If we live in a fractured era of society and politics, the world rock band Sinkane has a healing message that sounds like it is coming at just the right time.
The band’s frontman and songwriter, Ahmed Gallab, is a true world citizen. Born in London as the son of a Sudanese diplomat, his family moved to the U.S. when he was 5 so his father could study at Boston University. It was during that time in 1989 that Omar al-Bashir overthrew the Sudanese government in a military coup. As a former government employee, Gallab’s father obtained asylum in the U.S. and so Gallab split his time here with annual visits to his family in Sudan.
Sinkane just released its fourth album, “Dépaysé.” The title is a French word that means “to be removed from one’s habitual surroundings,” which is a theme that is explored in several songs. “Ya Sudan” and “The Searching,” in particular, touch on the duality that Gallab feels as a Sudanese-American and as a Muslim in a predominantly non-Muslim culture.
“People in Sudan would tell me, ‘You’re not quite Sudanese’ and living in the United States, ‘You’re not quite American,’ ” said Gallab. “I would hang out with the African American community and they would say, ‘You’re not really black because you’re not from here.’ So what am I? Something happened in the last couple years of my life, and I just came to peace with it all. No one can tell me who I am. No one can define who I am other than me. It’s OK for me to be complex. Complexity exists in the world all over the place, so it’s OK for me to be this complex human being.”
Other songs on the album take a more political tone. The opening track “Everybody” has an open-hearted message to those Gallab feels are opposing immigrants like himself:
“Mercy to the ones who keep wishing we still lived like way back when / Mercy to the ones who keep saying to make America great again.”
“To respond to them in the way they want to respond to the world is just sad,” said Gallab. “It makes everything difficult for everyone else and it doesn’t set a good example for any productive move forward in the future. I just want things to be better. I want to respond in a way that might counter hate.”
Sinkane’s music has an upbeat and danceable sound that combines elements of rock, reggae, R&B, and Afropop. The combination of upbeat grooves and hard political lyrics is reminiscent of one of Gallab’s biggest influences: Bob Marley.
“He was a big inspiration while I was writing this,” said Gallab. “Bob Marley is amazing because his music is so uplifting and so fun. You put it on at any party you go to and people start dancing and they smile—they’re excited and feel kind of happy-go-lucky. But if you dig into what he’s talking about, he isn’t sugar-coating anything. The songs are really political, politically driven and politically inspired and real. There’s no beating around the bush. I think that’s a really great message. What he’s essentially saying is times are tough and we understand that, but we can still have a good time. It’s not going to bring us down.”
Religious and spiritual themes also find a place on “Dépaysé.” The songs “On Being” and “Stranger” explore the search for higher meaning. Gallab credits his spiritual curiosity to his grandfather, who held an important position in his Sudanese community and even has a mosque named after him.
“In Islam, he’s known as a Khalifa, which is a prestigious title for a religious cleric,” said Gallab. “He studied Islam from after the sixth grade. So he dedicated himself to Islam and was a great person, a very wholesome and generous man. And he was a Sufi, so I grew up with this very spiritual and personal connection to Islam. Through that, I was into music because he would have these great Sufi gatherings at our house in Sudan and it would almost put in me in a tantric state. There was a very repetitive sing-songy thing happening with a lot of call and response. He would be leading this whole thing and it was very meditative, a bit like, psychedelic, in some ways. It filled me with an intense connection to religion in an out-of-body experience kind of way. I’ve taken that with me throughout my entire life.”
Gallab was drawn to music as a boy growing up in Boston. When he was just 6 years old, his international school had a culture day and he performed percussion on spoons which led him to an interest in the drums. When he was 11, he and his friends formed a band.
“I begged my parents endlessly to please get me this drum set,” said Gallab. “Finally they found this music store that rented drums so they rented me these drums. I played my first show when I was 11 and as soon as I hit the first note on the first song onstage I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Eventually Gallab moved to guitar because it was easier to write songs and front a band on that instrument. His bandmates in Sinkane are Elenna Canlas on keyboards and vocals, Johnny Lam on guitar, Ish Montgomery on bass and Chris St. Hilaire on drums. Although Gallab is proud of “Dépaysé” as an album, he prefers taking his band on tour to bring the songs to life in front of audiences.
“I would say my live show is where the band flourishes. The music is just the start of the conversation on the record,” said Gallab. “We really like to kick it into outer space when we go live and have a lot of fun with the songs that we can’t really quite do on the record. The record is kind of like building a ship in a bottle. When we’re live, it’s like a sailboat in the ocean. There’s many different directions that we can go. We have a lot of fun.”