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Janka Nabay & The Bubu Gang - En Yay Sah

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Artist: Janka Nabay & The Bubu Gang

Album: En Yay Sah

Label: Luaka Bop

Review date: Nov. 15, 2012

Janka Nabay & The Bubu Gang are from Brooklyn, but their leader comes by way of Sierra Leone. Nabay achieved fame in his home country for pioneering electronic dance groove variations on the traditional bamboo flute-based “bubu” music of his native country. But he eventually felt compelled to leave Sierra Leone and the wreckage of its long, deadly civil war. His recent arrival among American world music followers has been some years in the making. After radio producer and music manager Wills Glasspiegel helped get some of Nabay’s music released on an EP, Bubu King, in 2010, Nabay gradually put together a backing group. Two years later, Nabay and his Bubu Gang released another EP, An Letah and, at the end of this past summer, their debut full-length album, En Yay Sah.

A jittery, fresh hybrid of traditional African sounds and contemporary electronic dance pop, En Yay Sah is exactly the kind of release one might hope to see from the label that has put it out: Luaka Bop Records, the global music operation founded by David Byrne. Neither its crisp and trendy veneers nor any of its searing, multi-layered grooves feel like dispensable add-ons. Instead, each composition feels like an organic whole in which it’s never quite clear where one bass, percussion, guitar, or synth line ends and another begins. Moreover, for all their density, the tracks on En Yay Sah keep a blistering pace, making superficially similar Brooklyn-based world music dabblers such as Yeasayer sound downright lethargic.

The eight-cut record begins with one of its strongest numbers. Called “Feba,” or “Look-Alike,” it’s replete with percussive melodic fragments of point and counterpoint — drums, bass, and what sounds like an alternately dueting and dueling pair of electric guitar and synthesized flute. The opener sets high bars for both energy and quality, but ones that Nabay and his gang meet throughout the record. Take “Eh Mane Ah,” for instance, which the group begins with frantic syncopated drumming, then quickly layers with a wild organ line, the vocal interplay of Nabay and backing singer Boshra Alsaadi, and twittering, echoed electric guitar sounds. Or consider “Ro Lungi,” which runs a memorable basic melody and countermelody through a host of different interwoven instrumental timbres and voices, all atop multiple lines of chiming and clacking percussion.

It’s not just compositional dexterity or instrumental showmanship that makes this music so bracing. It also exudes an infectious swagger so biting that it all but preempts the anxieties about cultural tourism that sometimes keep American listeners (and performers, for that matter) at something of a distance from world music hybrids — as though they exist to be dissected rather than appreciated. On En Yay Sah, Nabay and his Bubu Gang barely stop playing their instruments to catch their breath. They certainly don’t have time to step back and play anthropologists, and neither should their listeners.

By Benjamin Ewing

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