The Sway Machinery: Finding Inspiration In The Desert The Brooklyn band gives traditional Jewish cantorial music a modern edge with a swinging horn section and rock beats. But the unlikely invitation to play a major music festival in Mali — a Muslim country — inspired the band to record a new album, The House of Friendly Ghosts, Vol. I.

The Sway Machinery: Finding Inspiration In The Desert

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(Soundbite of music)


The Brooklyn band the Sway Machinery formed five years ago around a particular notion: Take traditional Jewish music, and make it funky enough for a nightclub.

(Soundbite of music)

THE SWAY MACHINERY: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: About a year ago, the Sway Machinery received an invitation to play before an audience they probably never imagined, at the Festival of the Desert in Timbuktu, Mali. That experience forever changed the world view of bandleader Jeremiah Lockwood, and his new album reflects that change. It's called "The House of Friendly Ghosts: Vol. I."

(Soundbite of song, "Pilgrimage")

Mr. JEREMIAH LOCKWOOD (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Jeremiah Lockwood is in our New York bureau. Welcome.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Thank you so much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we're listening to a track called "Pilgrimage." It was quite a pilgrimage for you, as I understand it. January of last year, Sway Machinery was invited to play at the Festival of the Desert. Could you just explain to us how that happened? I mean, it would seem to be a kind of odd choice, your band.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, you know, fate has a way of presenting you with opportunities that are both fortuitous but also make sense with the path that you're on. You know, you could look at it as being the most random thing in the world. The trumpet player in the Sway Machinery, Jordan McLean, was at a conference on African music, and he was sitting next to Christopher Nolan, who is the North American liaison for the Festival of the Desert. It all just came together kind of quickly from that seemingly chance encounter.

But for me, in my life, I don't believe there's anything random or chance about this.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Mali is a Muslim country. So how did they like Jewish cantorial music there? Did they know what to make of you?

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Yeah. I think the Jewish element, in a way, maybe made it more understandable to people because, you know, when I would say to someone, this is a piece of music I learned from my grandfather, that's a cultural concept the people in Mali can relate to very, very deeply.

And cantorial music is a central part of my family. My grandfather was a great and very well-known cantor. And in one of our kind of most exciting moments at our performance at the Festival of the Desert was when we performed a piece by my grandfather, (unintelligible), it's one of his records. And I announced the song in French 'cause I wanted everyone to know, you know, this is a song I'm going to play now by my grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg. And everybody cheered when they heard that I was going to be playing a song from this kind of personal legacy.

And people were getting up on their feet and dancing, pumping their fists in the air along with it.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. LOCKWOOD: (Singing in foreign language)

It was an incredible moment.

WERTHEIMER: One of the people that you met in Mali is, of course, well-known all over the world - she's actually visited us here - Khaira Arby. She appears on your new album. We're just going to give you a little, brief sample of what she sounds like.

(Soundbite of song, "Gawad Teriamou")

Ms. KHAIRA ARBY (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: When we met her here at NPR, she was introduced as the queen of desert music.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: She's definitely a queen. Khaira's - when you see her in her presence, I mean, you're with one of the great artists living. I mean, it's an unmistakable aura she has about her.

WERTHEIMER: What can you tell us about that song?

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, that piece is called "Gawad Teriamou." The president of Mali personally asked Khaira to write a song during the middle of the Tuareg uprising - where there was a lot of violence and bloodshed in north of Mali - he appealed to Khaira as an important cultural figure, to write a song that would raise people's spirits and rouse them to seek peace with each other.

It's really remarkable that we knew of it at the time. What happened was, on our drive back from Timbuktu - which is a three-day-long journey by four-by-four, across unpaved roads - the driver...


Mr. LOCKWOOD: ...the driver in one of the cars was playing a bootleg tape of a concert of Khaira's. And that song was on the tape, and he was playing it over and over again, you know, on the drive. So, Stuart Bogie, the saxophonist of the band, just had it stuck in his head. He loved it. When Khaira came to the studio to record with us, he sang her a little snippet of the song and asked her if she might be interested in working on an arrangement of that piece with us.

And she was totally surprised that he knew of it because she hadn't yet recorded it. People only knew it from her live performances in Mali. So it was really fortuitous and wonderful.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. ARBY: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: My guest is Jeremiah Lockwood, who leads the band the Sway Machinery. Their new album is called "The House of Friendly Ghosts: Vol. I."

Let's just listen to another track from the new album. This one is called "Golden Wings."

(Soundbite of song, "Golden Wings")

THE SWAY MACHINERY: (Singing) I listen to the words you speak, then your voice becomes a part of mine. If I listen and then I teach, then your body flows like wine. If I had a bird with golden wings then our memories are all entwined.

WERTHEIMER: Our memories are all entwined - what are you singing about there?

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Well, the idea was that I wanted to talk about my grandfather -about his death, and about how I invite him to enter into me and to continue to sing through me. And we recorded the song. Then later, when Khaira was in the studio with us, I asked her if she would sing on the song as well. And I explained to her what the track was about, as best I could. And she created a kind of praise song in which she used both my name and my grandfather's name, and wished him peace in the next world.

WERTHEIMER: And kind of laid that in between what you were doing?

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Yes. Yes, exactly.

(Soundbite of song, "Golden Wings")

Ms. ARBY: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Jeremiah Lockwood, you call this record Volume One. It sounds like you're planning to revisit this territory at some point.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Yeah. I mean, amazingly, we came back from Mali with a lot more material than we envisioned. And so we're releasing the music in two volumes. Volume Two will be coming out at some point in the not-too-distant future. And in the meantime, we're about to go on tour with Khaira in the States, which is just an absolutely incredible opportunity to bring this music to people, in the flesh.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: Jeremiah Lockwood fronts the band the Sway Machinery. Their new album is called "A House of Friendly Ghosts, Vol. I," to be released in early March.

Mr. Lockwood, good luck.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: Many thanks.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: For Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

You can hear the best of this program on our new podcast, Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at We're back tomorrow. Until then, have a great night.

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