The Sudanese-American musician on finding his place in New York, making music with David Byrne, and why connection is key.
Sinkane is the moniker under which Sudanese-American musician (and proud New Yorker) Ahmed Gallab creates. Sinkane’s music is a dynamic, exuberant affair that exemplifies NYC’s ability to forge unique new art through the fusion of disparate cultures. On Sinkane’s latest album, Dépaysé (City Slang Records), Gallab and his trusted band of talented, multicultural NYC locals cut through the darkness of the times with songs of positivity, inclusion, and lessons learned from the civil rights heroes and the socially-minded musical icons of yore—like Sly and the Family Stone. A unique blend of indie-pop, afro-beat, and funk, the songs on Dépaysé serve as tools for deconstructing some of the ugliest social issues of our time as well as an exploration of Gallab’s own experience as an immigrant. However, these songs also move with an upbeat rhythm and spirit that in many ways mirrors the city’s own pulse when it’s at its best. It’s a record that speaks to the grittiness and tenacity that New Yorkers flaunt in the face of adversity and embodies Gallab’s philosophy that you can still try to have a good time and enjoy the ride, even when things seem bleak.
A veteran of indie-rock bands like Yeasayer and of Montreal, Gallab was also the driving force behind the Atomic Bomb Band, a group which paid tribute to the music of Nigerian musician William Onyeabor and included luminaries like David Byrne, Dev Hynes, Damon Albarn, Money Mark, and LCD Soundsystem drummer Pat Mahoney. When he’s not on the road with Sinkane, Gallab can be found DJing art-minded events around the city or working on extracurricular musical pursuits and one-off events with some of the city’s most adventurous players and artists. Most recently, Gallab has been involved with an exciting new art space and venue in Brooklyn, Public Records.
Tell me about your experience coming up in New York City’s music scene and how that changed Sinkane’s sound.
Ahmed Gallab: I always wanted to come to New York to make music and be a part of the community, but it happened almost by accident. I had been touring with of Montreal and the tour ended abruptly. The last show with them was in New York and at that point, my sister had been living here. We played the Letterman Show and I immediately took a cab to her place after and decided then and there that I was going to stay in the city.
After I moved here, I immediately left on another tour and then Yeasayer asked me to join their band, so I didn’t really get to know the music scene organically through socializing. I toured a lot with Yeasayer and when we finished touring on that album cycle, I felt like I was starting at square one with Sinkane because I hadn’t had a chance to meet many people here. So, I tried to find a place to go and people to connect with and I discovered Zebulon [now closed] and started playing shows there. It was still a real journey for me; it seemed like everyone was hired to go on tour all the time and the community didn’t feel as young and green as it had when I first arrived—so I began putting together events to connect with local musicians and to bring people together, especially people of color that came from different places, to create something that represents all of us. I feel like I do that now through Sinkane and the people involved in it.
You’ve worked with some of the most notable artists the city has produced, including David Byrne. Can you tell us a bit about working with him and how that happened?
AG: I was asked to be the musical director for the Atomic Bomb Band, which was a project that played the music of the Nigerian musician William Onyeabor. I got asked to put the band together and I was told that David Byrne, Damon Albarn and a few other really incredible artists were interested in being involved, so obviously I jumped at that opportunity. It was a once in a lifetime thing, and the band included everyone else in Sinkane at the time, Pat Mahoney from LCD Soundsystem, Money Mark from the Beastie Boys, and Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip. David was really excited about it all….We played some amazing shows together!
I imagine it was daunting to work with a guy of Byrne’s stature.
AG: Yeah. I took the job very seriously and I freaked out a bit. Between the four of us that were in Sinkane at the time, we put in 200 hours of rehearsal before we even met up with David; that’s the effect knowing Byrne’s legacy and the lore of him being a perfectionist had on us. The show was modeled after Stop Making Sense, so we really tried to put our best foot forward. It was surprising how gentle and sweet a person he is; he was so easy-going the whole time and he’d send voice memos asking if he was playing the songs correctly…. And checking on his interpretations of the songs. He was really, really fun to work with and one of the greatest highlights of the whole experience was seeing a guy of his stature be so open, fun, and easy-going about making music.
Sinkane is a really great representation of New York’s melting pot, not only in how diverse its membership is but in what each musician brings to the sound.
AG: Sinkane originally started as a reaction to all of the collaborative and democratic musical experiences I’d had; I never felt like anything I’d done prior to Sinkane represented me holistically. I felt like I had more of a voice and needed to create something that was completely mine, so I recorded the first two Sinkane records on my own and played almost every instrument. It was self-indulgent and a lot of fun and I truly found myself through doing that. When I moved to New York, I recognized the incredible wealth of talented musicians I had around me, and while I could do it all on my own, I realized it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it could be if I connected with some of these amazing musicians. When I went to work on the album Mars I asked all of the friends that I’d made here to play on the album. George Lewis (Twin Shadow) played the guitar solo on “Making Time” because I knew he could do it better than me, and same with Ira Wolf Tuton from Yeasayer, who played bass on “Jeeper Creeper,” and so on.
When I started writing the new record, I felt the need to continue starting the conversation by writing things on my own, but I spent a lot of time after recording the demos working with the band, playing things and out and just seeing what they’d do with it. Elenna Canlas (keys and vocals) and Jonny Lam (guitar/pedal steel) really came through helping structure and make the most of these songs. This album was really fun to make and it was a process that married the live elements and the things I love about working with this band in a very smart way….With the amount of time we’ve all put in together, this group of musicians really expresses itself in a way that’s not only honest to who we all are as players from wildly diverse backgrounds but also grows into a new thing live every night and expresses all of our influences.
“Everybody,” the single from Depayse, is an anthem of inclusion and a relatable song for anyone that’s lived in NYC and experienced the positives of its diversity. Could you tell me about writing that song?
AG: When I was working on that song, I went back and really dug into Sly Stone’s songwriting and what he represented for the civil rights movement and black people at the time. Songs like “Sing a Simple Song,” and so much of his work, carries very important messages about big social issues, but the music itself is so fun and exciting. Sly was realistic and he made people realize that the world was a mess and shit sucks, but you can still have a good time and you can still have a party. That’s the vibe I wanted to bring out with “Everybody.” I address some very heavy things but it’s supposed to be an inspiring song that encourages people to realize that things may be bad but you can wake up each day and do what you’ve gotta do and still be happy and get through stuff.
You mentioned putting together events around the city as a means of connecting with other musicians. Is that something you are still doing?
AG: New York musicians have this gritty, don’t give a fuck attitude about getting together and just playing. The situation doesn’t need to be perfect—there’s backline at every single club in the city and most of us just want to grab our instrument and sit in on the gig. New Yorkers are comfortable throwing themselves in at the deep end and knowing that something cool might happen. That’s really how being a New Yorker plays into my identity: I love being put into a situation where I have no idea what’s going to happen….There’s a new spot in New York called Public Records that embodies those ideas and I’m starting to be involved in doing stuff there.
What did you do with Dev Hynes?
AG: Dev played with us at one of the first Atomic Bomb Band shows at BAM. The two of us have something in common in the indie-rock world in that we were the only black kids at the show ever in the cities we came from. Dev’s a really interesting musician in that he’s very quiet, but when it’s time for him to do his thing, he’s extremely good at what he does. He’s very knowledgeable and learns quickly and can add things to what you’re doing that feel and sound good right away. Dev’s a very inspiring musician.
You’re a Sudanese-American and a third culture kid—New York is arguably the best place in the world to have that experience. Have you found a way to express that side more completely as a New Yorker?
AG: Living in New York has made me dig much deeper into my identity, and one reason is that there’s a lot of young Sudanese people here—a lot that grew up in New York, but also a lot that moved here after and are like-minded. You don’t really run into a lot of like-minded Sudanese kids in the midwest for some reason….In New York, we’re all the same. You connect more easily and it opens up your eyes to who you are and your culture in the mirror of others, and what it means to take that identity as a Sudanese person and modernize it. I’ve been much more in tune with my Sudanese identity since moving to New York.
Is there any advice you can give Americans interested in helping with the conflict going on in Sudan presently?
AG: What people can do to get involved in the state of affairs in Sudan is research it online and educate yourself; the news doesn’t really focus on the conflict there because there’s a lot of other things going on in the world that the news gives precedent to, which is a shame because it’s a huge deal and should get the same kind of coverage Notre Dame burning did. A lot of people are dying and it’s a massive political mess and people need to be aware. The world needs to know about it and there are people in need and the attention alone can help people feel like there’s some hope in the situation. The Sudanese people are very resilient and they’re not backing down, and it’s made Sudanese people outside of the country connect in a completely different way. So educate yourself, talk about it, if you know someone of Sudanese heritage, give them a hug and show some solidarity.
WORDS David Von Bader
PHOTOGRAPHY Daniel Dorsa