Identity is nebulous, mutable and controversial—especially today. Even when asked to confront our own identity on a survey or application, there doesn’t always seem to be a suitable answer. Ahmed Gallab, the frontman of the eclectic band Sinkane, has lived with this uncertainty for most of his life. At age 5, Gallab sought asylum in the United States, fleeing political violence in Sudan following Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s 1989 military coup. And so began Gallab’s life as a Sudanese-American in Provo, Utah.
“Everything that I’m supposed to belong to—black culture, Islam and American culture—have all told me I’m weird,” Gallab said. “So I’ve always lived in this state of confusion. What is my true identity?”
Gallab sought to answer this question, to work through the ambiguities of identity, on his seventh album, Dépaysé, an uplifting rallying cry for inclusivity, which he’s touring on in the United States through October.
Not only does borrowing the album’s title from French gesture toward identity and cultural mixture, the very word dépaysé means to be moved into an unfamiliar environment, to be displaced. Fans of Sinkane will know this is familiar territory for a band whose previous album, Mars, was similarly about feeling foreign, like an outright extraterrestrial. But although Dépaysé isn’t a departure from what defines Sinkane—with its political themes and eclectic medley of reggae, Afrobeat and pop—it is unquestionably Gallab’s most personal album yet.
“I feel like I’ve had all these experiences and have a very unique perspective on what it is to be black, what it is to be Muslim, what it is to be Sudanese, a child of the diaspora,” Gallab said. “All of this stuff. And I feel like I needed to just talk about all of these insecurities and all of these feelings.”
In a flurry of introspection, Gallab wrote Dépaysé in three months, almost entirely on his own—a departure from previous albums where he left most of the lyrics to his friend, the musician Gregory LoFaro.
“I was really scared to work on my own because I would just get so vulnerable when I was making the music,” Gallab said. “I’d feel like, ‘Oh my goodness, what am I doing? Is this too much? Am I walking out naked in front of a bunch of people?’”
It’s surprising to hear Gallab admit this. Not because it’s easy to write thoughtful lyrics, but because Gallab is already such an adept and well-travelled musician. Beyond the Sinkane project, under which he’s released seven albums, Gallab is the vocalist and music director for the Atomic Bomb! Band that covers William Onyeabor, an elusive Nigerian disco-funk musician. With Gallab at the helm, and the likes of David Byrne of Talking Heads and Dev Hynes from Blood Orange as support, the Atomic Bomb! Band is a musical dream-team. And prior to working on his own, Gallab made his mark as a session musician for bands like Of Montreal and Yeasayer.
But while inexperienced as a lyricist, writing on his own for the first time allowed Gallab to grow even more. It was an “eye-opening” and “therapeutic” experience, Gallab said, and it shows on the album. With buoyant tracks from the anthem “Everybody” to the personal ode to his home country “Ya Sudan,” Dépaysé is a celebration of syncretic identity, which remains hopeful throughout.
Indeed, there’s a definite sense that Gallab is more comfortable with his identity on the album—so much so that it’s clear he wants to share it with everyone, to inspire others who feel confused or lost, too. Everything from the band, composed of musicians from around the world, to the lyrics written in both Arabic and English, works to bolster Gallab’s message of pluralism and cultural pride. Even Gallab’s songwriting process, which he usually begins in Arabic and then later translates back to English, inhabits a liminal space between cultures.
The album is distinctly political, too, as ruminations on identity are. But Gallab isn’t disaffected by the torrent of political disaster to which he alludes. “Woke up feelin’ eager/Even after the morning news,” he sings on “Everybody.” As a rule, he always seems to choose unity over strife on Dépaysé, even when it comes to President Donald Trump, whose own 2017 travel ban on Muslim-majority countries included Sudan. On the same song, he sings “Mercy to the ones who keep sayin’ Make America Great Again,” fueled by an optimistic Obama-era “When they go low, we go high” energy.
The writing might be a bit too on-the-nose, forgiving and cheerful for those who prefer an angrier approach to politics—this isn’t Rage Against the Machine, after all. But Gallab was quick to point out that, as Bob Marley and Sly Stone proved, political action, unity and a healthy joie de vivre aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, “having a good time” and being yourself “unapologetically” in the face of adversity is oftentimes an act of resistance in and of itself, especially for someone who lives with racism on a daily basis.
“I refuse to allow [racism] to cripple me,” Gallab said. “I refuse to allow that to bring me down. And I feel like it’s my duty to speak to other people who feel the same way and to give them hope as well. Because we’re all feeling it everyday.”
Touring is, therefore, an important part of the Sinkane project, even more important than the album itself, he explained. It gives him the opportunity to sell merch directly, hear from fans and to play.
“When we’re up there, and we’re really hitting hard, it’s an amazing, magical thing that you can’t really describe,” Gallab said. “And it’s not just us playing together, but it’s us connecting with the people who are watching the show. We all kind of become this single living organism that’s working together to make this an amazing experience. I love it.”
As much as Dépaysé is about self-discovery, it’s also about lifting up others, connecting with listeners and making a political statement about inclusivity through the act of performance. As he writes in an open-letter which accompanies the album’s release, “I want Sudanese kids to see a person like them as a positive role model in the arts. I want Sudanese people, all over the world, to know that the world accepts us even when our own leaders, such as Omar al-Bashir or Donald Trump, do not.”
Mark your calendars for Monday, Sept. 30 because Sinkane is playing Sacramento for the first time ever at Harlow’s (2708 J St.). The show, which is 21 and over, starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 the day of the show. For more information, visit Harlows.com.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 18 – 19 of issue #300 (Sept. 11 – 25, 2019)**