Sinkane Harnesses Hope For Sudan In 'Dépaysé' Album

May 31, 2019
Originally published on June 3, 2019 6:43 pm

When Sinkane wrote the song "Ya Sudan" the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir was still in power. He had ruled Sudan since a coup in 1989. That coup was a key moment in the life of Sinkane's lead singer and songwriter, Ahmed Gallab. As Gallab explained to NPR's Audie Cornish five years ago, because his father had been affiliated with the pre-al Bashir government, his family had had to quickly apply for asylum and immigrate from Sudan to the United States. "At that point," he said to Cornish, "My family had to start all over."

Last month, another coup ousted al-Bashir. And Sinkane now has a new album, Dépaysé, out now. Though Dépaysé was written while al-Bashir was still in power, its messages — and the way that Sinkane delivers them — resonate with some recent changes in Sudan and the U.S. political climate alike.

Gallab spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about Dépaysé and embracing his Sudanese identity in the United States. Listen to the full aired version of their conversation at the audio link.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Shapiro: [You] wrote a track called "Ya Sudan" during Omar al Bashir's brutal regime. And yet, the song has an optimistic sound.

Gallab: On the previous Sinkane records, I've always wanted to write this song. And I just didn't really know how to dig into myself. I think after the Muslim ban happened and Trump was elected, I started to think about: "Who am I? And what is my true identity?"

Of course, Sudan was one of the countries in that travel ban.

Yes. And being Sudanese is a part of my true identity. And it became a little bit easier. I started to become addicted with understanding this. It really sparked a lot of inspiration for me to reconnect with my identity, my Sudanese identity.

The title of the album is Dépaysé. What does the word "dépaysé" mean?

Depayse is a French word that means "removed from one's habitual surroundings." It could also mean to be disoriented or a little confused, but it doesn't have a negative connotation.

You wrote lyrics in two languages for the title track.

Yeah, Arabic is my first language, then English.

Why did you decide to do both in this song, when most of the rest of the album is just in English?

Since I started Sinkane, I've always wanted it to be a bilingual project. Even still, like when I make my demos, the lyrics are predominantly in Arabic. It's easier for me to emote that way. But I think universally it's a lot easier for people to come in if they're hearing English lyrics.

YouTube

So is ["Dépaysé"] a moment of you moving away from professional industry expectations and more towards what feels to you like some kind of authentic artistic expression?

I feel like, because of what's been going on in the world, artists like me are much more confident about expressing their duality.

What do you mean when you say "given what's going on in the world"?

I feel like, because of what's been going on in the world, artists like me are much more confident about expressing their duality. - Ahmed Gallab

Given the Muslim ban, given things like Brexit, the white supremacy uprising that's happening right now. I don't want to speak for everyone, but I can definitely speak for myself. I was very influenced to sing more in Arabic and to express my Sudanese identity much more confrontationally and much more honestly.

I could imagine some people reacting to the Islamophobia and hostility towards Muslims by retreating. Can you tell us about your decision to not be afraid of wearing and presenting multiple identities, and being proud about your background and the many influences that make you who you are?

I've always been — and I think a lot of people who are like me have always been — a little bit insecure. I think, growing up, I always wanted to be like everyone else. I always wanted to go sleep over at my American friends' houses because I could wake up and smell bacon at their house. That was so different from my experience at home. And I was like, "Oh, I just wanna be like them." But as I grew up and learned about myself more, and connected with other people like me, I realized how beautiful my experience is, as well. And in respecting that, in being myself unapologetically, my friends accepted me as much as they accept everyone else. Or, the world accepted me as much as they accept everyone else. And I did become a part of the community that I wanted to be.

I don't know whether you're observant, but we are speaking during the month of Ramadan, and the song "Stranger" seems to speak to Muslim religious traditions.

You know, growing up in the United States, and growing up around people who are not Muslim, it made me a bit confused about my religion, about my spirituality. And then at the same time, I would go back to Sudan, or I would connect with other Sudanese or other Muslim people who were a lot like me, but weren't necessarily good people. I found that to be very, very confusing.

Like, "this is not what I was promised, this is not what I was told."

Yeah, exactly. And I think a lot of people who grew up in the United States, or grew up outside of the place where they came from and weren't surrounded by a lot of people like them, ask these kinds of questions.

So, where do you come down on this? Because, at least from [Stranger], it doesn't sound like you have concluded that religion is nonsense and should be abandoned, but you also clearly have real questions.

Well, complexity exists in the world. And I think that I've found peace in not knowing. But also, I think that it's really important for me to be the Muslim or the Sudanese person or the African or the American or the Ahmed that I want to be. I'm not gonna let anybody define that other than myself.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now a music conversation with a man whose life is tied to Sudan even though he has lived in the U.S. since he was a child. Today the news from Sudan is dark. The military has violently cracked down on protesters there. A doctors group in the country says dozens of people were killed.

This comes after a coup in April overthrowing Omar al-Bashir. He had ruled Sudan for decades, since another coup in 1989. That event was a key moment in the life of Ahmed Gallab. He's the lead singer and songwriter of a band called Sinkane. Here's what Gallab told ALL THINGS CONSIDERED five years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

AHMED GALLAB: My father was affiliated with the government that was overthrown. So we quickly applied for asylum in the United States and gained asylum. At that point, my family had to start all over, completely from the beginning.

SHAPIRO: Before today's violent crackdown, I talked with Ahmed Gallab about Sinkane's new album, "Depayse."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA SUDAN")

SINKANE: (Singing) Cause if I describe to full melody (ph), she'll lead me astray from my chosen path...

SHAPIRO: Gallab wrote a track called "Ya Sudan" during Omar al-Bashir's brutal regime. And yet the song has an optimistic sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA SUDAN")

SINKANE: (Singing) Ya Sudan. Ya Sudan.

GALLAB: On the previous Sinkane records, I've always wanted to write this song. And I just didn't really know how to dig into myself. I think after the Muslim ban happened and Trump was elected, I started to think about, who am I? You know, and what is my true identity?

SHAPIRO: Of course, Sudan was one of the countries in that travel ban.

GALLAB: Yes. You know, and being Sudanese is one of my - a part of my true identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA SUDAN")

SINKANE: My psyche. (Singing in Arabic). Sudani (ph).

GALLAB: And it became a little bit easier. I started to become addicted with understanding this, you know? And it really sparked a lot of inspiration for me to think more about myself and to reconnect with my identity, my Sudanese identity.

SHAPIRO: The title of the album is "Depayse." What does the word depayse mean?

GALLAB: Depayse is a French word that means removed from one's habitual surroundings. It could also mean to be disoriented or a little confused. But it doesn't have a negative connotation.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to a little bit of the title track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEPAYSE")

SINKANE: (Singing) Killed part of myself back home. Here it's under attack. Under attack.

(Singing in Arabic).

SHAPIRO: You wrote lyrics in two languages for this song.

GALLAB: Yeah. Arabic is my first language, and English.

SHAPIRO: Why did you decide to do both in this song when most of the rest of the album is just in English?

GALLAB: I feel like since I started Sinkane, I've always wanted it to be a bilingual project. Even still, like, when I make my demos, the lyrics are predominantly in Arabic. It's easier for me to emote that way. But I think universally, it's a lot easier for people to come in if they're hearing English lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEPAYSE")

SINKANE: (Singing) I keep praying and praying for what? Depayse...

SHAPIRO: So is this song kind of a moment of you maybe moving away from - I don't know - professional industry expectations and more towards what feels to you like some kind of more authentic artistic expression?

GALLAB: I feel like because of what's been going on in the world, artists like me are much more confident about expressing their duality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEPAYSE")

SINKANE: (Singing) I'm singing for the day we realize that we all relate.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean when you say given what's going on in the world - what specifically?

GALLAB: Given the Muslim ban, given things like Brexit, the white supremacy uprising that's happening right now. I don't want to speak for everyone. But I can definitely speak for myself. I was very influenced to sing more in Arabic and to express my Sudanese identity much more confrontationally and much more honestly.

SHAPIRO: Almost refusing to hide, refusing to be cowed.

GALLAB: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYONE")

SINKANE: (Singing) I'm not afraid, don't need no fear. I've never met a stranger anywhere.

SHAPIRO: I could imagine some people reacting to the kind of Islamophobia and hostility to Muslims by retreating. Can you tell us about your decision to not be afraid of wearing and presenting multiple identities and being proud about your background and the, you know, many influences that make you who you are?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYONE")

SINKANE: (Singing) Our love's for everyone.

GALLAB: I've always been - and I think a lot of people who are like me have always been - a little bit insecure. I think growing up I always wanted to be like everyone else. You know, I always wanted to go sleep over at my American friends' houses because I could wake up and smell bacon at their house. You know, and that was so different.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GALLAB: That was so different from my experience at home, you know?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

GALLAB: And I was like, oh, I just want to be like them. But as I grew up and learned about myself more and connected with other people like me, I realized how beautiful my experience is as well, you know? And in respecting that and being myself unapologetically, my friends accepted me as much as they accept everyone else. Or the world accepted me as much as they accept everyone else. And I did become a part of the community that I wanted to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINKANE SONG, "EVERYONE")

SHAPIRO: I don't know whether you're observant. But we are speaking during the month of Ramadan. And the song "Stranger" seems to speak to Muslim religious traditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGER")

SINKANE: (Singing) So I get down on my knees. I bow down, face your knees. Starve myself to know you better, hoping that I will find my peace. But still I feel incomplete.

GALLAB: You know, growing up in the United States and growing up around people who are not Muslim, it made me a bit confused about my religion, about my spirituality. And then at the same time, I would go back to Sudan, or I would connect with other Sudanese or Muslim people who were a lot like me but weren't necessarily good people, you know? And I found that to be very, very confusing.

SHAPIRO: Like, this is not what I was promised. This is not what I was told.

GALLAB: Yeah, exactly. And I think a lot of people who grew up in the United States or grew up outside of the place where they came from and weren't surrounded by a lot of people like them ask these kind of questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGER")

SINKANE: (Singing) Yadup (ph). Yadup. Yadup. Yadup. Yadup (singing in Arabic). Help me through these murky waters that seem part of your master plan.

SHAPIRO: So where do you come down on this? Because at least from the song, it doesn't sound like you have concluded that religion is nonsense and should be abandoned. But you also clearly have real questions.

GALLAB: Well, complexity exists in the world.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

GALLAB: And I think that I - I've found peace in not knowing.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

GALLAB: But also, I think that it's really important for me to be the Muslim or the Sudanese person or the African or the American or the - the Ahmed that I want to be. You know, I'm not going to let anybody define that other than myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYONE")

SINKANE: (Singing) But now I'm feeling stronger. And I know I can fight for you. Stand up if you wanna. Together we can start anew. Oh...

SHAPIRO: Ahmed Gallab, thanks so much for talking with us.

GALLAB: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: He's the lead singer and songwriter of the band Sinkane. And the new album is "Depayse."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYONE")

SINKANE: (Singing) We're all gonna go. Come on, it's a brand new day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.