Martian Chronicles: Sinkane in interview

Certainly 'one to watch' in 2013, Sinkane's Mars is a thrilling mixture of African rhythms and melodies, abstract jazz and space-age soul. We talked to him about the LP, his time in Yeasayer and Caribou, and the expiration of the term 'world music'

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 08 Jan 2013

Sinkane was the production name for multi-instrumentalist Ahmed Gallab – now it is the name of his band. He released his eight-track album Mars on DFA / City Slang in December last year. It was in many ways a substantial departure from his earlier albums, Color Voice and the self-titled Sinkane, from 2008 and 2009 respectively, which came out on boutique label Emergency Umbrella Records.

Where his debut and sophomore albums were largely instrumental, Mars features Gallab's voice front and centre. He was revealed as a capable and diverse singer – crooning in a sensual, almost whispered tone on the African-flavoured soul of Jeeper Creeper; sounding like a sexy robot from the future on the louche vocoder-assisted funk of Lady C'Mon and the anthemic, sun-drenched Cruisin', and perhaps most thrillingly, unleashing a pitch-perfect falsetto worthy of Curtis Mayfield on the hard-hitting, chopped funk of first single Runnin'. With time spent as a touring member of several very well-regarded US indie bands, including most notably Yeasayer, Caribou and Of Montreal, Gallab has taken inspiration from his former collaborators. Several of them guest on Mars, including Yeasayer's Ira Wolf-Tuton, and George Lewis Jr, aka Twin Shadow.

Now operating as a full band, backed by drummer Jason Trammel (also a Yeasayer alumnus), celebrated jazz guitarist Mikey Freedom-Hart and bassist Mike Montgomery, Sinkane have begun a tour around Europe and America to promote the album. The Skinny caught up with Gallab at Trans Musicales de Rennes, just before he and his band took to the stage for a jaw-droppingly tight, uplifting, soul-soothing performance of the highlights from the album. Relaxed, highly intelligent, and with an almost unnatural air of calm about him, Gallab is utterly charming in person, discussing his Sudanese roots, his influences, and his plans for the band.

Based in Brooklyn, he is enthusiastic about its musical culture: “There is a lot of creative energy in Brooklyn,” he says. “A lot of bands and musicians move there because of that, and it's very apparent, and very, very exciting. The amount of music that's being made there daily is just unbelievable, and the level of quality is great. It really pushes you to make better music. There are many musical communities there, so you don't have to go to Brooklyn hoping to meet only one kind of person. You end up finding out that there's such an open-ended musical world there. It allows you to tap into parts of your psyche that you just wouldn't have known about, because you haven't seen people achieve that level of creative involvement. Everyone there works very quickly and achieves a lot very quickly, so it also gives you the opportunity to get involved.”

And get involved he did – playing drums and other instruments for a whole host of well-kent Brooklyn faces. What did he learn from this experience? “I learned a lot about how bands work – I learned a lot about how bands communicate with each other, and I learned a lot about the music industry at large,” says Gallab. “The music is one thing – I was incredibly inspired by those bands musically, but what I took from that was how I could move forward with my group, and understand the world of the music industry.”

The lineup of Sinkane is still evolving, but for now, Gallab is extremely happy with the results he's getting from his new band. Trammel played on Mars, the others he met after the album was finished. “In future, absolutely, I'll record with them. It's no longer going to be me, in my room, working on music. I'm so inspired by all three of those guys, and I can only hope that we can get to a place where we're all making new music together.” Sinkane has been a project of Galllab's since 2007, and making a band out of his solo compositions and a string of guest contributions has presented its fair share of challenges. Mars took two years to create, in between on-and-off tours with different bands. “It's kind of hard to make an instant transition, you know?” Gallab smiles as he says this, showing that the process is all part of the enjoyment for him. “You have to grow together, and it takes time,” he continues. “But we're doing pretty well.”

It's a typically modest account from Gallab, who has achieved something truly special with the new Sinkane material. On first glance, the funk rhythms and simple, clear song structures come across with a powerful familiarity. Further listens reveal deeper and deeper complexities, with hints of South American percussion; intricate, abstract jazz flourishes on woodwind, brass and bass; subtle counter-melodies in the guitar playing which evoke classic African fusion musicians such as Fela and Femi Kuti, and a whole host of other exotic, far-flung, and potentially disparate influences. Gallab's palette is truly international, but never experimental for the sake of it, or in a showy, self-conscious way. Sinkane simply borrow from everywhere, and make it their own.

Asked for his opinion on the outmoded (and arguably politically incorrect) term 'world music,' Gallab makes no apologies: “I think it bastardises music,” he says firmly. “I think what it does is it puts a lot of beautiful, different, eclectic music under one simple category. And it's not that simple – there's a lot more to music which can be found all around the world than can be contained in one simple category. The world is opening its eyes to that – there are a lot of really beautiful new music which is being released from all over the world, and I think we're starting to discover that music on its own terms. The idea of 'world music' has become dated.”

He is equally suspicious of attempts to limit the scope of who artists can be influenced by. The Skinny asks if he sees elements of 'cultural tourism' in Afrobeat-influenced bands like Vampire Weekend, and he rejects this suggestion categorically: “I think it's all good. It's okay for anyone to make whatever kind of music they wanna make. It's not for me, or anybody, to say what people should or shouldn't do. It's equally annoying to hear someone criticise a band for adding a specific influence, or to call it cultural tourism, as it is to use the term 'world music.' People can do whatever they want, and they will continue to. As long as it's sincere, then it's fine.”

Sincere is definitely a word that could be applied to Mars – although many of the lyrics are simple and clear in their meaning, the overall effect is transcendental, especially when seen in a live context – one could almost use the term 'spiritual.' “I grew up in a very spiritual family,” Gallab confirms. “A lot of the early music that I heard was very spiritual. When you're being absolutely honest and sincere with what you do, you revert back to what you know, and that's just kind of a subconscious thing for me. I think that you make what you know. You create what you know, and that's one of the things that I know.”

How important are Gallab's Sudanese roots to the music on Mars? “I grew up in a family that demanded a lot from our Sudanese identity,” he explains. “My parents made it very clear and very obvious to us that my sister and I had to maintain our Sudanese identity. I really used a lot of that on this album, and I will continue to use a lot of that in the music I will go on to make.” His family were a huge influence musically as well: “My mother was a singer, my grandfather was a singer, so I've always had that skillset inside, but now I'm doing it, I'm learning a lot about my voice,” says Gallab. “In high school, and in primary school, I always loved singing. When I became a drummer, I just didn't really think about it too much. But it's always been with me.”

Gallab started out learning how to play instruments the classical way, but soon discovered the joys of self-taught, improvisation-based learning. “I don't read music,” he says. “I can, but I don't. There are many different schools of music, and many different ways to learn. The more I play, the more I become 'classically trained,' and the more I become interested in that school of music, because it's a challenge for me. But I'm really glad I learned the way I did.”

Where does Sinkane fit into the current musical landscape – does he feel at home on DFA? “I am incredibly inspired by everything they've done,” says Gallab. “I can only hope that I can put a new spin on things with them, or take on what they've done and do something new with it. In Europe, City Slang Records is the same – they've been very supportive, and exciting to work with. They have a similar vibe, they put out some quality records. I can only hope that Sinkane can be another one of those quality records!”

Is there any camaraderie between Sinkane and artists like Flying Lotus, who have been grouped under the 'New Beat' genre tag? “We have a mutual compadre in our friend Helado Negro, who I feel a very strong kinship to,” says Gallab, although he confirms that he has never met FlyLo in person. “Ultimately the theme and the idea behind Sinkane is to make universal music which anyone can like, and anyone can be a part of. So whether it's Flying Lotus, or Caveman, or Skaters, or Helado Negro, or anybody really – all are welcome. I hope the rest of the world can welcome us, as we do them.”

On the release of Mars, there were several reviews which placed it within the tradition of 'Afro-futurism,' alongside Parliament, Funkadelic, and Andre 3000. But Gallab is uncomfortable with categorising his music in this way. “Journalists are good at making blanket statements,” he says with a grin. “I am inspired by Parliament and Funkadelic. I am inspired by Andre 3000. But those are just some of the people who inspire me. If a term like that makes it easier for people to understand my music, then I guess, sure. But it should never be looked at with the premise that it needs to be categorized. There's a lot of different music that I'm influenced by, as well as the rest of the guys in the band, and we can only hope to continue the tradition of melding many different ideas and cultures and musics together, to create something unique.”

The video for Runnin' was directed by New York-based director Philip DiFiore, and features some very striking footage of a political rally, with Gallab as a leader hunted and harrassed by security forces. “We left it open-ended,” says Gallab. “We wanted people to understand it for what it's worth, as opposed to what they think about what it means. It's important to make a video like that. I'm not really saying much about it – I just want to let people enjoy it on their own. It's a political rally, so it's obviously political... it's a story, and you can make your own story from it. It's important to think beyond the scope of music. When you can relate it to something outside of music, it gives it a new life and a new understanding.”

Asked what's next for Sinkane as a band, Gallab gives a relaxed response: “I haven't really thought about that. I'm more interested right now in getting the message of Sinkane out there. The record just came out, so it's really important for us to just tour, and have conversations with people all around the world. There will be a time where we need to stop and work on something else, but that's later.” Would he like to produce for other bands? “I would love to do something like that. Mikey (Freedom-Hart) from Sinkane is also a big producer, J-Tram too. We're all so into music – just creating and figuring out how we can be involved. My music is Sinkane, and that's all I want to do right now. Eventually when I get to a place where I feel comfortable, I would like to pursue other things like production.”

Mars was almost a who's who of Brooklyn musicians -- who would Gallab like to collaborate with on future Sinkane records? “I'm really inspired by the Sa-ra Creative Partners,” he says. “They're a musical collective from Los Angeles and New York. They put out a record called Nuclear Evolution: The Age of Love a few years ago, and they also had a hand in producing a lot of the later Erykah Badu records. I'm really inspired by them, and I think they're amazing people. Equally, Damon Albarn is a big influence of mine, I really like that kind of music. A lot of African, Afro-Cuban and cumbia music too, stuff like that -- it would be nice to work with someone who is just right in the cut, you know? Someone who understands that music deeply and completely.” Someone, then, a little like Gallab himself – a natural, mercurial and restless talent. “The world is large, there is a lot of different music,” he says. “I'll probably change my mind next year.”

Mars is out now on DFA / City Slang. Sinkane will be touring Europe in 2013.