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Music for the Universe

by Robin Scher / 24.01.2014

Ahmed Gallab dislikes the phrase ‘world music’. Born in Sudan, raised in Ohio and now a resident of New York City, he prefers the term ‘universal’. If ever a band lived up to such a grand title, it’s Gallab’s group – Sinkane. Far too vivid for the well trodden ‘world’ genre, Sinkane is East African rhythms square dancing amidst mid-western country in a loft in Brooklyn – an enigmatic manifestation of this musician’s lived experience. Almost solely composing last year’s studio release – Mars, Gallab is equally adept at expressing himself through words as he does through his instruments, as he spoke about his past and the definition of the word ‘universal’ like a real philosopher.

What was it like growing up in Ohio?

Ohio is just one of the many places I’ve lived. My formative years were there and I have an immediate relation to that place. I lived in Utah for just as long, but moved to Ohio when I was 13. It allowed me to become who I am. People from Ohio wear their hearts on their sleeve, they’re sincere people and it’s a real easy place to live – especially where I grew up in Kent, Ohio.

I was different from everybody else. There weren’t any other Sudanese people in my high school, other than my sister. I made a lot of friends and I learnt what was important about making friends. I became friends with Greg Lofaro who now makes the Sinkane records with me – we’ve been playing music together since we were 13.

After leaving Sudan due to political instability at five, you returned to your home country every summer throughout high school and college. How did that experience impact on you and your identity growing up?

I felt like I was living in two different places. It was hard to grasp at first but it really helped me understand who I am. At first, going back was hard and it would be a very immediate transition. I’d finish school then I’d leave for Sudan the very next day and then come back from Sudan and start the new school year the next day.

I got used to it though and it became exciting going back to Sudan each year. I really enjoyed returning and feel really blessed to have had the opportunity to experience and understand fully two different cultures and be right in the middle… in transition between one and the other. When I go to Sudan I bring the person that I’ve become from the United States there and be myself and equally  I’m able to bring my Sudanese identity here to the US too.

How have you carried that across into your music?

It’s made me understand that it’s really important to understand the concept of universalism. With my music I want to be able to relate to people. First and foremost I want to be able to relate to other Sudanese people who’ve grown up in the United States. A lot of us haven’t had the opportunity to connect with each other and a lot of us felt lost growing up and didn’t know how to relate to the world and felt alone in that regard. Beyond that, there are a lot of other people who have had the same experience who aren’t Sudanese. Here, in Africa, all over the world. There’s a widespread feeling of displacement. If I can express that I am that kind of person, it could potentially help a lot of people who feel the same way.

You started out playing punk. What attracted you to the  punk/hardcore scene and how did it shape you as a musician?

Punk and hardcore are associated with being angry in a very specific way. You go to a show wanting to kick someone’s ass, or to mosh and so on. But there are a lot of other kids who relate to that music and who make or feel that kind of music who are angry in a very different kind of way.

Most of the kids in town wanted to do stupid shit — get drunk and talk to girls, make fun of other people and kind of project their frustrations onto others. I wasn’t mad at other people. I was frustrated because I couldn’t find people like me. No one was Sudanese, no one understood what it was like to be a foreigner in a foreign land and as a result I was drawn to these local bands in my city that were also frustrated with being ‘foreign’ in their own city – it’s how Greg and I connected. It wasn’t political, it wasn’t fierce. It was a conversation, a way of letting out that frustration.

We spent a lot of time recording, playing and writing music – that’s how we got to know each other and build our friendships. We exorcised our demons through this music and really grew up together. That music scene was very important in how I go about making my music now – that ‘do-it-yourself’ DIY aesthetic. Punk really made me want to play music.

There’s a folkloric nature to your music embodied in your last studio album Mars (2012). What were you trying to communicate through this metaphor?

A big thing about Mars I wanted to establish was that there’s a place for us scattered people and displaced youths that holds elements of who we are and where we come from. That’s what Mars was. I want to continue establishing what that place is. I feel that it holds a place for everyone in this world and that inspires me to continue making music.

How are you continuing this conversation with your new material?

It’s no longer just a conversation with Sudanese people. We’re dealing here with archetypes – people who feel lost. There are people who aren’t Sudanese who are also lost and we can all relate to universal feelings of love, political, and personal insecurities.

More than anything I’ve come back to myself. The new argument is a very personal argument. What is going on with me, beyond my place in this world, my relationships with my friends, religion, my family, my romantic relationships?

So, I’m drawing on this existential idea of thinking and talking about yourself within universal themes. It all fits together within the real motivation behind Sinkane which is creating music that everyone can relate to.

What’s the challenge in taking your music from the recording process where you pretty much oversee every aspect of the songwriting and production into the live band format?

I’ve been in many bands where I wasn’t the leader or songwriter and I did as much as I could, hoping mine was a good contribution, allowing their music to be heard the way they wanted their music to be heard, and inspiring for them to have me performing it with them. But, I never realized how important it was until I became a leader that music, if you don’t enjoy how fellow band members are playing it, can drain that music of its inspiration and fun. It’s very important to be specific with what you do want and to offer praise to your band mates when everything is going well, but also know when to say something when things aren’t…

That communication between band mates is a delicate thing right?

I’ve been doing this project for so long on my own, the live aspect of Sinkane is really new. You can easily lose perspective when you’re working so intensely. You realise that you’ve been doing this all on your own and know every little aspect of the songs, and those joining can only offer their best interpretation of the music. It’s been great learning how to better communicate. You can be as technically skilled and proficient at talking about music but with my music, a lot of it comes from energy and emotions and that’s not an easy thing to communicate.

Your music is hard to pin down. Where would you locate it?

It all comes back to this concept that although we may be physically very far from the origin of the music we can relate to it. It’s why I’ve found myself drawn to country music, reggae, soul, Ethiopian music, even back to when I played punk. It’s all the idea of longing and the idea of being oppressed or in a position of hardship and I can relate to all of that and when you can genuinely relate to all that you can see the idea those musics share and it’s easy to then bring the sonic representation of these feelings and interesting to then meld them together. One of my biggest influences is in fact a band from your country.

Oh really..?

Yeah, Batsumi – they’re incredible. I discovered them in (of all places) a dusty record store in Buenos Aries. That’s an example of universal music if ever I’ve heard one.

So when will South Africa be getting a Sinkane show?

I spoke to Mpumi from the Blk Jks when he was here recently about doing something together in the future. We’re doing what we can from our side, and I know others are doing what they can from theirs. I really hope it’ll happen soon.

*Ahmed portrait ©Phillip Di Fiore
**Sinkane photo ©E. Ashleigh

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