Sinkane flips the script with African psychedelia

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Ahmed Gallab of Sinkane (photo by Caleb Smallwood)

Ahmed Gallab, who leads Sinkane, at the Crown (photo by Caleb Smallwood)

by Jordan Green

Chapel Hill producer Grey_Area was manufacturing a soundscape of casual bliss in the Crown, the third-floor sanctuary of the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro. His sonic palette of chopped dub beats, disembodied vocals and bass detonations meshed nicely with visuals produced by Adam Graetz, aka thefacesblur — a series of geometric line patterns, floating static TV screens and colored fractals.

It was only 9:30 p.m., still early for the monthly Dance From Above party, which went down on May 28, and most of the audience was clustered in knots along the walls. An intrepid solitary dancer, a young bearded dude, swiveled with slow, deliberate movements and struck stork poses on the dance floor. At any given time, there seemed to be more photographers lining up shots than dancers.

Dance From Above, a syndicate of party organizers and artists that celebrates its first anniversary next month, provided an aural and visual feast in its most recent installment last Thursday. Visitors were greeted by a colored light display and DJ sets as they entered the courtyard that leads to the side entrance of the Carolina Theatre, providing a baptism of sorts into the omnivorous experience that awaited upstairs. Adding to the spectacle, as the evening progressed, an electro-metallurgical artist named Robert Beck would manipulate columns of white lightning from brass pedestals in a part of the courtyard sectioned off by a long plastic table. With simultaneous action in the Crown upstairs and in the courtyard, each with its own light show, at least five local DJs and two national acts, the five-hour event provided multiple angles of interest and fascination.

Dance music inherently elevates the sensory experience of the audience above the status of the performer. The music is only doing its job if it moves bodies. Is the DJ creating something authentic on the spot or presenting music from other sources? Is it organic or programmed? What is the provenance of the music and what does it signify? None of these questions really matter as long as the music, ideally augmented by a visual display, produces an immediate sensation.

The line between DJ-ing and live-band music is becoming increasingly blurred. Reading the bio of headliner Photay on the event Facebook page, with references to “turntablism,” “field recordings,” “sampling” and “polyrhythmic percussion,” you might question exactly where on the spectrum of programmed technology to live performance the experience might fall. Similarly, Sinkane’s billing clearly referenced a band, but a sampling of music on the internet by the artist — London-born Ahmed Gallab — heaved up an assortment of mixes and odd juxtapositions with stray sampled voices and sonic manipulations. The reported breadth of Sinkane’s stylistic references — reggae, electronic, Sudanese pop — also defies expectation. Would it be music made by the hands of humans or machines?

Dressed in a sleeveless Grateful Dead skull-and-lightning shirt and a nondescript cap, Gallab could have been mistaken for a workaday club musician in the Dominican Republic. No limelight or star mystique.

His band, a quartet, launched into a fierce and visceral strand of African psychedelic music with sinewy, interlocking melodies. Gallab played stabbing, warbled leads on an electric guitar, with Jonny Lam on a second electric guitar playing wah-wah rhythm. The music was glued together by Jason Thammel’s syncopated drumming and Ish Montgomery’s in-the-pocket bass groove. On another song, Gallab and Lam played lead at the same time, wailing psychedelia matched by crying pathos.

Sinkane’s performance was utterly live, less processed than the average indie-rock concert, albeit with heavy reverb on Gallab’s meditative vocals. At times the band’s simmering funk suggested Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “Burnin’ and Lootin’” from their legendary 1975 Live album, at others a hot, desert wind. Blink and you might suddenly imagine yourself listening to the Dead or the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East in 1971, except in an African context. And lo and behold, an extended jam suddenly and without warning resolved into “Going Down the Road (Feeling Bad),” the Dead’s arrangement of the Woody Guthrie folk song.

The band’s instrumental virtuosity and interpersonal chemistry produced a visceral experience that immediately connected with the audience, whatever their expectations might have been. They shook ass or bathed in the groove — a multiracial tribe, old and young, gay and straight, freaks and service workers — as uninhibited as any audience in the thrall of a DJ.

Gallab’s easygoing and unpretentious rapport with the audience was refreshing. His confidence in his own considerable ability was evident by his obvious relish at spotlighting Lam, his fellow guitarist, who is also a dazzling talent. At one point, Gallab concluded his own solo and demonstrably threw his index finger in Lam’s direction, while dancing about and urging Thammel and Montgomery on.

Even “Mean Love,” one of the most pop oriented and recognizable of Sinkane’s songs — and the title track of his most recent album — took on a new dimension, with Thammel slightly dragging the beat to create a kind of country-shuffle rhythm and Lam playing exquisite, soaring pedal steel.

Sinkane — the bandleader and the band — is experiencing a breathtaking rise, with Greensboro a fortunate add-on between shows in Atlanta and Pittsburgh. The group was added to the bill only eight days before Dance From Above after being dropped from the lineup at the Railyard. They embark on a European tour at the end of June, and join the Atomic Bomb! Band — a supergroup organized by David Byrne that performs material by the legendary Nigerian funk musician William Onyeabor — for Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee and WOMAD Festival in the United Kingdom this summer.

Soon after Photay, aka Evan Shornstein, took the stage at the Crown after midnight, the audience was transported. Leaning forward and feverishly working the boards, his music was insistently syncopated, but with concentric reverberations of sound in modulating time signatures. One movement seamlessly transitioned into the next with constant dynamic tension but without any discernible song form.

Dancers made freeze frames with their bodies. Their freedom from inhibition was abetted by Photay’s complete commitment to his music. The DJ maintained such a trance state that he seemed unaware of a fan who was leaning over his turntable trying to yell something at him.

And when one of the event organizers handed him a beer, he accepted it with only the scarcest acknowledgement, took a swig and went back to work.