“We’re all gonna be alright”, Ahmed Gallab, aka Sinkane, repeats over the summery backing of U’Huh, the magnificent first single from his sixth album. “As long as we try, we’re all gonna be alright…Kulu shi tamaam! [Everything is ok!]”. It’s an incredibly reassuring, positive and defiant sentiment in these times of terrifying division and uncertainty, at home and abroad, especially coming from a London-born Sudanese artist living in the United States who has seen more of the world than most. Someone who, while promising his father he would “not forget where I came from” on Son, from his previous LP, also sang “We know a home is not an origin…home is where one finds it.”
Illumination and self-determination through education and compassion – U’Huh suggests – are essential (“find something to love and love someone”), a theme which continues on the gorgeous Theme From Life & Livin’ It: “And if your dreams should seem to fade away, look in yourself, not far away, the answers you will find.” On the slinky, saxy Passenger, Gallab, worried that he’s being taken for a ride, seeks to take control of the situation (“I need to carry my own weight”).
This sense of all-inclusivity and thirst for knowledge has always been present in Gallab’s approach to music, whether through his collaborations with Yeasayer, as a touring drummer with acts like Caribou and Of Montreal, or in his work as Sinkane. Intended as a metaphor for a space of escape welcoming to all, 2012’s Mars was a short-but-very-sweet trip taking in psychedelia, jazz, African rhythms and vocodered vocals. 2014’s Mean Love, while more earth-bound, was hugely diverse and diverting. Influenced by genre- and rainbow-hopping kindred spirits (Funkadelic, Cymande, Outkast), as well as less obvious reference points (The Grateful Dead, Unwound, it shimmered like a soul-funk-country-lover’s-rock pool on a sunny day.
Life & Livin’ It continues the interesting collaboration between Gallab and Greg Lofaro – Gallab writing and producing the music, Lofaro putting together the words from various chats and discussions. Many of the disparate styles and influences from previous records are still identifiable in the details of these songs (admittedly, there’s considerably less pedal steel this time around), but they’ve been streamlined into arrangements that are noticeably more band-orientated. Playing live in promotion of Mean Love – 166 shows in 20 countries – has clearly had an effect, as has Ahmed’s role as musical director for the Atomic Bomb Band, a collective performing works by Nigerian synth-pop pioneer William Onyeabor. There’s a toughness and a tightness to these grooves; Gallab’s voice is bold, clear, confident. The result is the most direct and uniform Sinkane release to date – the sound of a funky Afropop band bolstered by brass courtesy of Daptone’s Antibalas. Won’t Follow’s reggae lilt is the only moment that couldn’t be described as “upbeat.”
Deadweight comes strutting out the gate with impressive swagger, but unfortunately appears to have left its tune in another jacket. Favorite Song meanwhile undoubtedly does have a tune, and is Gallab at his most overtly Onyeaborish – just check out that repeating synth and guitar line – but sadly, rather than being playful and cute as intended, that tune comes off as deeply irritating over five minutes, and the chorus is less than fantastic: once he’s sung “won’t you play my favourite song” for the umpteenth time, you only wish you knew his favourite song so you could put it on and him out of his misery. Everything else here hits the mark, however: U’Huh, with its exuberant call-and-response, is one of the best things Sinkane has done; Fire is aptly named, complete with whirring siren-like synths; Telephone and The Way are both horn-enhanced humdingers.
While the eccentricities and incongruous genre-bending of old are occasionally missed, it would feel churlish to overly criticise Life & Livin’ It’s focused vision of “smiling faces, warm embraces, peace within our minds”. This is an urgent, enormously enjoyable LP.