If art is culture, and culture has been stigmatized by politics, isn’t all art political?
This question keeps going through the mind as I’m standing in Ahmed Gallab’s Greenpoint walk-up, looking at his record collection. Hidden among his vast library are lost classics and hard-to-find gems, like Serge Gainsbourg’s first live album, Enregistrement public au Théâtre Le Palace, and a limited pressing of outtakes from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side sessions. Gallab thinks I’ll like N’Draman-Blintch’s Cikamele’, an album of African funk produced by Nigeria’s most enigmatic musician, William Onyeabor.
Onyeabor, who passed away in January, released nine long-out-of-print albums, highly prized by collectors. A track or two of his would occasionally surface on Afrobeat mixtapes in the years before David Byrne started reissuing Onyeabor’s music on his Luaka Bop label. Gallab long felt connected to Onyeabor’s blending of African and American sounds, which closely mirrored his own sonic path. So when Byrne put together The Atomic Bomb band in tribute to Onyeabor, Gallab was psyched to sing his songs and play frontman, right down to the wide-brimmed hat.
Creating music under the name Sinkane, Gallab’s music has also been filed under Afrobeat, a label that addresses his Sudanese heritage and embrace of African rhythms, but little else. To deny the influences of other strange grooves on Sinkane’s sound is to forget that Gallab grew up here—Radiohead and The Grateful Dead fit just as strongly into the whole picture of Gallab’s musical mind as the DIY punk community of Columbus, Ohio does, where he first came to harness the positivity of a collective consciousness.
Gallab’s interested in the point where the repetition of a groove facilitates a release of energy into the air, a positive manifestation. And once you start thinking with that intention, genre fast becomes immaterial.
Last week Sinkane released Life & Livin’ It, channeling the lessons he learned after getting sober and working on himself into a grand, mindful blast of affirmation. The record is a refreshing reminder that prayer needn’t be passive if we’re doing it right, and that in these uncertain times, putting good vibes into the air qualifies as a subversive act.
Just as the lyricist Robert Hunter once gave words to Jerry Garcia’s wisdom in The Dead, Sinkane lyricist and composer Greg Lofaro penned words on Life & Livin’ It that sound simultaneously direct and profound. “If we illuminate ourselves, we’ll overcome,” Gallab sings on “U’Huh.” “Find something to love, and love someone.”
Your album literally starts with an out-of-body experience.
[Laughs] I love it.
Well, it begins with you almost convincing yourself, but we get the idea that this isn’t self-induced, that the singer has fallen into this state of confusion or the need to self-assure. And you’ve said in the past that you intended your music to be universal, but this has me wondering, how has that changed since Mean Love? And how have you been externalizing the things in your own life that you’ve been working out?
I think since the last album I’ve gotten a lot more personal with my songwriting. With the last album, I wanted to write about universal experiences and ideas that I figured people would relate to. And in turn I tried to make all the songs vague, you know, instead of writing a love song I would use the sentiment of love to write about existentialism, or something really broad and kind of esoteric at the end of the day.
I felt like with this album, in order to connect with people and get more universal I would talk about my personal experience. That way people could relate to those things a bit more. So a lot of the songs have a foundation in my life, personal things that I’ve dealt with—my experience with identity, my experience with religion.
I stopped drinking a year and a half ago, I wanted to write a song about that. And I figured if I got more personal maybe it would become more of an expansive thing, you know? People would come to the song and say, “I understand what he’s talking about. I know what that’s like.”
“Fire, take me higher, but don’t take me away.”
Yeah, well that one’s about weed! [Laughs] I’m kidding!
“Kulu Shi Tamaam“—there’s two ways we can look at this phrase. Is it a passive act of affirmation, of prayer, of convincing oneself that everything’s fine? Or is it a mantra, a matter of willing, of putting positivity into the air so that the phrase will travel around and hit other people?
I believe in the power of positivity. I feel like when there’s a collective consciousness of hope and positive reinforcement, it works. It’s really effective and attractive to everybody. It’s addicting. When you see a bunch of people acting this way, you want to feel that feeling as well.
Has that been the thread, then, connecting all these seemingly disparate sounds that you’ve taken into your belly and absorbed? From the sounds of your homeland to which you still feel spiritually connected, to Radiohead and The Grateful Dead. You’ve lived a lot of places—how have you seen that manifest most consistently, scene-wise, community-wise, on a micro-cultural level?
Growing up I never really felt like I was connected to any real culture, ultimately, holistically. I never felt like I was absolutely American, I never felt like I was absolutely Sudanese. I’d go to Sudan and not really feel 100 percent there, and in the United States I never really connected with the absolute American experience.
But I remember being a kid, being introduced to punk rock and going to that community, seeing everyone feel the same feeling as me. They were all displaced or didn’t feel that they connected with society at large. I would go to a show and see all these people feel comfortable amongst one another, because they felt like everyone around them had the same experience or shared the same idea, you know?
“When you look at the history of Sudan and what kind of fear it can instill in any place outside of its own people, there’s nothing there.”—Ahmed Gallab
I thought that was really beautiful, and it made me more confident in who I was. It made me search deeper into my soul to understand who I was a bit more, and in turn, that collective consciousness at a show became really addicting to me.
I wanted to create a similar vibe of comfort and positivity with my music, with the people who come to a Sinkane show. So I talk about all of these things that I’ve dealt with all of my life, hoping there are people like me that grew up like me can come to the song, come to the music and understand that they’re not alone. That they’re not going about life willy nilly, and they have people like them who have shared a similar experience.
And I can only imagine what kind of beautiful experience that can create at a Sinkane show, when you get those kinds of people together. Different people who share the same sentiment, into one big room.
Does that communal solidarity with other appreciators of groove and song and music, does that feel at risk now given the current political climate and the events of the past week? Do you feel culturally pulled away from that positivity? Does any of the positive work that you’ve done on yourself feel threatened by this Muslim ban and the stigma being created around Sudan right now?
No, actually. If anything it reinforces my identity for me. The whole Muslim ban thing is really funny to me, in regard to Sudan being a part of it.
When you look at the history of Sudan and what kind of fear it can instill in any place outside of its own people, there’s nothing there. Sudanese people are very simple, and a third of the population of Sudan doesn’t even live in Sudan because there’s nothing there, really, for anyone.
Yeah—resources, infrastructure, there’s not much there. People will leave Sudan to find better opportunities and hope and joy, because there’s not much there. And it’s frustrating for me to think that anyone would think a Sudanese person would want to come to the United States to cause anyone any harm, you know?
The top 1 percent of the population of Sudan that lives there are very wealthy, right? And they’re the only people that are going to leave. And what do you think they’re going to want to do when they come to the United States? They don’t wanna hurt anybody, they wanna buy new sneakers and try Dunkin’ Donuts for the first time. That’s what’s in their interest. They wanna see what New York is all about, The Statue of Liberty and everything.
When my family came to the United States in 1989 we were granted asylum by the United States, and that’s the U.S. I know—a welcoming United States. Because we were granted asylum, I was given the opportunity to do what I do, my parents were given a second chance, and when I see this kind of stuff it just makes me wanna work harder.
It instills in me [that] the idea of coming together and positivity can still work, because, although a lot of people think that some divide is happening through all of this stuff, you see what’s happened only in the first week of Trump’s presidency—The Women’s March, the response to the Muslim ban. A lot of people are coming together, so it shows that this exists, and how powerful it is.
Good art and good music are disruptive. Insofar as this divide has been exacerbated by media influence and planted narratives that are fed to large numbers of people, putting out positive music into the world is subversive. An old friend of yours from your Columbus years asked how you were able to walk that line between making music that can be enjoyed on an ephemeral, “body” level versus feeling things academically or scholarly. You told him to blame your parents for teacing you that. Do you go into a song with a larger idea you want to say or do you just write out and free-associate till something clicks?
The whole songwriting process has a lot to do not just with me, but with my songwriting partner Greg Lofaro. He has done a really great job of getting out the true idea of what I wanna say.
He’s your Robert Hunter.
Pretty much, yeah! He’s a bit more than that, but he’s made the message a lot stronger for me. And for himself, too. We both challenge each other when we’re writing music, and he asks the right questions, really pushes me to understand exactly what we’re trying to say.
So that said, what the last three records have come down to is boiling everything down to its true essence to understand what the true message is, not getting vague in masking it all with some artistic thing. That means that we’re not discounting reality. It’s so easy with music to write a song and get lost in the fray, to turn into this idealistic experience, you know? But when things are rooted in a real-life experience, it’s easier to do what you’re saying.
For sure. And speaking to that reality of not presenting things in an ornate way, that’s what I loved about William Onyeabor’s body of work, well before you came onto Byrne’s tribute and did the whole meat and potatoes around that. “Favorite Song” sounds like the greatest Onyeabor tribute on the record, and you’ve said that you connected with Onyeabor over his ability to blend American influences and African influences, which resonated deeply with you for clear reasons. But what do you make of the end of his story? Was he always looking at god as universally as he was on those records, or did he become that rich, religious colonialized dude who everyone knew around town later? What do you make of his whole enigma?
I think that he’d always been a religious person, I don’t think that it just happened in 1985 [when] he said, “you know what? This music stuff is blasphemy and I’m gonna go on to god.” I think it was always there. And when I visited him in Enugu, it’s all over town—you see people walking down the street with a bible, they ask you if you’d gone to church on Sunday, and if you tell them no they’ll tell you to come to theirs.
It’s a part of the community, it’s a part of the culture. But as far as music was concerned, I think that just being a creative person wasn’t the ultimate goal for him. He would always say, “That’s just a gift from god,” and that’s it, you know?
“I believe in the power of manifestation. I believe if you put something out in the world, you can manifest into whatever it is.”
But beyond that, I think he was just a businessman. He wanted to make music a business, and he would talk about how he wanted to create the largest music manufacturing plant in West Africa. He produced other people’s records, and he released all his own music.
The first album was the soundtrack to a movie he wanted to make. So the music thing was just the tip of the iceberg for him, he wanted to do a lot more. And when we visited him we realized 1985 all he did was stop the music business, he was doing many other things.
And up to his death he was working. He showed us his blueprints for a town he was building, he was the pastor of a church that had a 3,000-person congregation, he owned a flour mill. He was a pretty important person in Enugu, and he didn’t stop. The music was just a project that he stopped in 1985.
Let’s go back to “Kulu Shi Tamaam“—what does it actually translate to?
“Kulu Shi Tamaam” is an Arabic phrase that anyone who speaks Arabic would understand, it means “everything is great.” You know when you’re talking to someone in conversation you’d say it. It’s a beautiful thing, it’s very simple. I wanted to use it in the song because it’s a very uplifting phrase and it’s very universal, an ode to Sudan and Arab-speaking people everywhere. It can be attached really easily to what’s going on right now, and I think it’s just fun.
Insofar as Arabic music and culture is stigmatized in American media, too, I mean there’s a joke Aziz made on SNL about the score on Homeland and how it puts an ominous mentality in our heads. If that’s the case, then you and the Syrian-based Omar Souleyman are great examples of musicians who make positive, jubilant music.
Yeah, he’s a wedding singer! If you go to Syria, that’s the music you’ll listen to at a wedding. And it is—it’s uplifting and exciting, it makes a lot of sense! You don’t wanna hear any dismal-sounding stuff at a wedding, and it makes a lot sense that it resonates with people.
Is prayer passive? Is the self-assurance of a positive state of mind passive? That seems like an action to me, but whenever an act of violence happens in our country or a national tragedy strikes there’s always a group of senators who say “we’ll pray for the families” and I think about how passive of an action that is. But then I listen to your music, which I’m not calling prayer or devotional music in any sense of the word, and your affirmations don’t sound passive at all. In the sense that there’s a process of cyclicality and the repetition of a phrase, this does share a lot in common with devotional music, though.
Yeah, I believe in the power of manifestation. I believe if you put something out in the world, you can manifest into whatever it is. I believe in a mantra, and I deal with it all the time. People, in their primal instinct, function with routine. Mantra and prayer and all that kind of stuff happen to be routine. I grew up Muslim so Islam is all about routine.
Yeah, ritual repetition. Praying five times a day, washing yourself before you pray, it’s all about that. And it works! It works for me, and you always have to remind yourself of things. Specifically in these times, I don’t think you can just say, “I’m going to be happy.” You have to remind yourself of that kind of stuff. You have to be around people like that. And it works.
You’ve mentioned how personal this record is for you, and I don’t want to pry, but if “Fire” is about smoking weed—
It’s really not about smoking weed! [Laughs]
Well if “Deadweight” is about the need for self-manifestation that comes from hitting rock bottom, does this album start there and follow on a trajectory of sorts?
Yeah, it took me six years to finish that song. That was from Mars.
So you know what the good ones are, and even if they’re not done you’re stuffing them away for a rainy day.
“You can’t really finish a song. It finishes itself. If you are personally not there, it’s going to hold you back.”
Well, the thing is, you can’t really finish a song. It finishes itself. If you are personally not there, it’s going to hold you back. That song, and this record, are a testament to that. I had a lot of growth to do before I could finish any of the songs I had [left over] from Mean Love and Mars.
“Deadweight” is the true testament of that. When I started writing it and Greg got involved, when we were working on the lyrics, I felt so vulnerable when he sent me his drafts. I would tell him, “I don’t want to be this vulnerable, and I don’t wanna talk about this stuff,” because it felt so crazy to me, like I’d be naked in front of people, totally emo and this or that. But as Sinkane continued, as I toured more, had more personal experiences, as I put myself out there I felt more O.K. and confident to be that way.
I’m not going to get over any of these insecurities if I don’t at least talk about them. And that’s what that song is about. Everyone has thoughts in their head that cloud their path, and Greg did a really great job of eloquently talking about those kinds of things. So that’s where the album starts and it’s kind of a thesis statement, to some extent.
And then there are other songs on the album like “Theme From Life & Livin’ It,” which also presents another thesis statement as well—there’s no right way to be. We can all coexist even if we have our differences. That’s a really beautiful concept.
Well we were talking about The Dead before this started, and they were all about that. In every stage of living with a song before it was ready to be presented in pristine, studio form, they were living with it on the road. That’s the culture. Given the scale and ambitiousness of your project’s scope as a composer, is that something you’d like to do more of?
When are the most comfortable times on the road to do that?
There’s always the romantic idea of capturing that performance in the idyllic place.
Pompeii, Floyd style. Or by the pyramids!
Yeah, exactly, or in Sudan. But you never know when you’re gonna be ready for those kinds of things, and you kind of have to let your path take you where it may. I wanted to do this a long time ago, but we weren’t ready.
You mean existing in new creative contexts? Is this something you’re thinking about, how you present your music in a visual context?
Oh absolutely. I made a great breakthrough with this album by involving the live band a lot more than in the past. Before it was just Greg and I, and maybe Jay would help me here or there. But with this album, I did a lot of work on my own then presented everything to the live band, and we learned the songs together before we went into the studio.
That was a huge difference in how the sounds were crafted when we got into the studio in El Paso. And then the four of us were there, in the studio, without any distractions for a week, totally focussed on recording and getting everything down.
It must have validated a lot of the personal work you did on yourself, too, to have such a fluid session.
Well what made me so inspired was, I realized, we did this all together. Greg wasn’t there with us, but he was a part of the whole experience. We recorded the record live, so now when we go into performing the record live we noticed how expansive all the songs are, how important the live show is going to be and how different it’s going to be.
Just like The Dead.
Just like The Dead! I want to record a lot of the live stuff, and I’m sure that’s going to influence the next album, too. Between the six of us, we all sing, and the music is so expansive that we can go with it to the moon. That creates a whole new understanding of the band and where we can go.
Who’s your most unlikely fan?
Haley Joel Osment came to one of our shows, I thought that was pretty cool. Usher is a fan, which is crazy to me because I grew up listening to that guy! He’s so much of a fan that I got to play one of my songs with him. He asked me to perform one of my songs with him, and that’s not only an incredible honor, but so surreal to me.
As an artist, if one of these mega-celebrity musicians asks you to perform it’s usually like, “O.K., come sit in with me on ‘Confessions’ or ‘My Way.’ ” But he said, “I want to perform your song with you at my show,” you know?
You got it bad, Ahmed!
Fantastic song. Great video, too.