Yeasayer's keyboardist, Ahmed Gallab, talks his new album, touring the world and his experience meeting Jay Z and Beyonce
Words Whitney Summer
Photos Cochrane Williams and web
Ahmed's music timeline is one that makes for a great inspirational movie. Born in Sudan, Ahmed and his family fled to America at the age of six on political exile and ended up in Utah to start their life in America. As the oldest male child, Ahmed said it was difficult for his parents, who are both professors, to understand how he planned to support himself as a musician. "They were always supportive, which was nice," Ahmed said. "But coming from Sudan, they don't understand how someone who is offered the best education wouldn't want to take full advantage of the opportunity." After touring as the drummer in several bands and starting his own project called Sinkane, Ahmed said his career really kicked off when he landed a gig with the Canadian indie band, Caribu, when their drummer had an injury during their tour and Ahmed was flown in to fill-in. While at a music festival in England with Caribu, Ahmed said he meet Ira Tuton and Anand Wilder of Yeasayer and kept in touch with them. And as luck sometimes strikes, one day the original drummer from Yeasayer was released for personal reasons. Ahmed was just at the right place and at the right time in his career to fill in his place. According to Ahmed, he said he would have never imagined playing with Yeasayer and said it still feels like a dream. He's currently on several songs on Yeasayer's 2010 album, Odd Blood, and is hoping to help them record their new album which they are currently working. This year, Ahmed is also releasing a new album, which does not have a release date yet, but said it will be a combination of afrocuban, spaghetti western, dub and rock and more lyrically driven than his first album. For now, Ahmed said touring every single day playing music would make him the happiest person alive. He gets scared every single day, but said it's that fear that makes everything exciting.
Did you ever think you would be on the road with Yeasayer today?
If you go on Youtube and look up the CMJ Fader Fort performance that they played, one of their first performances in the LES, you can see me watching them. I thought they were really weird because their bass player had a side ponytail and a mustache and was wearing a construction orange hunters jacket and white capri pants. And he was playing a fretless bass which is really dorky. They all just looked really dorky. This was in 2008, right on the heels of their first album. I thought they sounded great, I was in the back hanging out with my friends and when they went on, I came out and was like, this is great. I had no idea that our paths would cross, but I met them a month and a half later. It was pretty surreal. Really weird to think how it all went down.
What's been one of your favorite music festivals to play so far?
We just played at one in Australia called Lane Way, we went through New Zealand. It was pretty incredible. A lot of the bands were American and traveled with each other. It was like summer camp. We would have days off and we would go to the beach. It was great. All the ATP Festivals are very well put together. The fan artist thing works really well.
Jason Trammell, Anand Wilder, Chris Keating, Ira Tuton and Ahmed Gallab of Yeasayer pose for a portrait backstage atthe 'It Came From Brooklyn' concert series featuring Yeasayer at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on October 30,2009 in New York City. (Photo by Roger Kisby)
Having immigrant parents myself, I understand how difficult it is for them to understand my life as a writer and not as a doctor. What has your experience been like as a musician with Sudanese parents?
I came here at six on political exile. When we moved to the states, my family had to start all over. My dad had to go back to school. They find it very difficult to understand a person living in the United States not taking advantage of what there is to offer. Both of my parents are professors, I could have went that route and it was intriguing to me but I didn't find anything inspiring in that. Music is something that I always go back to because I want to beat it and get better. It's not easy. Every time you graduate to a new level, you want to move to the next level. Now they are incredibly supportive, it took a while for them to get there. I am their only son and I am the oldest. I can see how much my parents care for me by the way they act. Music is not an easy thing to pin down. Even the hardest workers and the most creative people never make it. It was difficult, but they gave me the support. Now I find the conversation being how I can become a better musician. How I can incorporate Sudanese music into what I do. (photo on left is a younger Ahmed)
It must be nice to show your parents you can be successful at something difficult to pin down like music. What has been the moment for you where you felt like you really hit success in your career.
We played in London at this place called The Round House which has a capacity of 3,200 people and it was sold out. The year before that show, we played as support for Bat for Lashes. Within a year, we came back to that same venue to headline it and then sold it out. For me it was a little bit different because I'm not a core member of Yeasayer, I'm a part of the touring band. My experience touring with the band is different from the other members because they have put in more time and energy. But it was exciting for me because I never thought I would be playing in London with 3,200 people.
Who have you been most excited to meet in your career?
Jay Z and Beyonce. I was so frightened by her I couldn't even say anything. Jay Z and Beyonce are very like, I never really believed celebrities were real people, they exist on television. Yeasayer played at Coachella and I walked off the stage and I looked up and Jay Z and Beyonce are right there and they were watching us. That was weird. Jay Z comes off as the coolest person, very clean cut, soft spoken. He just shook my hand and said, "My Man." That's it. I still have a picture of me and him on my phone. Beyonce's just one of those girls that you're just afraid of.
Aside from Beyonce, do you ever just experience fear with your career moving forward?
Yes, every single day. I get excited a lot. And there is always that sense of fear. There is something very hard giving something so personal out to people. As soon as you finish a record and get it out to a label, it is no longer you. You don't have it anymore. It's there for the taking. And you have been working on it for so long. Some people are going to like it, some people are not going to get it. There are so many different feelings. That can be very frightening, especially when you have put in years of work.
What was one of the hardest moments you experienced in your musical development?
I was going for this job and the day of the job interview I went to check my e-mail and it was from the band Caribu because their drummer happened to break his wrist. The job I was going for was a grading proficiency test at an abandon grocery store. So, I wrote the guys of Caribu back. I didn't expect them to call me because it was a mass e-mail, but literally as I am driving down the road to the interview they called me and asked me to fly to North Carolina that night because they were on tour. So I literally turned around, I went back home, packed my bags and went to the airport. They had purchased my plane ticket, but it didn't go through, so I had to buy this plane ticket to get to Raleigh and it was 100 dollars and I had 93 dollars in my bank account. I overdrew my account and I was going to do this thing that I didn't know if it was going to work out or not. I was completely in a strange position. I was 24. I got there and I had to learn their songs in 14 hours. I was learning their music on stage at this venue called Cats Cradle.
But it worked out. Now you're traveling the world doing what you love the most for thousands of people. What is your favorite place in the world?
I really like Buenos Aires. We played two shows and were there for five days. I don't know if it was because we saw it during the lens of a touring band, but it was this amazing event where there was a burlesque show, everyone was wearing top hats.
Catch Yeasayer this week at the SXSW festival in Austin, TX, and check back on Afropunk.com for updates on Ahmed's 2011 album release dates.