Just for the record: This’ll get you Moanin’ in the Moonlight
Some essentials to add to your vinyl collection
African music has lost another champion; the death from unknown causes last month, at 54, of Sierra Leonian Janka Nabay went largely unnoticed in this part of the continent but it was a huge loss for both the Temne community in his native country and the indie dance scene in the eastern US, where he had made his home.
Hailed as both a band leader and an ethnomusicologist, Nabay was a local star in the 1990s who devoted his energy to keeping Sierra Leone’s traditional bubu music alive during the chaos of the country’s vicious civil war.Bubu is a centuries-old musical style played by large ensembles blowing into bamboo pipes of different sizes while others pound away on percussion instruments. Until Nabay’s “futureproofing”, as one writer put it, bubu was only associated with ancient folk traditions: first in animist ceremonies and then, with the arrival of Islam, in religious ceremonies to mark the end of Ramadan.
By pairing bubu with synthesisers and drum machines, Nabay established an indigenous modern genre at a time when many of his fellow musicians were playing “foreign” styles such as reggae, hip-hop and R&B. In an interview published on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label’s website, he said: “I’m the first guy who made it pleasant for people to come back to the culture, to love their culture.”Singing in a mixture of English, Arabic and the Sierra Leonean languages of Temne and Krio, Nabay’s songs promoted peace, good governance and female empowerment. His music was hypnotic and danceable, with flickering rhythmic patterns, and it made him a popular figure with all factions involved in the civil war.
According to one report, rebel groups used “his tapes to sound their battle cry, blasting it out to the villages they invaded to lure people from their hiding spots”. Nabay was even allegedly kidnapped and forced to perform for troops to prepare them for battle.
The musician moved to the US in 2002 after the war ended. There he toiled in a string of menial jobs as he unsuccessfully tried to put a band together. In 2010, after being “discovered” working at a Philadelphia fried chicken joint three years earlier, he finally managed to put together the Bubu Gang, a collective made up of members from indie-experimental bands Skeletons, Chairlift, Saadi and Highlife.That year they released an EP, Bubu King (True Panther Sounds), which is now considered to be the first “international” bubu release on vinyl. On the strength of that 12-inch, Luaka Bop signed them up for a three-album deal. The first of these, 2012’s En Yay Sah (Luaka Bop), captured the live groove that had made Nabay a hit at international music festivals and is the one collectors will want.
The debut album’s rockier freestyle rhythms were replaced by poppier, house-style beats for his second and last album, 2017’s Build Music (Luaka Bop), and, according to one critic, it sounded not unlike Shangaan electro.At the time of its release, Nabay was quoted as saying: “I hope that people will concentrate on my music. I want to hear somebody in London play bubu music, somebody in Germany play bubu music. Somebody in South Africa, Nigeria, something like that. That’s my hope.”
THE ESSENTIAL LIBRARY
From bubu to the blues, which, some would argue, also came from Africa but this is not strictly true. As a musical form, it originated in black American communities in the southern US around the end of the 19th century. There was an African connection, of course, due to the slave trade and the musical traditions brought over from the continent.
But, by the same token, the form was also influenced by later traditions such as the work songs and gospel songs of African-Americans as well as the folk music of white Americans of European heritage. Field hollerin’, spirituals, chants, narrative ballads, and later jazz, R&B, rock and roll — it’s all there in the blues.
Nowadays newcomers are introduced to the modern blues form by contemporary guitar heroes and anyone hoping to collect blues records could do worse than starting with Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble’s debut, Texas Flood (Epic, 1983 and reissued in 2017). A landmark release, it established the late Vaughan as arguably one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time.However, we need to travel further back in time to find the truly influential blues artists. The starting point here is Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers (Columbia, 1961; reissued 2017), a collection of recordings that took place in 1936 and 1937, half of which were originally issued as 78 RPM singles and the rest unreleased takes. Johnson was murdered in 1938, supposedly poisoned by a lover’s jealous husband, an event which did little to stop the rumours that he had sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in return for his musical talent.Within a few years of the album’s release, Johnson’s songs would be picked up by British acts such as Eric Clapton (Ramblin’ on My Mind, Crossroads Blues), Led Zeppelin (Traveling Riverside Blues) and the Rolling Stones (Love in Vain, Stop Breakin’ Down Blues).
Other vinyl reissue compilations by early blues artists worth looking out for include Raw Delta Blues by Son House (Not Now Music, 2014), Candy Man Blues by Mississippi John Hurt (Complete Blues, 2013), and the fairly rare Founder of the Delta Blues 1929-1934 by Charley Patton (Yazoo, 1971, but subsequently reissued several times.)
The big post-war boom in the blues came from Chicago, and the albums to look for here include John Lee Hooker’s That’s My Story (Riverside Records 1960; reissued 2015), BB King’s Live at the Regal (ABC Paramount, 1965; MCA, 2015), Elmore James’s The Definitive Collection (Not Now Music, 2009), Howling Wolf’s Moanin’ in the Moonlight (Chess 1958; 2017, DOL) and the so-called “Rocking Chair” collection, Howlin’ Wolf (Chess 1962; 2017, DOL). The more Memphis-oriented Born Under a Bad Sign (Stax, 1967; Stay, 2017) by Albert King is another recommendation.Lastly, the must-have in any collection: Muddy Waters. There are literally dozens of worthwhile compilations out there, but just two definite standout albums: At Newport (Chess, 1960; DOL, 2017), a blistering live set of “pure blues history”, as one critic called it, and Hard Again (Blue Sky, 1977; Sony International, 2017), a gritty, late career back catalogue reboot under the direction of guitarist Johnny Winter.CRATE DIVINGA promotional copy of The Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do, b/w PS I Love You (Parlophone 45-R 4949, 1962) sold for a whopping $10,553 on Discogs in March. That’s about R130,000, the most expensive item traded that month on the specialist website. Another promo copy of this rare single was sold for $14,757, or more than R180,000, on the site in October last year. The moral here, folks, is keep digging at those record fairs and flea markets. There’s gold out there.