Mystic in It: Janka Nabay and the Bubu Life
In conjunction with our Hip Deep program “Proving the Bubu Myth: Janka Nabay, War and Witchcraft in Sierra Leone,” we’ve reposted an earlier interview with Janka from a previous show. Setting up the myth, if you will.
Banning Eyre: It’s great to meet you! I’ve seen your show a few times, enjoyed the record, reviewed it, and I just wanted to have the chance to talk to you a bit. Let’s go back a little bit to start, to the beginning. I understand that bubu music comes from music that is associated with Ramadan and Islam. Tell me a little more about the original, the old bubu music.
Janka Nabay: The old music was from before Ramadan came. It is like witchcraft music. These guys, witches, would use this music to call to themselves when they were ready for something, for anything! It is like ringing a bell. That’s what they used at that time.
To call for something?
Now, when you say before Ramadan, that means before Islam? Is bubu an older African tradition that goes back further?
Oh yes, yes. Definitely before Islam. Because Christianity formed 600 years before Islam formed. Islam came and then took most of the…some negative religions, some religions that did not obey God, like the witch religion. Nobody accepted it because it was to destroy. You can’t keep things on the back of your back, things that will destroy the world. No.
You see, so, this music is from the witchcraft, and the person who brings out this music died for this music, because he taught little children to play this. When you teach a child to play something and this child is just 11 or 8 years, and this child is going to live for the next 80 years in this world, then the music may live 80 years. So they transferred the music from this generation to that generation. This generation right here, I am the first guy who started to bring this music to the West, using Western instruments to play it.
So you say that this music comes out of a tradition that’s much older than Islam, that it’s an African music.
It’s an African music.
But when you were young and you were first experiencing it, it had become a part of local Islamic practices. How did that work?
That was the first music I ever heard in the world. I was born in a village in the north part of Sierra Leone, and bubu was the only music played in the village at that time. I was young, because when I started getting some ideas, they take me from the town to do some schooling. You see that’s why I move from the town, but bubu music has been with me since creation.
These witch guys–you see the reason that it transferred to Ramadan is because 80 percent of Sierra Leoneans are Muslims. Even me standing in front of you here, I am a Muslim, because I only started knowing about other religions when I come out of Sierra Leone. You see, all I know is Islam, I know Islam for peace, you see? Now this music right now, we transform it to Western instruments, and then it’s playing and then it’s doing so well.
But didn’t you start doing that even when you were in Sierra Leone? I understand you made these famous cassettes that circulated around the country. What was it like in the beginning? When did you first decide that you were going to make this music a new kind of music, that you were going to make it your music?
In the very beginning I was so excited to play this music. My aim–I wanted to be famous like Bob Marley, I wanted to be like Bob Marley. Everything Bob Marley… and I liked Michael Jackson on the other side. So I was thinking to become one of these two guys.
I started playing music, and the war break out, so everywhere is war, and all my Bob Marley and Michael Jackson feelings changed overnight. All the lyrics I have about singing to amuse people in the club, in the ghetto, in the workplace, all those things go away. All I think about how to stop this war. So I become a revolutionary musician, I started singing about the war. Imagine, you compose a lot of songs, but you have no way to release them. All you got to release is songs about about how this war must come to an end. And the war has come to an end 10 years back now, and I come to New York and started playing with my group, and all those songs that I was keeping, now they are coming.
They are coming! They have their time.
Yes. They’re coming. They have their time. So that’s why now people look at me like I am a genius, I compose at anytime, I can compose six songs a day. Oh yeah! but trust me, I worked long ago. I got them in the war, in records, in CDs, over my head, this, that. You know, you see, that’s what happened.
Anyway the war is bad. Nobody need war. But after the war in Sierra Leone, a lot of us change, our attitude, the way we respect elders, the way we see the world. People don’t know, people think about war, people want war. Oh my God–that’s the worst… Don’t people seek war, it’s not good.
I understand there was a difficult moment for you when you started to become known and this music was catching on with people. It became popular with some of the warriors and they put pressure on you? What happened?
Ah, because they loved my CDs, they loved my music. The lyrics are Sierra Leonean and the music is Sierra Leonean music, so they loved it! And they play it, we just make an example–Right now, Tompkins Square Park, I just go like that [turns on music], and I started dancing, and everybody around started dancing with me. It’s the same way they conscripted our people in the rebel war. Even right now when I played that music, the area changed, even the flies are happy, even you and me. The soldiers loved the music.
So the rebels, they liked your music, because it was Sierra Leonean, and there is not much very music that is Sierra Leonean. But that became a problem, and that is why you ended up having to leave, right? How did that happen?
It’s real Sierra Leonean music, they love it, the soldier love it, the rebel love it. The peacekeeper come to the country, and they love–love–the music. The music is everywhere! So when the rebel wants the people to come, they put a boom box like that and loud music and everybody comes and started dancing–five-six seconds, a minute. You see they round you guys with guns, everybody gotta go. What you gonna do? Everybody come out started dancing, everybody gotta go. Sorry for the people that go through those things. You can’t see people dying and live with your life at stake. When someone kill anybody in front of you, they are capable to kill you!
You saw things like that?
I can’t stand that shit. That’s why I’m here. I’m here now, with this music, I want this music to be known out there. Not just because it is of witchcraft, because it started from witchcraft–It’s powerful, it’s got mystic in it. And still it got mystic in it! Anybody that ever heard this music, dance. Anybody, all culture, the whole world.
The music and this band is not even two full years in America, and it sounds like 30 years old in America. Imagine the ratio! Two to 30. High! I go L.A.–a place where I was not thinking I would see one somebody. But it’s like L.A. is my best city! After NYC is L.A. Yeah….I got the largest audience L.A.
A lot of Sierra Leoneans?
No. Just people! My music don’t target Sierra Leoneans–it targets people, world. Like right now I am talking to Afropop Worldwide. And bubu music worldwide music. So it’s good to meet Afropop, Banning!
It’s true–it’s good to see your success, it’s a wonderful thing.
I know you had a hard time making this band. And I think one of your songs talks about that. The one called “Kill Me With Bongo.” Tell me about that song and what it says.
I am talking about American Sierra Leoneans. You got American Sierra Leoneans–we started coming into America from Sierra Leone over 200 years! People don’t know, over 200 years. The connection of Americans and Sierra Leoneans is England. Freetown is founded by the abolition of the slave trade. That’s why the town is called Freetown. They move them here, and they meet us there, we mix together, we make Freetown. There comes Sierra Leone–it’s like the United Nations! Any tribe, any nationality–any nationality in the whole world is in Sierra Leone.
Coming back to this song–does it have to do with the troubles that you had when you were trying to start a band here?
When I come here, I believe that my job is music. If you got 400 dollar a week for working in a restaurant, I should get $500 a week for doing my music. So I talk to my people–they want me to do nothing, to go work in a hospital. And I say–No! I am a musician! All I need from you guys is for someone to give me like five or $10,000 and say to start a music business here. And I will come on and start!
I talk to these people everywhere I go for over seven years. And right now, guess what kick up my movement? What kick up my movement is $5,000. And the $5,000? I get it with William Glasspiegel by raising a movement to go to South by Southwest in Texas. We were everywhere starting to find that $5,000–on the Internet, asking people, and then through William Glasspiegel–because he makes all this happen. So we get $5,000, and we go to South by Southwest, and then we show ourselves for the first time as a band. And from there, the thing never go back! That’s what happen! That’s our kickstart! By this time, if we had not had that $5,000…by this time–game o-v-e-r. Because all this movement we had? They see us from that.
So these guys [Sierra Leoneans]–they don’t help me. Then I come to Brooklyn, and Brooklyn help me. Because all this money I’m telling you about–let me say 65 percent of it is from Brooklyn, is from poor people. Someone who is a friend, who only receives $200 a week or maybe nothing. They put something. In fact, the last money is $20, somebody go on online and see $4980, only $20 to $5,000. And then he call! Like “Janka! I just put the $20!” The guy is a Sierra Leonean, he is called Eddie. Something Eddie. Thank you Eddie! It would never happen!
So I sing this song because they didn’t help. They kill me with bongo–because bongo is bluff. They are bluffing me. When we meet, all they do is “Janka. Here is my number.” And then when you call “Oh–I’m busy. Call me later.” I don’t have time to call you later! I gotta a lot of things to do! So that gave me the inspiration to make that song.
I wanted to ask you about a couple other songs here. Tell me about the song “Feba.”
Feba is look alike. You know–some people are frustrated if their wife doesn’t have a child that looks like him. A lot of people. And at some times, it’s not their kids, and at times it’s different genetics working in different ways. Just to put sense to people that this is happening, or this is not happening. A lot of confusion in houses starts from there. It’s like–when my child is born, I get a lot of confusion because he don’t look like me, she don’t look like me, and I feel like no one is good to me. Something like that. Things that happen to you on the way.
What about “Eh Mane Ah”?
This is advice. I am advising our people about getting too many children that they can’t take care of. That brings all the problems. Because if you can’t take care of this child, the child still needs someone to respect. Because there is no child in the world that just comes up by him or herself. By him or herself, he will never respect nobody. Somebody got to groom that child. And when that child is growing up, don’t just say “Respect me because I am the boss, I give you this.” He respects who look like me too! They way he respects me, I respect that person. But that kind of respect is not happening in the world.
When I was growing up, we were raised like–if you do bad, somebody would spank you. Then when you go to your mom and tell her, your mom comes to the person, and they said “He do this, he do that,” and maybe your mom spank you again! But now, if anyone venture, you would go right to the police and then you go to jail. But children are so crafty now! The father will never see them do bad, and neither the mother. They don’t care about strange people, but when they know the father is around they never do bad. They come clean in the house! We got to be careful. That’s what I’m talking about.
Let me ask you about one more–the one you did that great video of. “Somebody.”
Somebody right now! That is what I am talking about. Like you know–it’s what I’m going for. I need somebody to sit by me, to care for me, and for me to care about. And I need somebody with good looks, somebody with future plans. No one can get all those things, all at once, but I try to. Because right now, we no good. If two rotten pineapples meet together, the place will smell. If one should be rotten, the other one be good. You know what I’m saying?
It happened that on the same day I saw your video, I met a rapper from Sierra Leone, Chosan. He’s a guy living here in New York, and he sent me his video. It’s a hip-hop song, called “This Is My America”–it’s a tough song. It shows him eating out of garbage cans, sleeping on the street. And though–here are these two Sierra Leonean guys, musicians, both living in New York, but their experience is so different. How does the music that you bring, and your musical mission, help you to see the good side even when things are bad?
It’s very simple. People accept the bubu music. but the other guys from Sierra Leone that come here with hip-hop music… You can’t challenge Jay Z, 50 Cent, Eminem, Lady Gaga on this style of music! You can’t! They got it down–they know how to do it, they grew up here, they’re born here. If you are born in Sierra Leone, when you come to America, guess what you do–play bubu music, play congi music, play different music! Play juju music, play highlife! You know–play something African.
Because when you play something African, you don’t have no competition in America, you are the first, you are the one. Like with bubu music–I am the first one and only. Nobody trail me! They all play r&b, and when they play it, they are good! Don’t get me wrong, they are very good! But America is America, and America patronizes their own music more than anywhere in the world. They won’t stop buying Eminem and buy Pupa Banja music from Sierra Leone singing pop and r&b. They buy that music in Sierra Leone, but in America, they do not even understand what Pupa Banja is saying. but still the music sounds good!
Me now? I play bubu music. That’s all I come with. And anytime I play it, I tell you it’s mystic. If you try it, you never leave it.