Universal: Sinkane Finds Home
In an age of information, infinite digital music libraries have largely replaced the dusty record crates that held the neatly packed catalogs of your parent’s teen years. With half a century of popular music from which to take reference, most artists these days either come up with pieces of reworked nostalgia or make a clumsy attempt at conjuring something unprecedented. The music of Sinkane, brainchild of New York-based multi-instrumentalist Ahmed Gallab, is more like a collaborative mixtape shared amongst friends. It comes without timestamp or country of origin label. Gallab has never been anchored to a single place; music is the paradigm through which he foremost constructs identity. You could call it pop diaspora, but that’s not quite right. Sinkane is his homecoming.
Gallab was introduced to an eclectic palette of sounds early on. When he was ten years old, the young Ahmed became entranced by his father’s records, namely, In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. “My parents always liked pop music, but I was drawn to the wacky sounding stuff they had,” he recalls. Those proved to be tame in comparison to the coming vibrations. He found proto-punk during high school, electronica in college. By his own account a “big music nerd,” Gallab explored sideways sounds wherever they could be found—a “wormhole,” he calls it looking back.
His foray into making music professionally came by way of invaluable apprenticeships as a touring musician under the wings of Yeasayer, Of Montreal, Caribou, and other popular acts on the indie and electronica music scenes. As personal signatures took shape, Gallab took reference from the bands for which he’d been a hired hand. Nowadays, the vibe of Sinkane has been cemented in self-reflection.
Years of informal music scholarship had delivered to Gallab new illuminations: “The way Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane made jazz music was incredibly spiritual. The way Brian Eno created ambient music spoke to me; it helped create the foundation for the band.” Like a giddy student, Gallab name drops with enthusiasm: “Cody Chesnutt and Cymande, Shuggie Otis and Funkadelic.” On Sinkane’s sophomore effort, How We Be, it all seems clear.
“When it came to making this album, I thought it’d be interesting to create a record that’s really simple, using sounds that were pleasing. But if you really dig into them, you’ll hear that they are a little off-kilter—Michael Jackson did that a lot.”
If writing and recording are solitary puzzling of lifelong influences, performance has served as a shared, exploratory experience. “Making a record is like building a bottle in a ship,” Gallab explains. “Playing a show is like being a sailboat in the ocean.” It’s a conversation with the listener in which reciprocated energy unearths new meanings below the surface.
“The album is mine, but the show is ours,” says Gallab. He means the band for which he leads, but the statement is just as true for the audience. Rich basslines grab the listener as a force to guide the body adrift amidst Gallab’s falsetto hypnosis.
For a record so dense in aural color, it’s the lyrically-anchored “Son” that stands out as most captivating. It’s a story, as the name implies, of a relationship with one’s father. “There’s a pressure to being your eldest / There’s such pressure to make you the proudest,” sings Gallab, the son of Sudanese academics who were politically exiled from the formerly unitary African nation. He goes on, “You broke it down and made your own choices / Now, I’m breaking out and making my choices / I will not forget just where I came from.”
Interestingly, it was Gallab’s musical collaborator and longtime friend Greg Lafaro who penned the words throughout How We Be. For what would become “Son,” Gallab first sent an audio demo to Lafaro with a love song in mind: “Kind of like The Flamingos,” he envisioned, “really eerie sounding.” But Lafaro challenged him to explore the sentiment in other ways. The two songwriters began exchanging details of relationships with their respective fathers. Lafaro disappeared for a week before coming back with a draft. “[The words] were so powerful to me that I couldn’t even get through singing them,” Gallab recalls, “It was this cathartic and therapeutic experience of me singing the song.”
“I realized how important those words and the expression of the song is to me. People might think that it’s weird that Greg writes the lyrics, but it’s actually pretty amazing. It shows how strong of a relationship we have, how easy it is for us to communicate with each other.”
Growing up, Gallab found it tricky to navigate his dual identities, at once Sudanese and American. He was assimilated into Western youth culture only to come home to East African traditions. It’s in the music of Sinkane where he’s found a place to fit disparate worlds into one. And if there were ever a place where culture clashes are celebrated, it’s music.
Even the name Sinkane itself is a jumbling of ethnographies. “Sinkane is a mondegreen,” he says. “I misheard a lyric on a Kanye West song. It’s as simple as that.” On West’s “Never Let Me Down,” lyricist J. Ivy preaches in spoken word, “I trying to get us ‘Us Free’ like Cinqué.” Gallab mistook the name Cinqué as Sinkane. In 1839, it was a kidnapped Joseph Cinqué that took part in the Amistad rebellion before serving as the lead defendant in United States v. The Amistad, a once landmark Supreme Court case that bolstered early abolitionist movements. Gallab created the idea of Sinkane in his mind: a monolithic African God, revered through folklore. “I compared him to Shaka Zulu,” he remembers. “When I found out that I misheard the Kanye lyric, I decided to create the idea of Sinkane through my music. It’s an ever evolving idea and, at this moment, it’s manifesting into something special.”
The journey to know oneself fully, of course, goes beyond chord progressions and guitar licks. “Through my music, what I’ve learned and understood about myself is that I need to continue searching.” Gallab cemented this idea on a pilgrimage back to Sudan. It was there that he spoke with a man who had once helped to raise his father. The village elder illuminated the nomadic nature of their people. “You need to understand that you’re never going to find your home; it’s going to find you,” he explained. And so, the odyssey continues. Making a record is foremost a personal endeavor, but once the thing has been let go, the artist becomes exposed. The experience and the relationship are mutual. “The only way people can relate to you is when you are being totally honest,” says Gallab. “Ultimately, I want the music that I make to be universal.”