Mutual understanding

From birth to ‘Dépaysé’ with Sinkane’s Ahmed Gallab

Tiffany Smith

In June of 1989, a military coup, led by Omar al-Bashir, overtook the government in Sudan. Combined with widespread famine, the military violence in Khartoum launched a mass exodus, sending millions of Sudanese out into the world looking for a safe place to call home.  

“My family included,” Ahmed Gallab tells me over the phone recently. Gallab is the architect of the genre-blending rock project Sinkane, whose new album, Dépaysé, uses Gallab’s Sudanese roots to explore universal questions about what it means to be human in the world today. 

“Nearly every single person in Denver’s Sudanese community … fled because of [al-Bashir],” Gallab says. “The United States accepted my family in 1989; we were given asylum because my dad was a politician. It’s the reason why I’m able to do what I’m doing now and connect with all these people and talk to you on the phone, you know?”

Gallab is grateful, but his eyes are wide open. IUNHCR, the United Nation’s refugee agency, reports there are more than 70 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, with some 3.5 million people seeking asylum. Gallab knows not all of them, including those seeking asylum here in the U.S. today, are as lucky as he was. Dépaysé is his response to that, his battle cry in a way, built around danceable grooves that acknowledge the pain of violence and bigotry but focus on our shared humanity. Much like Gallab, the album is a blend of genres and cultures, fusing krautrock and funk with Sudanese pop and reggae. 

Dépaysé — a French word meaning “situated in unfamiliar surroundings; being out of one’s element” — is something Gallab is intimately familiar with: Born in London, then shuttled back to his parents’ native Sudan before the coup sent the family to Ohio.

“My first language is Arabic,” Gallab told music blog Under the Radar this summer. “I didn’t speak any English at the time. In fact, on my first day of school in the U.S. I pissed my pants because I didn’t know how to ask to go to the bathroom. The moment did teach me how to ask to do that and, thusly, the first English word that I learned was ‘restroom.’”

In sixth grade, when his friends started a band and needed a drummer, Gallab picked up some sticks and never looked back. Years down the road, Gallab would end up drumming for some of his favorite bands: of Montreal, Yeasayer and Caribou. 

But Gallab was making music of his own as well. By 2008, he had recorded two albums as Sinkane, playing all of the instruments himself. The records were, in his words, “self-indulgent and whimsical,” but the process showed Gallab what he was capable of making. 

In 2011 he set about making his third album, Mars, calling upon his musician friends to not only shoulder the instrumental burden, but also to keep Gallab grounded and focused. The end product got Gallab a deal with DFA, the New York-based indie label co-founded by Mr. Indie himself, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. 

Everything seemed like it was falling into place. But Gallab had some lessons to learn. 

“When I got back to working on Sinkane after I’d played with a lot of successful indie rock bands, I thought everything was going to be easy,” Gallab tells me. “In the early aughts, [a musician] would start a side project and then it would be all over Pitchfork, and then all of a sudden they’d get signed and they’d come up with a booking agent and then they’d be on the best tour and then within like a year of quote, unquote, ‘hoofing it,’ they would be successful. And I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what you do.’

“And it wasn’t that way at all,” he says. “Beyond just having to totally understand what hard work was, a lack of understanding how to communicate with my bandmates was a really big failure at the beginning and I ended up almost burning a few bridges. It allowed for those first couple of years of Sinkane to be very tough and very, very much a failure.”

Gallab’s learned an important lesson since then: Don’t be an asshole. Truth is, Gallab was never really an asshole, just a young musician learning the ropes of a tough business, trying to keep the integrity of his vision alive while also learning to create art in a group. It’s clear he wasn’t a real asshole because he got the chance to fine tune his collaboration skills as the musical director of The Atomic Bomb! Band, working with legends like David Byrne (Talking Heads), Alexis Taylor (Hot Chip), Pat Mahoney (LCD Soundsystem) and Money Mark (Beastie Boys). The band set out to perform the music of Nigerian legend William Onyeabor live for the first time ever. 

Today, Gallab says Sinkane operates like a well-oiled machine. Gallab loves to praise its members for their intellect and musical prowess. The band is also a representation of the American melting pot: guitarist Jonny Lam is Chinese; keyboard Elenna Canlas is Filipina; drummer Chris St. Hilaire is Trinidadian; and bassist Michael “Ish” Montgomery is black American. 

“We are a true representation of what the United States is,” Gallab says. “A collection of people from different places that are different from one another, come from different walks of life, different socioeconomic backgrounds, demographics, everything. That’s what you deal with on an everyday basis in the United States, and that’s what we deal with with each other. And I think it has allowed us all to be our best selves, not only with one another but with the world … that means understanding, having empathy and sympathy, but being very honest and brutally confrontational about who we are and challenging the world to get to a place where there is mutual understanding.”  

ON THE BILL: Sinkane — with The Jauntee featuring Mad Alchemy Light Show. 8:30 p.m. Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder. Tickets are $15,