Sinkane’s often described yet indefinable sound has been a playground of modifiers for many smitten critics. Like his constantly shape-shifting and genre-defying work, collective opinion of the nature of his music seems equally transmutable. The artist has employed everything from punk and psychedelia to R&B and afro-pop (the primary base of his sound) to create a body of work that belongs in a singular niche all its own.
The London-born musician was raised in Sudan, Africa and the US respectively, absorbing influences from either continent before discovering the rebellion to be found in playing and performing music during his teenage years. His earliest works, Sinisterals (2007), Color Voice (2008) and his 2009 self-titled release were the preliminary steps taken before he would undergo the radical tonal shifts of Mars in 2012.
Starting from a principal base of ‘60s-era psychedelic pop and krautrock, Sinkane (born Ahmed Gallab) explored a spacey noodling of guitar atmospherics, most evident on Color Voice and Sinkane. Color Voice opted for semblances of structure, drawing lines with wild abandonment with the control of disciplined playing. Sinkane, however, tuned into frequencies of astral planes, the squalling psychedelic trills challenging the thresholds of the listener’s comfort. These works are notable for how phenomenally sagacious the artist was at such a young age, tapping perceptively into earlier musical resources that lay way before his time.
With Mars, Sinkane pulled an about-face, mining the rhythms and beats of afro-pop (slightly hinted at on Sinkane) for more pop-friendly fare. Opting for a lush recourse from his sometimes abrasive self-titled effort, Mars is the sound of African Makossa legend Manu Dibango discovering (and covering) English art post-punkers Au Pairs. Mars pulls all of the disparate influences of his previous experimental exercises into glass-cut focus. As the artist had once stated, the material here is a much more band-oriented work, with the singer interpolating many live riffs into the studio production to produce a collection that shares the immediacy of stage performance as well as the precision of home recording. On tracks like “Warm Spell”, Sinkane employs the rattles of African percussion with the punk-funk etchings of a jittery guitar line. Polyrhythmic cuts like “Lady C’mon” and “Lovesick” are sun-juiced demonstrations of the singer’s luxurious brand of psychedelia.
Sinkane would continue to develop his fluorescent afro-pop in ways that would expand to encompass other influences, particularly R&B and the smatterings of hip-hop. His 2014 collection of material, Mean Love, honed his songwriting skills into the something that was readily palatable but still laid just outside the pop mainstream. Mean Love is a testing of dynamics in varied sound: the succulent pull of a morphing, elastic bassline, African percussion and Sinkane’s trademark watercoloured falsetto. The approach is even tighter here and the singer articulates his melodious structures with finer definition. The album brings to motion aquatic harmonies that merge, fold and then disintegrate into the flow of the limber grooves.
“How We Be” dives crisply into electro-pop lines; beneath the light synth waves is the grit of guitar jamming funk. The ethereal dub-plod of “Hold Tight” elevates sentiments of lust into the heavenly stratospheres, Sinkane’s croon circling the throbbing funk like a hawk homing in on prey. Still heavily rife with the influences of afro-pop, Mean Love also opens up the vestibules of its structures for other global sounds. Taking cues from Brazilian greats like Antônio Carlos Jobim and Edu Lobo, the singer plies a mutated form of bossa nova on cuts like “Moonstruck”, the strains of these Latin sounds genetically fused and coiled in the DNA strands of Kenyan benga and Assiko African pop. The sun-baked sensuous rush of these ten numbers, thick with the humid and electrified airs of blues and punk, captured the attention and imaginations of audiences everywhere upon its release. Far from a household name, Sinkane still commands presence in a room, as his live shows have often attested.
Around this time, the artist would expand his credentials with his work in the Atomic Bomb! Band, a collective of musicians which included members of Sinkane’s own band and other luminaries like Money Mark, Damon Albarn, David Byrne and jazz legend Pharoah Sanders. The band played their versions of songs by William Onyeabor, a Nigerian musician who made a name for himself making politicized afro-pop funk. As the musical director and performing musician, Sinkane toured globally with the group, landing spots in Australia and Denmark and guest slots on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
His latest release, Life and Livin’ It, pushes beyond the contours of all that has come before it for a shamelessly blithe stab at unadulterated pop. Framing the jubilant afro-pop on the album are the linings of Parliament-era funk. The grooves here are even chunkier, the percussion snappier and the singer an eager and willing runner for the front and centre stage. The investigative noodling of Mars and Mean Love is now distilled to a measured balance of influences. First single “U’Huh” is minimal but heavy, the percussion burbling leisurely like hot springs and the screams of brass accenting an almost raï melody. Its music video, an appropriation of films like Carmen Jones, angles the political motifs into the visual splendour so that Sinkane embodies a Belafonte-spirit of uprising.
Its follow-up single, “Telephone”, begins its run with a new wave melody before picking up traction with the gait of afrobeat. Here, the singer’s airy falsetto plumes like the vapours of melting ice, rising from the brimming heat of the fried funk.
Elsewhere on the album, the strains of electronica pulse more fervently, adding texture to the live instrumentation. The mid-tempo shuffle of opening track “Deadweight” employs a scruffed up and robust groove, referring to the singer’s earlier psychedelic-tipped work. On the bright afrobeat disco of “Favourite Song”, Sinkane simply surrenders to the pop persuasion of dancefloor tradition. “Theme From Life and Livin’ It”, an afro-samba, unites all the vocal registers in the singer’s range so that they harmonize atop the dubby excursions of heavy electro-pop.
Interestingly enough, Sinkane’s music has found an audience beyond the more confining borders of what marketing and record shops have labelled “world music”. Usually relegated to a status in the music industry as a genre considered marginal, world music is often misunderstood, “othered” by record labels working to make artists marketed under this label accessible to Western audiences. Sinkane’s counterintuitive approach to making (and performing) his music forces his roots to show unabashedly in ways that are almost punkishly defiant.
Joyous and fearless at once, it’s an attitude that has carried his work beyond the narrow contraptions of the “world music” label and into an expanse where his music can be appreciated in a way it may not have 20 years ago. Such genre-sidestepping has given him the freedom and mobility to explore the wider gambits of pop music, allowing him to play to the kind of crowds who enjoy Shabazz Palaces and Björk as much as they do Flora Purim and Ismaël Lô. It’s a kind of defiance that is, perhaps, inversely and obliquely political — an opposition stated principally through sound rather than words.