Tonight's Sudanese night at Birmingham’s best venue, Hare and Hounds in the city’s leafy Kings Heath suburb. Three young women try a second time to enter the building, asking “Is this the ‘Sudanese Kitchen’?”, referring to the pop-up food event serving the country’s famous cuisine on the ground floor. The food smells delicious, but the rewards are great for those who resist temptation and climb the spiral staircase to find the diaspora’s rock ‘n’ roll stars, Alsarah, and Sinkane.
It's fuzzy whether "Sinkane" describes a person or band. Functionally, they’re a highly democratic band, every member plays on every track of supported album, Life & Livin’ It, encompassing (pen at the ready genre fans): krautrock, prog rock, electronica, free jazz, funk rock and Sudanese pop. And they're snappy dressers. On the barely raised stage, creative boss Ahmed Gallab stands out in an unbuttoned short-sleeved floral shirt and fedora hat, sending the message he’s having fun and insists everyone else does too. The band’s affectionate glances between one another warm the room, like the 1970s experimental science-fiction film primary-coloured lighting.
The collective and individual musicianship blows the audience’s socks off. Keyboard player Elenna Canlas’s vocals catch everyone by surprise, bursting out from behind her racks (and racks) of equipment on ‘Theme from Life & Livin’ It’. As if she doesn’t already have enough to do. Amanda Khiri’s full-time vocals, solo on much of ‘Yaha’ and duetting with Gallab on the funky ‘Deadweight’ and soulful ‘Fire’, are insanely beautiful, as is their contribution to ‘Won’t Follow’’s Beach Boys harmonies. Its members are not yet individually household names but Sinkane is a 100% supergroup. The 100% pop ‘Favorite Song’ (but there’s so many favourites) features Jonny Lam’s many guitar sounds, it’s not all about his solos but he’s ace at these too, as is Ish Montgomery with his bass. Even the drummer gets in on the act, Jason Trammell simultaneously looking endearingly bewildered and pleased as punch replacing Gallab at the mic for ‘Moonstruck’. The boss? In addition to lead vocalist he’s a pretty nifty drummer, warming Trammell’s seat. We should have known.
Sinkane tour – a lot – and it shows, indeed their album has a live vibrancy as if shows are their primary focus. It’s the tightest jam session ever, and the venue’s sound quality heightens the feeling it’s impossible for them to put a foot wrong. So it’s almost a relief when something does go wrong, one of Gallab's guitar strings files off during the super jaunty, scuzzy disco ‘Telephone’. But you now what? He carries on as if nothing happened.
The audience, of varied ages if not too varied backgrounds, are having lots of fun, the 150 capacity room allowing just enough personal space for proper dancing. Close to the stage, a young man wearing a proudly groomed beard is having the time of his life, momentarily stopping to remove his glasses, it looks like, to wipe steam from their lenses. There’s minimal banter, "Hello Birmingham. This is our first time here. Let's have some fun." That's what everyone's here for, let's get to it!
The set has an interesting trajectory, telling a crucial, increasingly prominent, story. Those who know the situation in South Sudan know it’s terrible, and for those that don’t, please read about it. There’s more important world events than those in Gallab’s UK birthplace and US home. His socially conscious message and vulnerable, so vulnerable its emotional honesty can’t be questioned, voice is foregrounded, most notably in ‘How We Be’. In his words, “This is feel-good music for trying times, celebrating what makes life good without ignoring what makes it hard.”
Or perhaps Sinkane simply realise their audience can’t keep dancing for a whopping one and three-quarter hours. One suspects 11:15pm is fifteen minutes past the residential area’s curfew but nobody’s going tell these guys off, they’re just too lovely. ‘U’Huh’ includes the Arabic “Kulu shi tamaam”, meaning “Everything’s going to be alright.” It’s more than alright, this socially graceful and warmly charismatic band are an absolute joy. Now, let’s see if there’s any leftovers from the Sudanese Kitchen downstairs.
Theme From Life & Livin’ It
How We Be
Press photo credit: Adam Tetzloff. Life & Livin’ It is out now on City Slang. The Sudanese Kitchen project is about more than food.