jamaica – so when they play bubu music anywhere in the world you think about Sierra Leone. Because people say Sierra Leone doesn’t have a unique and particular rhythm. For me, that rhythm is bubu music.
2. How and when did you get into making music?
Am I a guy, I was a follower of Bob Marley, so I learned 100 songs by Bob Marley. So when Bob Marley died, I decided to make my own music.
3. What are 5 of your favourite albums of all time?
1) Janka Nabay: Masibo (my first album from Sierra Leone!)
2) The Kabbas: Tay Go (led by Amara Kabba)
3) Bob Marley: Confrontation
4) Michael Jackson: Bad
5) Janka Nabay: Build Music (my newest!)
4. What do you associate with Berlin?
I’m African – you know that the German flag looks like the pan-African flag?
5. What’s your favourite place in your town?
My favorite place is Lumley Beach in my hometown Freetown, Sierra Leone.
6. If there was no music in the world, what would you do instead?
I would be a soccer player.
7. What was the last record/music you bought?
I bought copies of my own record — Build Music — from my label to sell it on tour and take it to African markets in the Bronx.
8. Who would you most like to collaborate with?
I would love to collaborate with Snoop Dog.
9. What was your best gig (as performer or spectator)?
My favorite show is 1996 when I opened the stage for the band Culture — a reggae band fronted by Joseph Hill — in the Stadium in Freetown from Jamaica. Hill is a Jamaican artist, a reggae player.
10. How important is technology to your creative process?
It is so important because it helps advertise me faster than before when the technology was not there. And I use technology to transform the flute into an electrical instrument. So those two things are important to me.
11. Do you have siblings and how do they feel about your career/art?
Honestly, they are scared for me because I’ve been working for a long time on this, and I try a lot. And some people say I am famous everywhere, all over the world, that someone must know me in any one place. But all the time, I am asking for help. So they are sort of scared for me, because they wonder—— Am I making it or not? They often want me to stop and do different things. I always tell them – this is the only thing I know, I can’t change. So they are watching me forever, just watching me.