Double identity: Sinkane and Helado Negro mine cultural duality for expressive pop music

Drawing from his own past experience, Helado Negro makes energetic pop music that merges a world of multicultural influences. Publicity photo. Drawing from his own past experience, Helado Negro makes energetic pop music that merges a world of multicultural influences. Publicity photo.

Roberto Lange apologizes after stammering through some small talk. The bilingual musician’s just gotten off the phone with another interviewer in Chicago in Spanish, and he’s having a little linguistic difficulty switching back to English.

The music Lange makes under the nom de plume Helado Negro similarly slides between languages; sometimes, as on the gliding “Are I Here,” Lange’s lyrics shift effortlessly between English and Spanish on the same song. “Are I Here” is the lead track from September’s Double Youth, the boldest and most intricate Helado Negro work to date, and a record that grapples with the ideas of memory and identity.

“It’s about dualities,” said Lange. “I’m always double. I’m Spanish and English. I’m Latin and American. When I’m here, in the United States, I’m Latin, because my family’s from Ecuador, so I’m Ecuadorian. When I’m in South America, I’m a gringo, because I was born here. It’s a really flipped-
up duality.”

Lange and tourmate Ahmed Gallab, who records and performs under the name Sinkane, mark a wave of artists making music that crosses genre and ethnic borders as easily as a diplomatic passport. Both are the children of immigrants, steeped in their parents indigenous cultures: Lange was born to Ecuadorian immigrants in the entrenched Hispanic communities of Miami. Gallab was born in London, lived in his parents’ native Sudan until he was five, and then crossed the Atlantic, eventually settling in Ohio. Both, now, are based in Brooklyn.

Their performing names, too, reflect their ethnic origins. Lange’s Helado Negro, translated from Spanish, means “black ice cream.” Gallab’s sobriquet comes from a misunderstanding of a reference to Joseph Cinqué, the slave who led the revolt on the Amistad slave ship, in a Jay-Z lyric. He heard the name as “Sinkane,” and concocted a fantastical backstory to who he thought that was—a monolithic African God, or a powerful monarch like Shaka Zulu or Amadou Bamba, who influenced the entire continent of Africa. The idea of Sinkane, in turn, started influencing the music he was making, insomuch as it refers to the African rhythms that permeate his songs. Gallab addresses his heritage directly on “Son,” one of the standout cuts from Mean Love: “I will not forget where I came from,” he croons over a spare beat and whole-note Rhodes piano chords.

“It’s a huge influence,” he said of his Sudanese roots. “I know I’ll always incorporate East African and Sudanese influences, because that’s who I am.”

Similarly, Lange says his Ecuadorian roots permeate Helado Negro’s music “in every aspect.”

“Someone like Ahmed is great because he falls back … on that idea of multiple [cultural] identities within the African-Amer-
ican community and the African community,” Lange said. “And I think that’s very deep. And with Latin America, there’s so much to fall back on [for Helado Negro].”

But while Sinkane and Helado Negro are projects inextricably linked to their creators’ cultural identities, neither is solely defined by ethnicity or national particularity. Rather, their indigenous influences are used as jumping-off points for pop music experiments. Both Gallab and Lange, as teenagers, dove headlong into punk. Gallab played in hardcore bands. Lange’s friends turned him on to Fugazi and the Dischord catalog. They’d both develop interests in jazz and experimental music, which still mark their music today.

Helado Negro’s sensibilities are decidedly Latin American, steeped in humid tropical psychedelia, familiar Latin rhythms and instruments floating beneath Lange’s vocal melodies. But Lange’s influences run the gamut of American art forms—New York minimalism, Miami bass, the icy Minneapolis funk of Prince.

“It’s slices of everything,” Lange said. “More than anything, I’m like anyone else who lives here, in the sense of being kind of struck by everything at the same time.”

Sinkane’s Mean Love, meanwhile, hungrily vacuums up disparate sonic influences. “Galley Boys” marries high lonesome, country and western pedal steel with dubby African rhythms and Brill Building vocal harmonies. On “How We Be,” Gallab lunges into funk-spiced pop that wouldn’t be out of place on modern R&B charts. But the tribal pulse and widescreen spread of “New Name” and “Omdurman” (named for the Sudanese hometown of Gallab’s mother) recall Nigerian funk pioneer William Onyeabor—a named influence to whom Gallab directed an all-star tribute band, The Atomic Bomb Band, last year.

“I find his music to be so fascinating and it’s always been inspiring,” Gallab said of Onyeabor. “But ultimately, I think the idea of his music is more interesting to me. That he created this music that is distinctly African but in turn kind of turned into this thing that transcended African music—I think that, more than anything, is what inspires me.”

And the music he and Lange, in turn, create is equally inspiring, equally transcendent of cultural identity.

“I’m just creating feelgood music, you know? It’s music that I’d like the whole world to relate to,” Gallab said. “I want to create a universal sound, universal music. The whole aim of my music is to create music that anyone can enjoy. Not just music for kids my age or people who’ve had a similar upbringing as me. I want to connect to the world.”

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