Janka Nabay, a singer, songwriter and bandleader from Sierra Leone who modernized an ancient tradition called bubu and carried it worldwide, died on Monday in the Kambia District in northern Sierra Leone. He was 54.
His American record company, Luaka Bop, said the cause was a stomach illness that had not been diagnosed.
During the 1990s, Mr. Nabay took the speedy beat of music that had been heard for centuries in parades and celebrations and transferred it to Western instruments. His songs became hits as civil war tore Sierra Leone apart and were claimed by both sides, although his music increasingly held direct antiwar messages.
Mr. Nabay emigrated from Sierra Leone in 2002. Living in New York City, he started a band, the Bubu Gang, that introduced bubu to an international audience.
Ahmed Janka Nabay was born on Jan. 5, 1964, in a rural village, Sedu. He moved with his family to a city, Makeni, at 5, and then, at 14, to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
As a teenager, he began writing politically minded songs about pan-Africanism. He was also a fan of music from abroad, particularly that of Bob Marley and Michael Jackson, and he concentrated on reggae during his 20s, appearing on Sierra Leone radio stations singing reggae with Arabic lyrics.
But his more distinctive songs drew on bubu, music heard at celebrations during Sierra Leone’s Independence Day carnival and during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Traditional bubu is associated with the Temne people of Sierra Leone. It is music for voices, drums and bamboo trumpets that each play one note (sounding like the syllable “bu”), hooting in complex patterns of syncopation, akin to the rara music of Haiti and the gaga music of the Dominican Republic. Mr. Nabay traced bubu to pre-Islamic African traditions connected to what he called “witchcraft.”
In the early 1990s, he wrote “Dance to the Bubu” for a nationwide song contest, with lyrics that proclaimed, “It’s an ancient style of music, but when you try it you never leave it.”
The judges appreciated music with local Sierra Leonean roots, and the contest led to Mr. Nabay’s first recording sessions. In his version of bubu, the patterns of the bamboo horns were transferred to keyboard and guitar, and the momentum of hand percussion was taken over by the rhythm section and a drum machine.
During the 1990s, his music spread across Sierra Leone and sold tens of thousands of cassettes as he performed in the country’s largest venues. He sang in Temne and in the Sierra Leonean lingua franca, Krio, along with English and Arabic.
The civil war that lasted from 1991 to 2002 in Sierra Leone drove Mr. Nabay’s songwriting to become more political. One of his mid-1990s hits, “Sabanoh,” called for the restoration of peaceful civilian control to counter the rebels’ chaos, declaring, “The country belongs to us.”
In some areas, rebels arrived in villages playing Mr. Nabay’s music on portable stereos to draw civilians outside to dance, then attacked. They also rewrote his lyrics with their own messages, hijacking his songs as propaganda. At one point, Mr. Nabay and his band were captured in mid-tour and forced to perform for a rebel commander.
In 2002, Mr. Nabay used an international tour to leave Sierra Leone behind, moving, by way of Guinea in West Africa, to the United States, where he rebuilt his music.
A public-radio producer, Wills Glasspiegel, who heard Mr. Nabay’s African recordings while producing an Afropop Worldwide program on Sierra Leone’s music, became an advocate and then his manager. In 2010, the independent True Panther label released four songs that Mr. Nabay had recorded in 2002, before leaving Sierra Leone, as the EP “Bubu King.”
Living in New York City, Mr. Nabay performed at clubs like Pianos, Zebulon and the Knitting Factory often wearing a traditional grass skirt. At first, he used prerecorded backup; then he assembled a Brooklyn-based band, the Bubu Gang, with a Syrian-born bassist and backup singer, Boshra Al Saadi, and members of the indie-rock group Skeletons.
Their debut album, “En Yay Sah” (which translates as “I’m Scared”) was released in 2012 by Luaka Bop. Its music fused bubu with elements of psychedelia, Afro-Caribbean music, electronic dance music and funk. Last year, Luaka Bop released Mr. Nabay’s second album with the Bubu Gang, “Build Music,” featuring more songs with English lyrics.
In 2017, Mr. Nabay toured Europe for the first time, playing festivals. When the tour ended in August, visa problems prevented him from returning to the United States, and he moved back to Sierra Leone.
Mr. Nabay, who lived in Freetown at the time of his death, is survived by his partner, Kadiatu Nabay; and by three children from a previous relationship, Sia Precious Kemoh, Zachariah Osman Nabay and Ahmed Nabay.
– JON PARELES I The New York Times