Friday, Sep. 13, 9 p.m., $15–$17
Motorco Music Hall, Durham
For someone whose band name is based on a Kanye West misquote, Ahmed Gallab, the Sudanese-American leader of the five-piece Brooklyn band Sinkane, isn’t a guy you can easily file away in the endless dusty crates of 2010s “indie rock” product.
Sure, in the past few years, he’s cemented a reputation as a purveyor of a certain kind of breezy, globe-hopping dance-pop, the sort of humid, perfumed funk you could probably throw on at a ritzy brunch or meticulously scrutinize, MFA-style, for Sudanese folk/psychedelia influences and arcane song concepts. But to slot Gallab away so quickly under trends or labels would be myopic and missing his whole universalist bent.
Gallab folds a hell of a lot of the world into his stuff. Like any good musician, he understands the crucial interplay between serious and fun, and is prone to smuggling harsh truth into what could seem like ambitious vibe music. There are no cheap zingers or cute political winks, just plain, direct statements on sticky world issues that, in other music, often get mired in generalization. African immigrant identity politics. Religious discrimination. Executive Order 13769, the United States’ ban on travel from certain Muslim countries. On a recent track, “Ya Sudan,” he spins a tale about the activists who overthrew Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir earlier this year.
To some, this kind of brazen subject matter may not feel all that odd in 2019. Dozens of artists have coughed up empathetic, politically flavored pop records in the muddied age of Trump. But Gallab did not cynically switch the morning after the 2016 election. Fueled by the writings of transformative thinkers like James Baldwin, Gallab’s passion for world politics has always run hot, and he’s been preaching at this particular street-level pulpit for years, lit by a fire of what he sees as a “re-emerging trend of open xenophobia in American culture.”
Adventurous types might already know of his ongoing stint as the vocalist and project director for the African psych-pop great William Onyeabor’s Atomic Bomb supergroup, a sprawling undertaking that has featured contributions from kindred spirits like David Byrne and Damon Albarn.
In conversation, Gallab is thoughtful and engaging, quick to downplay his own achievements and shower praise upon his colleagues and influences. On the recent trials and travails of Kanye West (the name “Sinkane” comes from a mishearing of the J. Ivy lyric “I’m trying to get us free like Cinque” from The College Dropout cut “Never Let Me Down”), he offers nuance.
“It’s easy to say a lot of music inspired me, but I didn’t truly see myself in black music until Kanye West. That said, I think we saw someone completely crack under pressure. Even on my relatively low level, I feel the extreme pressures of fame. of expectation, of always having to top yourself and think of what’s next. So I understand the pressures he’s going through, even if I don’t buy half the shit he says.”
Gallab’s music taste follows this egalitarian impulse. He explains his lifer appreciation for classic subversive ‘70s staples—the Parliaments and Bob Marleys of the world—but his reference pool also tends to zig and zag all over the place. At one point, we mourn the recently passed songwriter and poet David Berman, of cult indie-rock outfit Silver Jews, of whom he is a superfan.
“I was so shaken to hear he died,” he says. “When I was growing up in Ohio, Berman and the Silver Jews were foundational to me. I had got into them through Pavement, and one of the first songs I ever covered at an open mic was ‘Random Rules.’ I even had a cover band called ‘Black Jews’ in college.”
That American-omnivore upbringing, running alongside Gallab’s particular highbrow, global-facing eclecticism, has defined his life, especially when you consider that he strengthened his music chops as a session musician and live drummer for Caribou, Yeasayer, Of Montreal, and a motley assortment of other indie standard-bearers—perhaps not the CV you would expect from such a firebrand. Although, according to him, the story of his foray into Caribou is embarrassing.
“My friends got me into a show that Caribou was playing,” Gallab says. “I was drunk and offered Dan [Snaith] a CD-R of mine, because Caribou are one of my absolute favorite bands. I ended up getting kicked out of the show, and thought that was the end of that. Then, I got added to an email chain with the Flaming Lips drummer, all these people, basically every crazy drummer in music. When word came down that they needed me, of all people, I literally quit my day job on the spot.”
Gallab released his excellent latest album, Dépaysé, earlier this year on the Berlin indie label City Slang. His most intricate and personal work to date, the title stems from a French word that doesn’t quite have an exact translation, but means something like “removed from one’s habitual surroundings.”
One song on the record, the startling “On Being,” was inspired by the civil rights figure Al Hajj Sheik Kenneth Murray-Muhammad, who founded the first mosque in North Carolina and was outspoken against bigotry and oppression. Gallab belts out the line “We maybe never know but we can always choose / hate or truth,” an idea that he borrowed from Murray. “I used that line as a mantra when writing this record, and as simple as an idea as that is, I think it’s very powerful,” he says.
Undeniably, these are still sunny, highly palatable pop nuggets, and people will almost certainly continue to airily drop them into their late summertime deck-drinking playlists without a second thought. With that in mind, I joked with Gallab about whether he has considered dropping his exuberant pan-genre style in favor of grittier sonics. The apocalyptic Sinkane noise record, coming when? He chuckles, but dismisses the idea. It’s not quite up to him, he says, offering an dusty, if earnest, truism. “You don’t pick the music, the music picks you.”
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