Most days, Sinkane leader Ahmed Gallab puts up a Facebook post like this: “Good morning, my friends! I hope that you have a fantastic day and I love you all!” His music — every note of it — comes straight out of that same sunny generosity of spirit. And never has that spirit been on more vivid display than on the new Sinkane album Life & Livin’ It.
By the time Sinkane finished touring for their acclaimed Mean Love album in late 2015, Ahmed and his ace band had spread the gospel of Sinkane to the world, playing 166 shows in 20 countries. He had also led the supergroup the Atomic Bomb! Band — the highly celebrated 15-piece outfit that played the music of elusive Nigerian electro-funk maestro William Onyeabor. The band included David Byrne, Damon Albarn, members of Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, the Rapture, Jamie Lidell and legendary jazz musicians Pharoah Sanders and Charles Lloyd, and they played all over the planet. “Those 14 months really changed my life,” Ahmed says. “Not only did I learn how to put on a special show from leading the Atomic Bomb! Band, but all that touring really brought us Sinkane boys closer as a band.”
That renewed closeness was a key inspiration when 2016 rolled around and Ahmed began writing a new Sinkane record. “Playing with the boys brought me back to my roots, which are actually in hardcore punk rock,” he says. “The music we play definitely isn’t hardcore but our connection onstage conjures up a similar kind of energy. And that helped me further understand what soul music really is.”
“Everything is soul music — it’s a universal idea,” Ahmed continues. “It’s not just Stevie Wonder, the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye — it’s reggae music, African music, country music, it’s all soul music. It all emits from a deep, sincere place. The same applies to hardcore— you can feel it, you can physically feel it. With Life & Livin’ It, it was important for me to conjure up that feeling of soul. Everyone in the band has a different understanding of what that feeling is, but together it’s universal, we all relate.”
And so Ahmed spent the first three months of 2016 writing Life & Livin’ It. “I had two goals in mind: one, write about experience and two, have fun! I would listen to my favorite records, like Funkadelic’s America Eats Its Young, and realize how great they made me feel. So I would settle on a groove that made me dance, play it loudly and… well… dance! This happened a lot. That carefree, light and fun feeling I was getting while writing this record is what I want everyone to feel when they listen to it.”
Then Ahmed brought the band in to learn the material, they played the songs at a four-show residency in Brooklyn and toured throughout the summer before setting up shop at Sonic Ranch Studios in El Paso, Texas. As he has on Sinkane’s previous albums, Ahmed produced Life & Living It. Sonically, it draws from the best elements of Sinkane’s previous records: the slinky funk and soul grooves are there, so are the sparkling melodies with roots in sub-Saharan Africa. As always, Sinkane is a band of friends, and the band’s camaraderie and infectious onstage magic is built right into the music. The four members of Sinkane, bassist Ish Montgomery, drummer Jason Trammell, guitarist Jonny Lam and Ahmed, sang and played on every song, and Trammell also wrote the lyrics to “Theme from Life & Livin’ It,” while Lam helped with a few arrangements. Jas Walton and Jordan McLean of the Afrobeat group Antibalas played horns on the album. All of this brought the fun and immediacy of Sinkane’s live show to the recordings.
Life & Livin’ It is true to its name: it’s an album about all kinds of experiences. Throughout the songwriting process, longtime collaborator Greg Lofaro and Ahmed would talk for hours about personal incidents and then Lofaro would come up with lyrics based on what Ahmed calls “my mumbo jumbo.” But, more importantly, it’s an uplifting album about that universal feeling of soul. “My family emigrated to the United States from Sudan,” Ahmed explains, “and I grew up around a lot of folks who weren’t like me, as an outsider. That’s influenced me and my music immensely, and ultimately, this entire project is my way of connecting with all kinds of people — what better way to start a conversation with someone than by telling them a story about yourself that they can relate to? I hope folks listen to a break-up song like ‘Telephone’ and say, ‘Oh man, do I have a story for you!'”
Songs like “Deadweight,” “The Way” and “Fire” further Ahmed’s ongoing existential questioning and yet they groove along and continue to emit the feeling of togetherness and love found all over Life & Living It. “I love it when someone comes to me and tells me that they relate to a song and it helped them,” he says. “And I love when they find a meaning in the song that’s totally different from mine. That makes me feel like maybe I hit on something that’s universal.”
“U’Huh” and “Theme from Life & Livin’ It” conjure up the simple pleasures of hanging with good friends in the backyard on a really nice day, but there are heavier vibes in there for sure. “I think that everybody agrees that times are hard, life is hard,” says Ahmed. “But times have always been tough — and you know what? Everything is going to be OK!” See, there’s that sunny thing again.
“Favorite Song” came about from Ahmed’s experiences as an in-demand DJ in New York. “As a DJ you’re always paying attention to the collective energy in the club. When you play a song that everyone knows, you can see everybody lose themselves in the music; it sets people free. I also realized that, in that trance-like state, everyone felt connected to each other as well. So I wrote a song that celebrates that.” That song, along with “U’Huh”, has lyrics sung in Arabic, Ahmed’s native tongue. “Kulu shi tamaam!” means “everything is great!” while “ya zol ya zain!” is a Sudanese term of endearment meaning “my beautiful friend.” “It’s really easy to understand the tone of those words,” Ahmed adds. “They just feel good, you don’t have to know what they mean. It’s kind of like listening to Caetano Veloso or Jorge Ben — you don’t have to know Portuguese to feel what they’re saying.”
When Ahmed Gallab sings, he sounds unafraid yet vulnerable. But while he once sang of feeling like he was on the planet Mars, Ahmed is now firmly grounded on Earth. He’s no longer searching for his home — he has created a home for himself. And there’s a party there. And Life & Living It is playing on the stereo. And you’re invited in.