Recorded in Forensic Studios, Freetown, in 2000, shortly before the civil war peaked and then ended, the four cuts on this EP represent an overview of a genre popular in Sierra Leone, but less known outside that West African country than the older Kru/Krio Calypso and reggae. Bubu music has it roots in the didactic songs of the Islamic Temne people of northwest Sierra Leone, usually accompanied with interlocking bamboo “flutes” (probably natural trumpets) and percussion, but in Janka Nabay’s hands, the vocals become the focal point for driving electronic dance music.
The beats are complex but the production is spare — keyboards, drum machine, vocals — and the vocals are in a mix of Temne, Krio and English. The English-language lyrics are quite political in nature, most clearly on “Good Governance,” a five and a half minute demand for multi-party democracy, human rights, and the education and emancipation of women. The music holding together the solo vocals and choral response is built entirely of short ostinati on keyboards and polyrhythmic beats on drum machines.
Janka Nabay’s vocal style is more intonation than singing, shifting within a narrow range of pitches with an occasional melodic cadence then echoed by the chorus. “Eh Congo,” which has an “official video,” has a fast beat reminiscent of Afrobeat and English namedrops of “John Kennedy” and “America.” (YouTube also hosts a digitized version of “Sabanoh,” which has a more traditional musical accompaniment—flutes, percussion, organ—which is absolutely worth hunting down). “Top Sul Bah” once again uses the same instrumentation, but with a quiet, looping organ and an underlying rhythm that feels like a classic shuffle beat. The result is a hypnotic evocation of a night train passing over sleepers, gently rocking the listener back and forth in spite of the fast beat. Only the last song on the EP, “De Bul,” breaks the sonic mold, pulling in lead and rhythm guitars in Congolese style, and shaping the vocals in more melodic ways.
Of the four songs on Bubu King, “De Bul” is by far the most approachable by listeners familiar with Congolese rumba and soukous. Nevertheless, “Eh Congo” is the one True Panther Sound has chosen to emphasize with videos and sample downloads. It’s a nice cut, but it lacks the urgency and insistence of the other three songs, as well as the complex beats of full-on bubu. Janka Nabay now lives and works in Philadelphia, and we can only hope that he continues this project beyond these four tantalizing cuts.