Ahmed Gallab is the Sudanese-American founder and leader of the band Sinkane. Afropop first spoke with Gallab in 2015, and we met again when Sinkane headlined at the 2022 Afro-Roots Fest at the North Beach Bandshell in Miami Beach. Before the show, Banning Eyre and Sean Barlow sat down with Gallab to catch up on his new band, his new music and reflections on life as a Sudanese-American. Here’s their conversation.
All photos of Sinkane by Banning Eyre.
Banning Eyre: Ahmed, great to talk with you. To start off, I'm curious about your background. I understand that you were born in London to Sudanese parents and wound up in Brooklyn. Tell us how this all happened.
Ahmed Gallab: Sure. My family emigrated to the United States in 1989. My father was a politician in Sudan in the ’70s and ’80s, and he came to study at Boston University in a fellowship program there. Then that same year, a coup overthrew the government of Sudan, which was the government my father was affiliated with. We applied for asylum here in the United States, and we were granted asylum and then went on this 20-year tour of the United States, going from one place to another until my family settled. So I grew up living in the United States and Sudan. I would go back with my mom and my sisters to visit her family there.
My parents now live in Phoenix. They are professors at Arizona State University. My mom comes from a pretty interesting family in Sudan. Her father has a big cosmetics company there. It was the first company to actually produce Sudanese cosmetics on a grand scale, so I grew up around a lot of that. My father comes from very humble beginnings. He grew up in a small town in the southern part of northern Sudan. It's a really remote farm town. It's been very interesting to go back there. It's very quiet, beautiful, serene. So those are two very different backgrounds that met together in Khartoum, the capital city. That's the history.
Your music is a mix of influences and styles—soul, funk, rock ’n’ roll, Sudanese. But here we are at the Afro-Roots Fest. What does that mean to you?
It's really exciting. It's affirming to know that we're headlining tonight at a festival called Afro-Roots. It feels like the people here get it. Because African music is kind of the genesis of all music, and Africa is kind of the genesis of all life, especially where I come from a northern Sudan. That's where a lot of the original cultures were—the Kush Empire and all that. So it's really exciting to see how far we've come since those primal beginnings back in the day. And it's amazing that people recognize those beginnings and have been inspired by them to create something new and interesting.
Even though I would say I am African and my music is inherently African, I am also American. My music is universal. I grew up traveling a lot. I didn't live anywhere for more than four years in my life until I moved to New York in 2008. So I've met a lot of different people. I've had a lot of amazing experiences with people who are unlike me. And that's what's made me who I am today. It's very apparent in the music and is part of the conversation in the music.
I hear you. All the styles that you draw upon have clear African roots. During sound check, you gave a little discourse on the Grateful Dead, which I found interesting. Talk about the rock ’n' roll side of your life experience. I notice all sorts of little quotes in your music. During soundcheck I heard fragments of “Iron Man” and “Whole Lotta Love,” and you have a song that nods to Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein.”
Yeah. You caught that. That’s great. Well, as a kid, I was always surrounded by people that were not like me. In high school and middle school, I was always the only Black kid until I was maybe 14. I lived in Utah for a long time. I never had other young Sudanese kids in my town, in my school. In Utah, the only other Black person in the school was my sister. So our culture wasn't represented. It was a diverse place, but the diversity was in island and Eastern culture; a lot of Chinese, Japanese, Samoan, Polynesian and Hawaiian people lived there, not a lot of African people, and not a lot of Black Americans either.
So I was kind of immersed in this very interesting culture at the time, and it really drew me to rock ’n' roll music when I was young. And then when I was 14, we moved to Kent, Ohio, where a friend of mine made me listen to DIY underground music. So hard-core music and punk music became my outlet. That's the first time I was able to connect with people who also felt like they were outsiders. It spoke to me in a very soulful way, a very immediate and strong way, and still to this day, the immediacy of punk rock and hard-core is something that I am drawn to and I want to project within the music. So as I started growing older, I was introduced to more of that, and the history of rock ’n' roll, the history of psychedelic music.
I'm really excited about the immersive experience of music it, and psychedelic music and rock’ ’n' roll there's a very immersive quality. So this became a part of my identity growing up. Then obviously as I grew older I got more into the music from where I come from. My dad is a really big jazz head. Specifically, the first record he ever played for me was Bitches Brew, a very immersive record.
Sure is. He threw you into the deep end.
So through that kind of music, the collage of Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler and that kind of stuff and Herbie Hancock's fusion, I was introduced to the ‘70s rock. And through ‘70s rock, I was introduced into the Grateful Dead. That was kind of a thing in my 20s. The Grateful Dead were sort of always in my periphery, everywhere that I went. As a kid, you always saw it, especially in the ‘90s. It was everywhere. Jerry's face was everywhere, but I never really got into the music.
Then, one day, I woke up and I was like, "Well, I think I might like it. Let me try it." And that was it. It was like a gateway. I got Europe 72, and it became a deep, heavy, immersive musical journey for me. To learn about the recorded side. To learn about their live sides, the different eras of the Dead, the different musicians that came in and out, the different collaborators that they worked with, the side projects—all of that stuff. It really connected with me, and I think it's because their music in its own right is a hodgepodge of many different kinds of music, whether it's Mickey Hart's African stuff or Jerry’s Americana and bluegrass background or Phil Lesh’s crazy classical, weird, avant garde things. Pigpen's blues. All of it came together and created this confluence of sound that only weirdo outsider people could like. I got so excited by the music and really didn't listen to much else for five or six years.
It's fascinating that the punk and hard-core came before the Grateful Dead.
Well, the Grateful Dead are in their own right a punk band. They were so counterculture in a very amazing way.
I grew up with the Dead. I used to play in a band where half the guys were really into funk and reggae, and the other half was into the Dead. Later on, I thought that Jerry Garcia's clean guitar tone and his melodic and rhythmic emphasis set me up to fall in love with African guitar.
Yes. I think that comes honestly from his banjo playing. It's inherently an African instrument.
Right. That straight, flat picking, staccato thing.
Yes. Very rhythmic. Very punchy. Through the banjo, that style of playing has a pretty strong history with African music. And a lot of those major tonalities in Grateful Dead music also resonate with African music.
“Fire on the Mountain.”
Exactly. We covered that song for a long time.
We recently played the Tal National cover of “Eyes of the World” on our program, from that album, Day of the Dead.
Amazing. I love Bela Fleck’s cover of “Help on the Way” on that album.
Absolutely brilliant. Let's talk about the Sudanese side of your music. I hear it in some of your tonalities. I hear it in the 12/8 rhythms—the strong four-on-the-floor 12/8, as opposed to the more ambiguous 6/8 variety. And I hear it in those very forthright melodies. Some years ago I was interviewing the Somali rapper K’Naan, and he spoke about an "East African melodic sensibility." Does that ring any bells for you?
Yes. Because Ethiopian music has its own scales and modes, very much based on major and minor pentatonic scales. Between Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan there's a very interesting melodic sensibility that comes from Arabic music, this longing and melancholic and nostalgic flavor to the strings that was taken on by Sudan in particular. And then the blues, which if you mix those two, it’s that very specific East African modality.
In Sudan, every part of that culture is all about color. It's all about vibrancy and punchiness, but not in the same way that West African music is. It's not as bright, but it's very homey. I relate to that a lot. It's interesting because songs of mine like “Omdurman” or “Mango” or “New Name,” songs that have that strong East African pentatonic vibe, if people don't understand that sound, they relate it to some kind of circus music, which is funny to me. But if you look at it from that vantage point, it does sort of sound like circus music. But that's the beauty of it. It's very uplifting, very big and melodic and emotional.
It's true that most people are not familiar with artists like Abdel Gadir Salim or Mohammed Wardi, that whole era. So I guess your music is a kind of bridge. Let’s talk about what you're going to play tonight.
Tonight we are doing a kind of a hodgepodge of a lot of the older material. I wrote a lot of new material during the pandemic, and we are going to debut two new songs tonight, which I'm excited about. It's a whole new band. This is the third show with this new band. These guys have another band on their own called Holy Hand Grenade, an amazing Brooklyn band that does a lot of Fela and a lot of Mulatu Astatke tunes, so they are very familiar with the kinds of sounds that I am influenced by and drawing from. This allows us to have this kind of synergy that I haven't had with other bands. They are really strong players, and they understand the music emotionally and cerebrally, which is very nice. So I've been able to tap back into some of the older stuff from my albums Mean Love and Mars in a way I wasn't able to do previously.
Tell us about the new songs.
One of them is a song called “K-Town Boogie.” It's a song that I wrote after we brought the band to Sudan for the first time. In 2017, the Swiss Initiative and UNESCO hosted a festival in Sudan after the sanctions were lifted. It was the first festival in Sudan in over 30 years. It was in this very beautiful town up north called Karmakol, which is where the Sudanese author Tayeb Salih is from. It's about four hours north of Khartoum. So they asked us to come and play, and it was a dream. I got to play with one of my Sudanese musical idols, Sherhabil Ahmed.
When I went there, it was the first time I had gone back in 11 years. It was really great to see my family, but was also really great to connect with a lot of young kids. In Sudan, 75 percent of the population is under 24 years old. They are so young. Because of that, there's a lot of amazing inspired young energy. They have the Internet so they are able to hear damn near everything, even though they live in such a spiritually draining place because of the dictatorship.
I was able to connect a lot of young musicians, and I specifically went to this café where they all hang out, called Caffeine. They were telling me that despite all these parameters that we live under, we are able to congregate here and have conversations with one another, and exchange ideas, and still be creative. There's an LGBTQ-plus community that exists kind of under the radar. But you can't have any gatherings where you dance. If people see any congregation of kids, four or more, they will try to shut it down. But these kids have found ways to be creative, and have these nights were they play music for one another and collaborate among artists.
I was so inspired by this idea. Regardless of these crippling rules that the government has imposed on these kids, they still couldn't hold them down. They still do what they want to do. They are still able to be creative. So I wrote a song about it called “K-Town Boogie,” and we’re going to play it tonight.
Then there's another song, "Imposter," that I wrote during the pandemic. It was near the end of the Trump era, so it kind of speaks for itself. I try not to get too political, but he made it a little hard for me. So we’ll play that. Then the classics “How We Be,” “New Name,” “Omdurman,” “Mean Love,” which is one we haven't played in a long time. We’ll do “Everybody” from the last album, Dépaysé. So you'll get the full gamut of the Sinkane repertoire.
I’m guessing that like so many artists I have spoken with recently, you are busy creating during the pandemic. So will there be a new album soon?
I hope so. During the pandemic I have been writing a lot of music. I've put together a new studio, which has been very nice. And I also went back to school. I'm graduating with a Masters in composition next month from SUNY Purchase. Then there are a lot of other projects that I can't talk about, but it was two years of full-on musical journey, so I'm really excited about the new music and the new era of Sinkane.
We look forward to all of it. Meanwhile here's a question a little bit out of the blue. I've been working with some folks planning a documentary that deals with funk music in Africa in the 1970s. The idea moves from West Africa to East Africa, and eventually to Sudan. One of our informants tells us that there's a lot of interesting music percolating up there these days. You were there in 2017, five years ago. But what was your impression then?
A lot has been happening, and I've kept in touch with people. The thing about the new music in Sudan is that a lot of it doesn't sound Sudanese. I think young kids are now finding ways to tap into their Sudanese identity. Or at least the music I heard didn't sound Sudanese. There is a new style of music and Sudan called zenig, which is inherently Sudanese. But I didn't see much of that versus this very hip-hop and r&b-influenced music.
That is just now coming in. But when I was there, I would go to a producer’s studio, and the music that they were making sounded like Drake or Post Malone or Chance the Rapper. It strongly sounded that way. And I found it so interesting that me and my fellow Sudanese-American or Sudanese diaspora musical people are making such a strong effort to showcase our Sudanese identity within our music. Me and Alsarah, Ramey Dawoud... We all sing in Arabic and use Arabic melodies and Sudanese melodies. We showcase our dual identity within our music, and these kids in Sudan are very Western, very American influenced. They're not singing in Arabic at all. When they sing, it sounds very consciously American.
And I asked them, "What's going on? This is very weird to me.” They look up to me or to Bas, the rapper on Dreamville Records, but when I hear their music, I don't feel connected to it. I made it really clear to them. “You all have this resource that we are so detached from. We on the outside really want to connect to this resource that you have here at home."
That's kind of their best angle, the one thing may have that nobody else has.
Yes. On the one hand, I can understand, because living in Sudan for the last 30 years has been difficult. So what we see and romanticize from the outside is so familiar and in their face that is hard for them to connect with the beauty of it. Since then, a lot of the musicians there, like a young woman named Hiba Elgizouli, or Young Justus, MaMan, and 249TooDope. They are all amazing musicians, amazing rappers and incredibly proficient producers. And I think they are now starting to really bridge the gap between their Sudanese identity and the music that they are influenced by. They go on the Internet and see the West and it's glamorous to them. We go on the Internet and we see them, and that's glamorous to us.
I suppose it's a process. If you think of the music that was being made in Nigeria and Ghana before Afrobeats coalesced, it was accused of the same thing. "You're imitating American music." I've done interviews where artists point out that South African music only became South African music after years of imitating American jazz. And Congolese music only became Congolese music after years of imitating Cuban music. It takes time to absorb influences and make them your own. Do you feel like something like that might be happening?
I think it is. What was really exciting for me when I went back to Sudan was that there was this mutual inspiration between the people I met, and between the musicians I met there and me. I looked at them and I saw how resourceful they were in creating music. They have Fruity Loops or Logic, and the cheapest instruments. I have everything in the United States, anything I want, any musical equipment that I want, any musical resources that I want. They don't have virtually anything, and they're making this really amazing sounding music.
I think it was important to see someone like them on a stage playing to them. I made it really clear to UNESCO that if we were going to play a show in Sudan, we need our gear, exactly how we perform in the United States. We needed to allow them to see it and to use it as well. They had to see the same show that anyone in Boise or whatever random South Carolina town we play in sees. It had to be the same thing.
As I said, I still connect with them and offer myself as a resource for them for advice. Some of them send me their music, and I give them my thoughts. People like MaMan, and Hiba Elgizouli and SUFYVN, they are all making amazing music now, and they are showcasing a new Sudanese identity and musical landscape, and I think it's only going to get more so.
Fascinating. We will have to do a show about new Sudanese sounds at some point. Let me take you back to this narrative about funk in the ’70s. In your household, did your parents play for you old music from the Omdurman radio era?
Yes. The interesting thing about all that is that because of the restrictive nature of the Sudanese government in the ‘70s, there weren't a lot of recordings.
It was pretty much what they recorded in the radio station.
Right, the radio, or you go to a wedding in hear a performance there. Especially in the ‘80s after Sharia law was instilled, it was really hard to find secular music. Before that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was so much stuff, and a lot of amazing musicians doing interesting things. But I am now hearing that era of recording for the first time. What I heard growing up, and what a lot of people from my generation heard, were these cassettes recorded outside of Sudan using very ‘80s technology and gear.
A lot of the recordings that were made were like Sharhabil Ahmed and Mohammed Wardi and Kamal Tarbas, the music that they made in the '60s but rerecorded in the ‘80s outside of Sudan. It had an amazing nostalgic quality to me, but it also had a lot of cheesy sounds on the keyboard. Now we have labels like Habibi Funk and Ostinatto releasing the music in their original recordings in the ‘60s.
Yes I've been hearing those, like those recordings from Djibouti.
Yes. Group RTD. Insane! And they’re releasing Sudanese stuff too. There are a lot of these 45s that are surfacing now from that era prior to the government locking down everything. You can get a 45 of Sudanese music from the ‘60s that hasn't been played because they weren't allowed to play it on the radio, because it was not recorded at the national radio. I have started to tap into that and listen to that stuff. The haqiba music and the madeeh music from that era is now really getting its due attention.
O.K., so as you listen to that music now, coming back to this lens of the funk influence, how much do you hear it? When you listen to Ethiopian pop from that time, the James Brown influence is strongly evident. Do you hear anything that you would describe as “funk” in these Sudanese recordings from that time? Just as a listener, in your opinion, how big a factor was that?
It was definitely a factor in the drums and percussion. If you listen to the old Sherhabil recordings from the ‘60s, he was very, very inspired by Chuck Berry and the rock ’n' roll element. But you also hear very strong backbeat, syncopated percussion. It's not as clearly defined as the stuff from Ethiopia or the Afro-rock bands from Nigeria, or the psychedelic stuff that was literally just straight up James Brown with a fuzz box.
Sudan is situated in such an interesting place because not only was that American and British influence from colonization coming through, but the Arab influence was coming from up north was there. So those influences mixed with traditional Sudanese music created this unique thing that did not exist in West Africa. It was more symphonic, orchestral. So in Sudan, I hear the funk, but what I hear more is a big band jazz influence that comes via the Middle East. That shows a lot more strongly in Sudanese music.
That makes sense. One of the narratives that we’re looking at in this project is in the Congo where Mobutu enforced a kind of cultural authenticity. It's become clear to me that when Congolese musicians heard James Brown, they liked it, but they did not particularly hear it as “African music returning home,” in the way that Nigerians and Ghanaians did. They heard it as “American music,” and that gave it a certain political forbiddeness. It was not played on the radio. But when it came to Cuban music, it was a different story. Congolese heard the Bantu rhythms and embraced Cuban son as African music coming home. And that became the basis of the new Congolese music. I'm sure this is oversimplified, but there's something going on here. What I'd like to ask you is, do you think the James Brown-American funk wave was perceived to have any political associations in Sudan? Or was it really just a matter of sound and style?
I'm not sure. But my sense is that in that era of African history, you couldn't really escape any kind of political conversation with anything that you did. Whether it was Idi Amin or Mobutu or Jaffar Nimeiry in Sudan, there was no escaping the politics.
Wardi [Mohammed Wardi, Sudanese singer] himself got in trouble.
Yes. My dad got in trouble. A lot of people would just leave. In the ‘70s in Sudan, a lot of the music that you heard had a subversive element. There's a thing in Sudanese poetry where you kind of code what you are saying so that you don't reveal your true intention, but people can decode it in their brains. So originally the way it started was that if you were singing a love song, the pronouns that you are using would say something. Like a male would not use a female pronoun to speak about his love. He would use a male pronoun. So it creates this really weird ambiguous thing. Who was he talking to? He's saying “him,” but it's really about a woman. That became a thing in Sudan. So I wouldn't be surprised if that kind of thing had a political side.
Wardi was very outspoken. He had a lot of political songs. But I think the outside political forces, whether it was James Brown or anything going on outside the country, were not as immediate to them as what was happening within the country. There were a lot of spurts of democracy and then dictatorship, democracy and then dictatorship... People were engulfed within their own personal struggles, first decolonizing the country, and that all the crap that happened afterwards.
I'm really curious myself about the James Brown influence. When I talked to my parents and other people, his influence does not seem as interesting to them as, say, Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. That era of jazz meant more to them. But I remember that one of the biggest Sherhabil songs was a twist—the dance, the twist. That was really big there. But then the demoralizing of people through the dictatorship kind of crushed any of that sense of wonder that other African countries may have had about that music.
Interesting. And then of course there's the brass band tradition in East African music, starting with the marching bands, and then as you say the jazz influence finding an easy way in through those brass sections. That seems to be a strong feature of Sudanese pop in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I love those big band recordings from that era, to the extent of been able to hear them. The music has got a great swing. But let's come back to you and your own unusual mix of styles. Who would you say is your audience?
I don't know. I don't know. I think there's been a lot of confusion about my band for a long time. And I think it's because it's really hard to pinpoint exactly what it is for people. I noticed that the people who do connect with my music are similar to me, in that they maybe grew up in a place that's different from where they came from. Sometimes they connect my music, or some melody, specifically to their culture. I've had people say things like, "This reminds me of the Mexican music my parents grew up with, or the Indonesian music my mom used to play."
They hear that hybridity.
Exactly. It's a mix of things. I find my audience to be a hodgepodge of different kinds of people, old and young. Really it's people who are just interested in dissecting the music a bit more. They like the feel of it, but they also like to parse it out and try to understand where it comes from. They’re interested in the history of it, for lack of a better term, the ethnomusicology element of it. I think my audience is still finding itself, and it doesn't help that my music on every album is different. I tend to drop in so many diverse elements of my life experience that it creates a different album every single time. But I do feel like me and my fans all kind of relate in this shared sense of wonder at the world. We share intriguing curiosity about cultures and sounds.
What about the band name? What is Sinkane?
Sinkane is a misheard word from a Kanye West song. I was listening to a lot of Kanye West when I first started the band around 2006. And on his first album, there's a song called "Never Let Me Down,” where a rapper named J. Ivy has this very long, beautiful, conscious verse. And in that first, he says, “I'm trying to get us free like Cinque.” That line really resonated with me, but I misheard Cinque as Sinkane, and in my mind I thought that this very conscious rapper must be talking about some African history that I don't know about. And I'm a little embarrassed that I don't know about it. What is this Sinkane that he’s talking about? So I made up the story in my mind that Sinkane was this monolithic African figure similar to Shaka Zulu or Amadou Touré, and his story must've been passed down through generations of folklore and through the African slave trade, and was carried to African people in the United States, and that it must've been immortalized in African studies courses and books and stuff like that.
I made this all up in my brain. I listened to the song over and over again and kept thinking, I must look this up. And then finally I looked it up, and realized that I had misheard the word. J. Ivy was talking about Joseph Cinque who was the slave who led the Amistad revolt. He led it with a speech saying I want to get "us free." So essentially the idea I had of this monolithic African figure was Joseph Cinque. And the name Sinkane had no meaning and no relation to Africa. It was just made up. You couldn't find anything about it. So I thought, "Well, I made up the story. Maybe I should be Sinkane.” That will be my identity.
And it's proven to be amazing too, because anywhere we go in the world, people will take that name and related to where they come from. The connect it colloquially with the language that they speak. In Latin America they say sin-KAHN-nay, and in French they say SIN-khan, in Germany they say ZIN-kane. And I've heard a Japanese version. I've heard so many different ways of saying the word, and people somehow feel connected to it within their culture. So there's this idea of universality that I like to project, and it's proven to be true through the name.
Glad I asked. I would never have guessed! That has to be one of the more arcane origins of a band name ever. But thanks so much for talking with us.