Photos courtesy of Desmond/Hoodoo Mural Festival

Remembering Daniel Sahad

I had set out on the long drive from Amarillo for Austin in early May, beneath a sun so covered by grit and haze I could almost look at it. New Mexico wildfire smoke reduced Amarillo to bands of blue, brown and yellow in my rearview mirror.

It’s what a lot of people traveling to Austin want: A breath of fresh air. Something new but authentic, something stylish and exciting. Over the past few years, the band Nané—founded and fronted by Amarillo native Daniel Sahad—came to embody all those things. 

A few months earlier, I had made the Amarillo-to-Austin odyssey for Nané’s 2022 New Years Eve show. Now I was driving the same road not for a party with Nané, but to attend a tribute concert for Daniel Sahad, who had died less than a month prior. 

Three days before Daniel’s death, on April 7, Austin had declared its first Nané Day, a city-wide recognition of the band’s cultural impact. Nané marked the occasion on Instagram, posting, “We’re honored and humbled that the [c]ity of Austin is giving this rag tag group of best friends a day to live forever …”

That “forever” was cut short. On April 11, Nané the band shared the news of Daniel’s sudden death on April 10 at age 29. In the following days, fans touched by Daniel’s life and music struggled to reconcile the promise of Nané with the loss of its leader, a creative force and community pillar.   

“It still feels like I’m going to run into him somewhere, at a show or party. It feels like he’s out there and I’m going to see him somewhere,” says Rob Hogan, lead singer of the Austin band Animals on TV, who also performed at the May 6 show in Daniel’s honor. 

Austin music venue Empire Control Room and Garage hosted the tribute concert. It was where I’d seen Nané on NYE 2022. The sense of déjà vu was strong, disorienting. I did a few double takes before realizing that some people had come dressed in Daniel’s signature look: Hawaiian shirts with open buttons and gold chains. They wore tinted aviators and shook manes of curly hair. 

He was everywhere, and he was missing, everywhere.

Can’t Do It Alone

I first heard Nané in 2019 when the band released its single “Always On My Mind.’’ Exuberant and tender, it was the band’s breakout hit, and one of two songs Nané performed that night for the first time without Daniel. The venue was packed as Ian Green of Nané took the stage, his eyes already brimming with tears. Nané’s co-founder and guitarist, Green and Daniel were longtime friends. He speculated Daniel would want dancing and a celebration to honor his life. The crowd responded with cheers and sniffles and hands that wiped away tears on the way to raise a glass. 

In Daniel’s place behind the microphone was Quentin Arispe, lead singer of Austin-based Quentin and The Past Lives. Despite being a vocal powerhouse themselves, Arispe appealed for support from the crowd: “Y’all need to help me out on this. I’m not going to be able to do it alone,” they said as the opening chords of “Always on My Mind” played. 

I thought of the times I’d seen Daniel perform the song live. I caught myself waiting for him to come in.

The tribute lineup included other collaborators and colleagues from the Austin music scene. Andrew Davis, who met Daniel at Nané’s first-ever Austin performance in 2018, played with two different bands. 

Remembering his first encounter with Daniel, Andrew says, “I was walking past him and he grabbed my shoulder and turned me around and he’s like, ‘Hey, I’m Daniel. I saw you in the crowd.’ You know? Cause he was just that kind of dude.”

 With Mister Davis, Andrew performed “Rolling Stone,” which he and Daniel co-wrote. A collector of ventures, projects and friendships, Sahad produced Mister Davis’ first album and collaborated on several of the band’s songs. There’s a subtle country twang in the alt-rock song, and I hear Amarillo. 

Amarillo Origins

From the stage and in the press, Sahad spoke often about his close relationship with family and his pride in his Dominican-American heritage. Honoring his identity as a Texan and as a first generation Dominican-American wasn’t always easy. 

“For context, readers should know that I’m of Afro-Latino and Arab descent. I’m very proud of the sacrifices that my ancestors made to get me here, right here, to my desk in Austin, Texas,” Daniel told Atwood Magazine in 2020. 

Cultural differences aside, Daniel was different—he was driven and musical, although he wasn’t in band, orchestra or choir in school, according to Amarillo Independent School District records.

“Even in middle school, he had a love of music and he made that known,” says Keitha Keplinger, Daniel’s eighth-grade Bonham Middle School AP English teacher.

During that period, Daniel grew to appreciate writing as a form of self-expression and a tool to effect change. In a 2020 article in the Austin-American Statesman, Sahad wrote, “I’ve been writing speeches and songs and all that since I was a little boy, because words were so powerful that when used the right way, they can change everything.” 

Keplinger confirms his attention to every word. “When he wrote something, he wanted to say something,” she remembers. “He didn’t just put stuff down just to get it turned in. That was not him. He would be the kid that would write something and say, ‘That’s not exactly what I wanted to say’ and revisit it.”  

While continuing to value his Amarillo family and friendships, Daniel wanted to live somewhere he saw as big enough for his identity and his dreams. After graduating from Amarillo High in 2011, he left for the University of Texas to major in pre-med. He was following in his family’s footsteps. His father, Dr. Jesus Sahad, is an Amarillo pulmonologist. His mother, Dr. Rosa Sahad, is a pediatrician by training. 

Daniel and his mother were kindred spirits. Dr. Sahad says Daniel got his persistence and drive from him, but his love of music and emotional sensibilities from his mother.

“When he was little,” Dr. Sahad says, “he used to say to me, ‘I look like you, but when I open my mouth, I’m like her,’ about his mom.” 

But Daniel couldn’t ignore the pull of music and entertainment. By 2015, Daniel’s music was already attracting attention. He decided a Public Relations degree would help him develop the skills to manage and promote himself and other musicians. 

UT’s student newspaper, The Daily Texan, published a feature about Daniel that year, chronicling his performances on dormitory pianos, including original work. “There’s music all around me,” he told the Texan. “It’s kind of like madness.” 

Ian Green, who co-wrote for Nané, told the Austin-American Statesman of Daniel, “He’d hear things at 4 a.m. and sing into his phone.”

Years later, following the success of “Always on My Mind,” Daniel confirmed this with the Austin Chronicle, “The melody of it all came to me right before I was falling asleep. That’s something I do, try to write in that space between being awake and asleep.”

Daniel’s sister, Mariel Sahad, co-wrote “Always on My Mind” with her younger brother, along with several other songs on Nané’s eponymous debut album. “For those songs we wrote together, he would play the music for me, and I told him the story that would play out in my head. He turned the story into poetry to fit the songs. It was magical,” Mariel says.

In 2015, Daniel was making music under the name Naji Rose—a nod to his parents’ names, Rosa and Jesus Najib. “Nané” is a family nickname given to Daniel by Mariel, her baby babble for “Daniel” in Spanish, which the Sahads speak fluently. Bringing family names into his music persona was a way to honor all the different, dispersed pieces of his life. 

Perhaps Daniel was thinking along those lines when Nané agreed to perform at Hoodoo Mural Festival in downtown Amarillo. Fellow Amarillo-to-Austin transplant Will Krause, whose production portfolio includes SXSW and Austin’s Euphoria Fest, booked Nané for the festival. “When we came down and did it, it was like a big family reunion for all these people in Amarillo and getting to see Daniel—they put on such an amazing show,” Krause says.

For people like Krause who knew Daniel in professional as well as personal capacities, the news of his death came crashing in from all directions. Krause’s voice broke as he talked about the plans they had for Hoodoo 2022, never to be realized.

Meaningful Relationships

Whether in Amarillo, Austin or touring the country, Daniel was surrounded by a network of people who loved him fiercely. 

For Andrew Davis, performing at the memorial show at Empire brought home the reality of his absence. “It was beautiful and it was very difficult. I had kept it together pretty well for the week leading up to that,” Davis says. “And then when Quinten and The Past Lives started their set with a Nané song, I just completely lost it.”

It was evident in the faces around him how successful Daniel was as a community-builder. “Looking around, I recognized probably more than half of that crowd because they were also somewhere I had been because of Dan. And then just realizing how many of my dear friends were there and realizing that they became dear friends because of him, was incredible,” Davis says.

Rob Hogan says Sahad was always willing to lend a hand. “He always gave tons of free advice and always came with ‘Here’s how I did it and would do it,’” Hogan says. “It was always hard to do it like Daniel did it. ’Cause he could do anything.”

Daniel was first and foremost a musician, but worked hard in other fields, both for financial stability and to strengthen his media production and marketing skills. At the time of his passing, Daniel was working as a marketing director for MoveGroove, an Austin real estate company, and was brand manager at Exurbia Films. He had recently completed a six-month digital marketing program at UT Austin. His legacy is one of tenacity and persistence, working hard at what you love and loving people hard while you can. 

An ofrenda-style altar with flowers, candles and a picture of Daniel stood in the corner at Empire on the night of the tribute concert. The photo, by another Amarillo native and friend, Gunnar Widowski, showed Daniel laughing, his hair flowing out of a pink beanie. A white box for notes to Daniel and memories of him sat on the table, challenging people to reckon with the loss. 

“You’re from Amarillo?”

I only met Daniel once, and the only thing I said was, “You’re from Amarillo?” though I knew he was. It was at the Ranch Rider Migas Fest in 2021, where Nané headlined. My friends and I had our picture taken with Daniel, and I was so starstruck I felt like a little girl at Disney World taking pictures with Mickey Mouse. 

The note I wrote to leave at his ofrenda centered on my memories from New Year’s Eve, when a friend and I were looking for the bathroom and waltzed into Nané’s green room. We played it cool and ended up in conversation with a woman standing alone—someone’s date—until we saw a security guard approach Daniel. “Who are they?” the guard asked, pointing at us. 

I was ready to leave, but Daniel looked over at us, shrugged and said, “They know her.” It made our night. 

Daniel Sahad encountered grit in its various forms during his time in Amarillo. Maybe some had to be cleared out by the free reign Austin gives to self-expression, and maybe some of it went into making a pearl. Whatever impression Amarillo had on him, Daniel made an impression on the city. 

His life and legacy broaden assumptions about what it means to be from the Panhandle, and though it was cut short, his successful multi-field career shows the reward for hard work and pursuit of passion. 

From Amarillo to Austin, Texas is changing fast. The Panhandle’s geographic isolation from the rest of the state means less than it once did, and small towns are showing that inclusion and opportunity aren’t just for city slickers. That Daniel Sahad, a born leader and tastemaker with a lust for life, isn’t here to build this new world is an undeniable tragedy. 

But death can’t touch the impact Daniel had on culture in Amarillo and Austin or the example he set moving through the world with open arms and a raised voice. His cr eative vision and community ethos live on in his friends and family, and in his many projects. This is a time of mourning for the man himself and all that he would’ve done. But it’s also a time to recognize how much he had accomplished and to appreciate the gifts of his music and example. We’re lucky that to hear Daniel, we need only listen. 

Hoodoo Mural Festival

Despite the loss of Daniel Sahad—who had signed on to perform prior to his death—this year’s Hoodoo Mural Festival still promises to be a colorful, community-elevating event. The actual festival is scheduled for October 1 in downtown Amarillo and features music by Neil Frances, Flamingosis, Kaelin Ellis and Little Jet. 

The roster of 2022 muralists is even more impressive, with first-time participants Tristan Eaton, It’s a Living, Rabi and Nate Smith joining return artists Drew Merritt and hometown favorite Malcolm Byers. Most of the murals will have been completed in the week leading up to the festival.

Tristan Eaton was the product designer behind KidRobot and is known for his elaborate, colorful, freehand spray-paint murals, visible from Honolulu to Paris to Shanghai. 

It’s a Living (Ricardo Gonzalez) is recognized for his signature script-style murals and wall-sized typographical messages from Los Angeles to Brooklyn to Atlanta. 

Rabi co-founded the art collective CYRCLE and has worked all over the world. In addition to his outdoor murals, his work has been privately collected by Shepard Fairey and Sean Combs. 

Nate Smith’s work is rooted in calligraphy styles and explores anonymity and identity through layered, geographic images. He is based in Los Angeles.

Drew Merritt grew up on a working cattle ranch in Clovis, New Mexico, and participated in last year’s Hoodoo Mural Festival. His vertical cowboy mural, “The Chase”—located across Polk from Amarillo National Bank’s parking garage—has already gained international attention.

Malcolm Byers is a past Hoodoo participant and Amarillo native who has recently completed projects in Austin and Nashville. You can see his recent local work at Sunset Center, Dependable Plumbing and Pizzeria Nomad.

Author

  • Anna-Kay is a writer, artist, and conservation advocate from Amarillo. She graduated from UT Austin with degrees in English, Spanish and International Relations in December 2021, and works for the Austin-based conservation organization Texan by Nature. She writes and makes podcasts about the physical and cultural landscape wherever she is, currently Albuquerque, New Mexico.