Sinkane: Born-Again Collaborator

Mike Greenhaus on May 15, 2024
Sinkane: Born-Again Collaborator

Photo: Dani Barbieri


The summer before the onset of the global pandemic, Burna Boy played Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Prospect Park Bandshell, and the experience warped Ahmed Gallab’s mind.

“It was the hottest day of the year, and he walked out like a complete rock star,” says Gallab, who performs under the moniker Sinkane. “His band was amazing— the sound was so fresh and interesting to me. It was refreshing. At the time, I was so enamored by the Grateful Dead, jam music, spiritual jazz and psychedelic music—music that is all about changes and how many things you can do in this 10-minute span. And this guy just comes in and does the complete opposite of that. It really woke me up, musically.”

That impactful moment helped kick off a chain of events that led to Gallab not only rethinking Sinkane’s sound but also his overall approach to music-making. Gallab ended up going back to school, reworking his live band and putting aside any preconceived notions about what a Sinkane album can and sound feel like. And the results can be heard on We Belong—a highly collaborative mélange of alternative pop, psychedelic funk, exploratory electronica and gritty, primal punk that tells stories about Black people and the music they make.

“I got really bored with what is now the old version of me—bored with writing the kind of music that I was writing. So I started looking into more modern music,” says Gallab, a visible presence on the indie and jam-adjacent circuits for the past 15- plus years. “I’m really into Afrobeats and the Black music coming out of the U.K., like Sault, Ezra Collective and Little Simz. And I was starting to get into modern dancehall, like Busy Signal and Konshens. Also, this is the first album I didn’t make about myself—I made it about something else completely. From there, it was easy. I had an idea, I had themes and they just all came together.”

As Gallab is digging into the origins of We Belong, which was released on April 5 via City Slang, he’s riding through Austin, Texas, during SXSW. He’s already played a solo set and met up with some friends; he notes that Ramadan overlapping with SXSW has been a small wrinkle, but the 30-year-old, Sudanese-American musician has been making it work.

“Today’s gonna be easy, and then tomorrow’s when all the craziness ensues,” he says, pointing out how the music conference has been a little quieter this year. “We drove through downtown, and it was kind of a ghost town. I don’t know if there’s not much going on today—we’ll see.”

Gallab first started thinking about the album that would eventually be issued as We Belong around Thanksgiving 2019, a few months after the release of his previous studio set, Dépaysé.

“I just threw myself into working on new music,” he says. “I got home and was a bit anxious. The last album didn’t do too well, and the state of the band was a little in flux. And usually in those moments, I throw myself into writing. So I vomited out a lot of songs. Then I got really tired, and then the pandemic hit. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and it was this forced break.”

Despite his continued hipster cred and love from the jamband world—partially thanks to his choice cover of the Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain”—Gallab wasn’t scared to embrace some pop energy throughout the process. “What is so inspiring to me about Afrobeats is how simple the music is, how much space there is—it’s almost like space is an instrument in that music,” he says of the current global phenomenon. “It’s literally one guitar line, drums and vocals. There’s nothing much else to it. And when you listen to it, it sounds like so much more than just three elements. It’s one very catchy loop and this vocalist who can sing their ass off and that’s it—99% of the time it’s just a loop.”

We Belong is a modern-feeling, kaleidoscopic segue, swinging from the gospel-revival uplift of “Everything Is Everything” and the funky, choral sway of the album’s title track to the electro-colored groove of “Home.” The album also features a cross-genre cast of collaborators, including Beastie Boys keyboardist Money  Mark, multi-instrumentalist Casey Benjamin, Bleachers’ Mikey Freedom Hart, Phony Ppl’s Aja Grant, percussionist Meia Noite, organist Shedrick Mitchell, his former bandmate Amanda Khiri, and singers Bilal, STOUT, Tru Osborne and Hollie Cook. Simultaneously, Gallab overhauled the Sinkane live band, putting together a new combo, The Message, consisting of bassist Ronnie Lanzilotta, drummer Dave Palazola, keyboardist/guitarist Patt Carr, and vocalists Ifedayo and Jessica Harp.

And, with his collaborators’ encouragement, he started thinking of himself less as a solo artist, bandleader or indie musician, and more of a musical curator, compiling a collage of sounds and styles and letting his voice simply blend into the overall flow of the LP. Freshly out of school, he possessed the newfound knowledge to confidently step into the role of a producer, too.

“When I listened to the Sinkane demos that he shared for We Belong, I initially thought that he should stay more on the song architecture side of the process and give up the knob-twisting and production priorities to someone else,” says Money Mark, who handled some production duties at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Studio G. “The songs were so well written that I could imagine it succeeding on that strength alone. Of course, his passion for audio production, along with the newness of being in an excellent studio environment, came into play and we ended up sharing the work. In fact, he took over the file management and the processing of the sounds and I became more of an overseer with the 30,000-foot view. He totally loves working the nuts and bolts. He was a kid in a candy store, though he ended up not mixing the album himself. It was a totally new era for the Sinkane project.”

“The idea of what a Sinkane song was, had become very easy to accomplish,” Gallab says. “I could do this thing and that thing—make the drums sound like this and write about this certain topic. It didn’t feel like a challenge. And whenever that happens to me, I need to seek new inspiration and figure out what else I can do. Once I dove into school, I was able to understand music theory, composition and analysis. I was able to go back to these super old and archaic forms of music and understand how they’re the building blocks of what we’re listening to today. Now, when I listen to music that was beyond me at a time—being able to understand the science behind it, understand how it was made— it’s no longer this mysterious thing. It was something that I could really digest, and I could also figure out how I could take whatever they were doing and implement it into what I was doing. That was really exciting for me, and it took me completely outside of my comfort zone. It challenged me to really understand my musical self in this other thing that used to feel like a mystery to me.”


Gallub has long had a unique perspective on what it means to belong. He was born in London while his dad was working as a diplomat, before his family moved back to their native Sudan and then the United States, where his father secured a job at Boston University. However, while in the States, a coup overthrew the Sudanese government and Gallab’s dad found himself out of a job. The U.S. government granted his family asylum and, after moving around a bit, they settled in Provo, Utah, where the future Sinkane leader’s father entered a graduate program at Brigham Young University. By the time Gallab was in middle school, his family had relocated once again to Ohio, where, as a Black Muslim, he felt like something of an outsider.

“I was an obnoxious and insecure 13-year-old kid,” Gallab wrote in a Relix essay a few years ago. “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.”

Initially, he gravitated to the punk scene, before becoming enamored with a band that has long been a symbol of outsider culture, the Grateful Dead.

“I was in punk and hardcore bands, and the Grateful Dead were an anti-interest band in that scene,” Gallab says. “The Grateful Dead seems like the antithesis of punk-rock and DIY music, but they are probably the most punk and DIY band of all time. In my 20s, I decided I wanted to check them out, so I bought Europe ‘72, and the floodgates opened. I became obsessed with everything about the Grateful Dead. ‘Ramble on Rose’ was the first song I heard, and then I dug deeper into that live record. I started listening to the early records, then got into tapes and then went into the late ‘70s for a very long time. Eventually, I got into the ‘80s and the dark Dead ‘90s stuff— the Branford Marsalis stuff on the Nassau Coliseum record. I couldn’t get enough.” (In the same Relix essay, he also points out how even a scene built on open-mindedness and inclusion can still sometimes feel standoffish, saying that he has had people say to him: “I wouldn’t expect a person like you to like them!”)

After moving to New York, Gallab found success on the indie-rock circuit, playing drums with Yeasayer and collaborating with Eleanor Friedberger, Caribou and of Montreal, among others. He released Sinisterals, his first album under the moniker Sinkane, in 2007 and dropped a steady stream of well-received releases during the decade that followed. He also became the vocalist and music director for the Atomic Bomb! Band, celebrating the music of Nigerian funk pioneer William Onyeabor. The all-star collective, which includes luminaries like David Byrne, Damon Albarn, Dev Hynes, Alexis Taylor, Charles Lloyd, Amadou and Mariam, Jamie Lidell, Pharoah Sanders, Joshua Redman and members of Antibalas, helped elevate Gallab’s profile and introduced his music to some of the 21st-century’s leading cultural voices. It is through that world that he also met Money Mark, who was part of the Atomic Bomb! Band.

“I didn’t really know Ahmed’s work at all until we met upon an introduction via Luaka Bop label president Yale Evelev, who was putting together the official William Onyeabor band,” the keyboardist says. “The next four years, we really worked closely together on refining Onyeabor’s music and a friendship developed. We bonded over our like-mindedness about music, art and life. What became apparent is that he loves the Beastie Boys and that we had some common friends, mostly connected through the DFA crew, who put out some of his albums. I knew Tim Goldsworthy from signing to Mo’ Wax much earlier in the ‘90s. James Murphy did front-of-house work for Ad-Rock’s side project, BS2000 and also drove the tour van.”

Despite his success, when the pandemic hit, Gallab was already a few months into the process of trying to redefine his sound. Instead of simply using the forced pause from touring to livestream and work from home while quarantined, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based musician returned to school, eventually earning a master’s degree in composition from SUNY Purchase. At first, the program was remote, but then he would commute to Westchester County each day for class. He describes the experience as one of the best decisions he’s ever made.

“I created [We Belong], essentially, with all the new tools that I was learning—all the classes I was taking and a private study, where I brought in new music and music that inspired me to analyze and workshop,” he says. “That put things into gear.”

He chuckles as he thinks back on being a 38-year-old, internationally renowned musician taking music theory 101 classes with 19-year-old students.

“A lot of these kids had been studying music since they were in the fourth grade, and I didn’t have that kind of upbringing,” he says. “They’re super bored, but, I was like, ‘Wow, this is everything I’ve always wanted to learn, and I feel really confident now paying attention and absorbing it in a way that is very different from when I was 18.’ I was too scared to go to music school because I thought I would just fail out. A couple of these kids got to know me and they were like, ‘Why are you even here?’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean? I want to learn.’ But it was really interesting because they were hoping to get to where I was musically, as far as their careers were concerned, and I was trying to get where they were intellectually. So it was kind of an interesting space for me to feel myself out in.”

Gallab notes that his writing really picked up shortly before he graduated from the program and he essentially finished sketching out the material for We Belong as soon as school ended, with mixing beginning in March 2023. He calls the process “a pretty epic journey of excavating stuff, taking breaks, figuring stuff out and almost feeling like I was getting reborn.”

His return to school dovetailed with his renewed interest in the music of his youth as well as his fascination with a range of modern Black sounds. Set against the backdrop of the impactful period following the death of George Floyd, his spiritual thesis seemed even more poignant.

“The musical element started to come together, and to some extent, it took me back to the music that I initially was into— reggae, psychedelic and African music from the ‘70s, like Fela Kuti, soul and ParliamentFunkadelic,” he says. “It brought me to a place where I felt like I could meld the two ideas together. And then, once all that started to happen, it really made me realize that I was drawing influence from the history of Black music. And once I understood that, it was around the time that I was starting to write lyrics and vocals for the songs. When you’re writing music that’s so influenced by the Black experience, you’re just naturally going to start writing about the Black experience.”

A key goal in the process of putting together We Belong was to create a truly collaborative project. As he inched along, Gallab started reaching out to members of his artistic community, including Money Mark and Benjamin, the latter of whom passed away in March.

“With Dépaysé, it was really important for me to make it all about me, thematically and musically,” he admits. “I was the principal songwriter. So it was really exciting and fresh to give these songs to someone else to see what they could do with them. I didn’t want to shoulder all of the responsibility. I ended up meeting STOUT and Tru Osborne through that process, and they were able to really take the music that I was making and make it as authentic as possible. The way that they can sing and the way that they can conjure up the energy of the songs that they sing on, I couldn’t do that on my own. I found a space for myself in music that I’ve always wanted to be in, which is being a producer, a problem-solver.”

Likewise, he describes The Message as “the best band I’ve ever had.”

He elaborates, “It is so easy to connect to them. There is this je ne sais quoi that exists between us. They’re all amazing musicians. They all understand the music inside and out. But they also all have something to say. That’s why I named the band The Message. One of the things I did this time that I hadn’t done in the past was I did not compromise with the kinds of people that I wanted in the band. When we get together it’s like Voltron—we create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.”


As he emerges from a period of his creative life colored by both his return to school and the aftermath of COVID in New York, Gallab now finds himself as an elder statesman in his corner of the world. He notes that many of the musicians who he came through the ranks with have long since relocated to Los Angeles and Nashville to find session work. And, though many remain in the area, things are different these days.

“There is a very robust musical community in New York, but people have gotten so insular with what they’re doing,” he says. “When I first moved to New York, I was also a part of the indie-rock scene here.  I was playing with Yeasayer, and I knew all of the other indie-rock bands that were doing their thing at the time. I remember this very specific moment in that era when people stopped going to each other’s shows. They were just so focused on their album cycle and touring. You’d only really see some people that you used to see every day at a festival in Europe once in a while. It got very individualistic and very selfish to some degree. And I think now, it’s sort of turning around. If this community still exists in New York, which I think it does, we should really help foster and rebuild it into what it used to be.”

Despite his recent fascination with pop trends, he maintains a deep respect for the Grateful Dead and believes his music is intrinsically tied to the world of improvisational music. (Gallab proudly remembers that he once pitched Relix with an email that said, “If you like the Grateful Dead, you’ll like Sinkane.”)

“Every time I listen to the Grateful Dead, they feel very fresh for me, and I find something new in that music,” he says. “I’m super inspired by them. I really love what they did with Dead & Company and John Mayer. I saw a bunch of those shows. I was excited to see that new, fresh perspective that he brought to the music while really preserving and staying respectful of Jerry’s vocabulary—his soloing vocabulary in particular, his improvising vocabulary.”

While he says that, early on, the Dead’s jamming style and improvisational prowess had the greatest effect on his music, more recently, he’s found himself drawn to the Dead’s compositions and narrative arcs.

“Robert Hunter and Jerry’s songs are just so deep—the subject matter is so deep and interesting to me,” he says. “The standards that they created in music and their Great American Songbook as a repertoire is just so fascinating to me. I can go to that music and listen to it like I listen to a Coltrane song and be like, ‘What is the musical idea that they’re creating on this song? And what does it look like for me to implement that musical idea into my music?’ All of the weird, kooky, avant-garde compositional musings that Phil Lesh injected into the band, I really pay attention to that a bit more, and I just have this really deep love and appreciation for the band now. It’s different from earlier, when I was just kind of obsessed with one small thing. Now, it’s more of a holistic, spiritual understanding.”

Looking ahead to his own work, he’s started to rethink some of the music he was tinkering with before beginning his master’s program. Most of those songs ended up being jettisoned from We Belong, but they may see the light of day at some point.

“Some of it felt a little stale, like an old version of me that I really couldn’t rediscover,” he says. “But, some of those songs I’ve opened up recently and I can see them in a new light after I did all of this stuff. I wrote like 32 songs for this album— more than I’ve ever written.”

He also is excited about the idea of using his newfound skills to help out other members of his community. “I love this idea of being a producer,” he adds.

“I would love to do it beyond just Sinkane—to do it for other people and take this approach that I have and implement that in some other people’s ideas. That seems really fun to me.”

We Belong also documents Gallab at a transitional point in his career, when he has started to think about how to use those community-building skills to shed some light on a greater, collective experience.

“One of the things about my records is that you can listen to them and understand where I am in the present moment. I feel, with this one in particular, that I’ve found my voice,” he says. “I found a way to take all these seemingly disparate ideas and unify them in a way that sounds and feels ultimately like me. I don’t feel like I’m experimenting or searching in the same way that I was before. Now, I’m able to just have fun building this world. I don’t know what will happen beyond that, but I’m still chasing this newfound idea and this newfound understanding of myself. So, as far as Sinkane is concerned, I’m having a lot of fun with my live band and what that’s turning into, and I’m having a lot of fun writing music with this new understanding. But a couple records into the old stuff, I got really bored with that idea, so who knows what will happen next? Maybe two or three records from now, I’m gonna be really bored with this, and I’ll have to find something else to say.”