Sinkane On Being The Musical Director Of 'ATOMIC BOMB! The Music of William Onyeabor'

Ahmed Gallab of Sinkane on his role as musical director of Sinkane On Being The Musical Director Of 'ATOMIC BOMB! The Music of William Onyeabor' for RBMA.

Sinkane's Ahmed Gallab (center) with Ayanwale Ogungbe & Lekan Babalola. Photo credit: Jonny Lam.

The stateside premiere of ATOMIC BOMB! The Music Of William Onyeabor, a two-night live tribute to the music of 1970s Nigerian synth-funk mystery man William Onyeabor, is set to be one of the highlights of Red Bull Music Academy in New York.

Onyeabor's infectious sound recently garnered global praise after the release of 'Who Is William Onyeabor?' on David Byrne's label Luaka Bop. The live rendition of his tunes, which will be presented live at BAM on May 2 & 3, will feature the likes of David Byrne, Lijadu SistersAlexis Taylor (Hot Chip), Pat Mahoney (ex-LCD Sounsystem), Luke Jenner (ex-The Rapture), Dev Hynes (Blood Orange), and musical directors Money Mark & Sinkane.

We spoke with musical director Ahmed Gallab of Sinkane about his experience and role in this star-heavy project.


Okayafrica: So how did this come about, can you walk us through the steps that made Sinkane the musical director of ATOMIC BOMB! The Music Of William Onyeabor?

Ahmed Gallab: Last summer we played Okayafrica's Summerstage show with Femi Kuti and King Britt. Eric [Welles-Nystrom] from Luaka Bop was there interviewing Femi for the Onyeabor documentary. He asked me if I knew of him at all and I said, "Yes, of course!" We met up shortly after and they asked me if I wanted to be involved in a live show of Onyeabor's music and I said, "Yes, of course!"

OKA: How had you come across Onyeabor’s music beforehand yourself?

AG: I first heard William Onyeabor's music on Luaka Bop's World Psychedelic Classics Vol. 3: Love Is a Real Thing compilation. I had just finished University and was starting Sinkane. That compilation really inspired the vision of Sinkane. When Luaka Bop told me that Money Mark would be involved in the project I was sold.

OKA: What was the process of getting these songs ready for a live band?

AG: Sinkane — Jason Trammell, Ish Montgomery, Jonny Lam and I — rehearsed three days a week for one month alone before working with anyone else. I would play songs from my computer and the four of us would vibe it out until it sounded right. Jonny Lam charted out all of the music on a chalkboard wall in the rehearsal space and then, eventually, on paper. In March we started rehearsing with Pat Mahoney, then, the last week before we left for the UK, Mark came and all six of us rehearsed together. In the UK we met up with Jas Waton (horn section leader), percussionists Lekan Babalola and Ayanwale Ogungbe and the guest singers. It was my job to lead the rehearsals and make it all come together. It was a very challenging task and I'm so happy to have done it.

It's very important to me to stress the hard work all these guys have put into this project. Without the support of Ish Montgomery, Jason Trammell, Jonny Lam, Pat Mahoney, Money Mark and Jas Walton I would've lost my mind.

OKA: The band's roster is pretty incredible — The Lijadu Sisters, members of Hot Chip, LCD Sounsystem, The Rapture, Blood Orange. How did you approach working all those individual talents into a cohesive live band?

AG: Since this music was never played live I felt a lot of pressure to make sure that it was presented well. Having all of these talents involved was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Everyone played a specific role to the project and each other and it was a fun challenge figuring out how.

Ahmed Gallab, Ish Montgomery, Pat Mahoney, Money Mark Jason Trammell, Jas Walton, Jonny Lam

Ahmed Gallab, Ish Montgomery, Pat Mahoney, Money Mark, Jason Trammell, Jas Walton & Jonny Lam. Photo Credit: Jonny Lam.

OKA: Two of the iconic names that have joined the band are David Byrne, for the NYC shows, and Damon Albarn in London. How involved were they in the rehearsal and live band process?

AG: Damon Albarn came to one rehearsal prior to the show. I've been in contact with David Byrne's assistant through out the entire process and his involvement will be special. Both guys are big fans of William Onyeabor and it has been an honor to work with such incredibly gifted people.

OKA: The Onyeabor reissue and shows have been extremely popular. What would you say is the appeal of William Onyeabor's music to a 2014 audience?

AG:It just feels good. There's nothing more to it.

Catch ATOMIC BOMB! The Music Of William Onyeabor live at BAM on May 2 & 3 as part of Red Bull Music Academy New York.

Photo by Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Hugh Masekela's New York City Legacy

A look back at the South African legend's time in New York City and his enduring presence in the Big Apple.

In Questlove's magnificent documentary, Summer of Soul, he captures a forgotten part of Black American music history. But in telling the tale of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the longtime musician and first-time filmmaker also captures a part of lost South African music history too.

Among the line-up of blossoming all-stars who played the Harlem festival, from a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder to a transcendent Mavis Staples, was a young Hugh Masekela. 30 years old at the time, he was riding the wave of success that came from releasing Grazing in the Grass the year before. To watch Masekela in that moment on that stage is to see him at the height of his time in New York City — a firecracker musician who entertained his audiences as much as he educated them about the political situation in his home country of South Africa.

The legacy Masekela sowed in New York City during the 1960s remains in the walls of the venues where he played, and in the dust of those that are no longer standing. It's in the records he made in studios and jazz clubs, and on the Manhattan streets where he once posed with a giant stuffed zebra for an album cover. It's a legacy that still lives on in tangible form, too, in the Hugh Masekela Heritage Scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music.

The school is the place where Masekela received his education and met some of the people that would go on to be life-long bandmates and friends, from Larry Willis (who, as the story goes, Masekela convinced to give up opera for piano) to Morris Goldberg, Herbie Hancock and Stewart Levine, "his brother and musical compadre," as Mabusha Masekela, Bra Hugh's nephew says.

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