My Page: Sinkane Gets Weird with the Grateful Dead

Ahmed Gallab on February 18, 2020
My Page: Sinkane Gets Weird with the Grateful Dead

Sinkane learns the old-fashioned way that the Grateful Dead are the ultimate American misfits.

I have recounted my life story more than enough times. Even still, I don’t seem to get bored retelling it.

I was born in London. My family is from Sudan but my father, who was a diplomat at the time, was working there out of the Sudanese Embassy. We didn’t stay long before going back home. In 1989, when I was five years old, my family moved to Boston, so that my dad could study at Boston University. During that time, a coup overthrew the Sudanese government and my father was out of a job. We quickly applied for asylum and the U.S. government granted it. After Boston, we moved around quite a bit. My father had a friend from Provo, Utah who helped him get into a graduate program at Brigham Young University, so we moved there. Living in Utah really planted the seeds that grew into the deep and traumatic identity complex that fully manifested itself throughout my teenage years—and continued into my young adult life. We moved to Kent, Ohio in 1997. I was an obnoxious and insecure 13- year-old. I didn’t fit in anywhere. Both white and black Americans, as well as Sudanese people, have made that clear to me. I’ve always been known as a weirdo and music has always been my form of therapy.

Hardcore music was my first release. I played in a few bands and made some lifelong friends in that scene. To this day, I still give credit to the hardcore community for teaching me what I know about music.

The Grateful Dead were always in my periphery though—be it through my friends’ older siblings in Utah, the overwhelming amount of T-shirts I’d seen throughout my teenage years or the jokes and stoner listening sessions that my friends and I had in college. In fact, it was actually really easy to tune them out because the existence of the band didn’t feel any different than the existence of cars driving by. When the music played, it was as ambient as the sounds of traffic or the indiscernible noise of people talking. Jerry’s face was just as omnipresent as Jesus’ and the Dead’s imagery was its own thing. Half the people I met, myself included, would wear a Stealie shirt and not even know where it came from. It just looked cool.

But in my mid-20s something happened. I can’t quite put a finger on why, but I woke up one day and thought to myself, “I think I like the Grateful Dead. I think I need to listen to this band.” And so I did. I started with “Ramble on Rose” from Europe ‘72. And I listened to that song probably a thousand times that week.

Honestly, I don’t remember listening to anything else. I’d try to move on to another song but I couldn’t. I could not get enough.

Of course, that week passed and I started to delve deeper into the catalog. The music was jarring at first, mainly because all the descriptions I heard led me to think that they were this outer-planetary psycho group. I thought that I was going to hear the American Pink Floyd—that every one of their songs sounded like “Dark Star.” What I came to realize is that this band was chock-full of master songwriters—students of The Great American Songbook and early adopters of non-Western music. It was a hodgepodge, confusing at times, but, somehow, it always made sense.

I became obsessed with knowing more about these people. I read books and articles, and watched as many interviews as possible. It made me realize why I connected to the music: the Grateful Dead were a bunch of weirdos. They never fit in anywhere so they created their own reality full of all of the things that made each member so unique—Bill Kreutzmann’s jazz sensibilities, Mickey Hart’s non-Western musical musings, Phil Lesh’s avant-garde composition background, Bob Weir’s “All Americanisms.” And Jerry was the ultimate weirdo.

This ragamuffin crew came together to sonically create music that all of us, especially those of us who felt like we didn’t belong, could relate to. Their songs make us laugh, smile and feel good. It’s a catalog that makes us all feel less alone.

The Grateful Dead are truly an American band. I’d go even further and say that they’re actually the most human band. They’re absolutely honest and rough around the edges. They were complicated, made mistakes and weren’t ashamed of them. It made them feel relatable. It also made every listen exciting and unpredictable.

What’s funny is that, even still, after finding this kind of relationship between my life experience and the Dead, I still get that same old response from people when I tell them that I am a fan. “I wouldn’t expect a person like you to like them!”

Why though? Should you really be surprised that such an incredibly diverse band also attracts an equally diverse audience? I’ll admit that I also don’t know many black Deadheads. But that’s not really the point. These guys helped me find my identity— both musically and personally. They helped me find peace in this world.

“If you get confused, just listen to the music play.”

Ahmed Gallab, who records as Sinkane, released his full-length album Dépaysé in May and the Gettin’ Weird (Alive at Spacebomb Studios) EP in October. The latter project was executive produced by Matthew E. White and features members of the Spacebomb house band.

This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.