“I’ve always had a problem with my identity — what am I, black? Am I African-American? Am I African? Am I American? Am I Sudanese? Am I Muslim?” Ahmed Gallab said in an interview with the Daily News. “Everything that I write connects the dots for me about my identity.”
Sinkane, Gallab’s musical project, gave an electrifying performance at Mass MoCA’s B10 club on Saturday night. Indeed, as anyone who attended will tell you, Sinkane’s music is tough to categorize. Gallab draws from a multitude of different musical sources – reggae, soul, country and rock. Combining these disparate genres may seem like a stretch, but Gallab somehow makes it work, perhaps because this amalgamation of musical styles is a reflection of his own journey.
Born to college professors in London, Gallab moved to Sudan and later to the U.S., living in Massachusetts, Utah and Ohio. He always returned to Sudan, however, for the summers. Sinkane’s latest album, Life & Livin’ It, is an homage to Gallab’s complex roots, and especially to Sudan itself.
When Gallab first started recording as Sinkane, he was a one-man band: he played drums, guitar, bass and keys. Now, he has a roster of musicians to bring his music to life on stage.
Beyond Sinkane, Gallab is also the band leader and music director of the Atomic Bomb! band, which plays the music of Nigerian electro-funk legend William Onyeabor. The group has included David Byrne of Talking Heads, Money Mark of the Beastie Boys and Dev Hynes, also known as Blood Orange and Lightspeed Champion.
Gallab commenced Saturday’s show with a galvanizing performance of “U’Huh,” one of his latest album’s most popular tracks. Beyond its Afro-funk jazz melodies and dance-ability factor, the song is a testament to Sinkane’s unwavering message of positivity throughout the album. The refrain repeats “kulu shi tamaam,” an Arabic phrase meaning “everything is great.” According to Sinkane’s website, this is a nod to Kendrick Lamar’s lyric “we’re gonna be alright.” Gallab is re-popularizing “poptimism” in the hip-hop sphere.
Recalling Sufi gatherings in his family’s home, Gallab cites his grandfather, a respected Muslim cleric in Sudan, as a source of influence. Gallab’s grandfather would sing as he recited religious stories celebrating the prophet Muhammad to everyone who gathered around him. “I would have these really tantric experiences while he was doing this,” Gallab told the Daily News. “I would hallucinate and see shit. It really inspired me to be connected to music in a very spiritual way.”
This tantric quality was evident in the set played on Saturday night; songs would start to blend into one another, the hypnotic beats entrancing the audience. In songs like “How We Be,” the bouncing of eight-bit keys, punctuating flutes and guitar licks combined with Gallab’s graceful falsetto made the listener feel as if they were floating through time and space.
“Deadweight” was another highlight – a mid-tempo combination of beats and guitars. The song is “redolent of Tuareg desert-blues ensembles like Tinariwen, yet [it] finds space for goth-y synthesizers,” NPR said. Another song, “Telephone,” featuring Gallab crooning, “You must be alone/ Why else you calling on the phone?” may seem like an exception to the album’s resolute optimism. Yet, even here, one cannot help but dance to the superbly funky, horn-driven beat.
Perhaps what Sinkane does best, though, is “mixing non-Western, diaspora-delic elements (highlife, dub, North African tonalities) and the sonic history of New York’s artsy, bohemian downtown,” as NPR describes. This has been done before by bands like Talking Heads and Vampire Weekend, but with Sinkane, it feels natural. The African backbeats of Vampire Weekend, for example, make for an interesting subject of musical cross-pollination, but they ultimately can also be seen as brazen acts of cultural appropriation by four unbearably preppy Ivy Leaguers.
While Sinkane’s music may not be explicitly political, being himself and connecting with like-minded individuals is a politically defiant act, and this was clear during the concert.
Sinkane’s show brought in a motley crowd, ranging from young children to College students and even professors. Yet, under the glow of the fuchsia stage lights, everyone seemed connected in the sway of the infectious beat.