RIP King of Bubu Music, Ahmed Janka Nabay

Sierra Leone’s King of Bubu Music, Ahmed Janka Nabay died in 2018.

Ahmed Janka Nabay (1964 – 2018) was a Sierra Leonean musician and a major figure in Bubu Music, a traditionally Temne music, which is played by up to 20 musicians blowing into bamboo pipes of different sizes.

Janka Nabay’s trailer for Build Music (2017)

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.

Sung in Sierra Leone’s lingua franca, Krio, his native tribal Temne, as well as English and bits of Arabic, Nabay’s songs sound infectious, inventive, and entertaining on the surface. But a listen with the translations of Nabay’s lyrics in hand reveals complex layers of meaning and discontent. “Game Over” expresses a strange mixture of hope and despair. “Santa Monica” is a joyous affirmation that relates a traumatic story of being harassed by the Santa Monica police just prior to his performance at The Getty Museum. Others are drunken calls to celebrate (“Popeneh”), self-reflexive songs about the power of songwriting itself (“Build Music”), love songs (“Stop Jealous”), and pleas for social cohesion (“Combination”).

He was the self-proclaimed father or king of Bubu music.