Barreling down the dusty roads of the West African country of Mali in January 2010, Jeremiah Lockwood and his Brooklyn-based band the Sway Machinery felt elated. They had just left an impromptu gig jamming with local musicians at a bumping riverfront juke joint.
Pulled over by police for not having their identity papers after midnight, they were taken to the station, a concrete box with a corrugated roof and bonfires blazing outside. The band's guide begged the police to release them, but to no avail. He then called the owner of the venue where they'd been playing, and once she arrived at the station — with her boyfriend, an army captain — the musicians were immediately released.
Just three weeks earlier, the quintet was on its way to Timbuktu to play the annual Festival in the Desert. All of them spend time in other bands, including Arcade Fire, Balkan Beat Box, and Antibalas, but this journey was an endeavor for the voracious musical explorers of the Sway Machinery. They were greeted upon arrival by Malian vocalist Khaira Arby and a rooftop full of musicians ready to play. When they began, perched atop a bright red adobe house, a group of young tribesmen rushed onto the roof and dropped everything to sing and dance to the music.
"It was a miraculous, explosive kind of moment," guitarist and bandleader Lockwood remembers. "And the rest of our time in the desert was stuff like that all time — hearing incredible music, meeting interesting people, hearing beautiful stories."
Amid the experiences of the trip, the Sway Machinery recorded two albums' worth of collaborations with popular Malian musicians. The first, The House of Friendly Ghosts, Vol. 1, comes out March 22 on JDub Records. The second volume is still being mixed.
The music is a blend of ancient Judaic liturgies, klezmer horns, blues rhythms, and characteristically Malian sounds on percussion, guitar, and vocals. It takes a step away from the cantorial feel of the Sway Machinery's second album, Hidden Melodies Revealed, and moves toward world music.
Lockwood has always liked to mix genres. He grew up under the influence of his mentor, bluesman Carolina Slim, and his grandfather, Jacob Konigsberg, a New York cantor and recording artist. In the studio in Mali, the band was delighted to receive a near-constant stream of visiting musicians.
They began recording "Golden Wings," which is featured on the first volume, alone. But when up-and-coming Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré (son of legendary desert bluesman Ali Farka Touré) fortuitously dropped by on his way to the airport, they handed him an instrument and he got strumming. Super Onze, a local dance band, came by to play the ngoni, a West African instrument similar to a four-stringed lute.
Arby is featured most frequently on the new album. Her voice beautifully complements Lockwood's, and she even sings several of the tracks on her own. "She's such a monster of her instrument," Lockwood says. "That's the key to the uniqueness of the record — that's what really sets it apart, the contrast between her voice and my voice."
Lockwood is a rambler. He sounds like he's reciting poetry when he's speaking, and can wax at length about cantorial music, roots, tradition, and musical connections. He speaks quickly, but seems to think deeply about each word, lurching forward in speech then second-guessing himself. He seems to be energetic and passionate about practically everything.
Lockwood's Jewish ancestors were originally from the region of Romania once known as Transylvania; his grandmother fled the Nazis during World War II. Lockwood says he saw the journey to Mali as a return of sorts, not to his own cultural past per se, but to a place more reminiscent of the old world.
"Diaspora breeds the urge for return," he says. "And maybe you can't go back to what you had in your familial past, but there's a bigger picture of humanity waiting in unique places in the world, if you care to go and seek them out."
This is why Lockwood chose to name the albums The House of Friendly Ghosts. The image "related very much to this trip," he says. "To make friends with the familial and ancestral spirits that are in our imagination, and in our dreams, and to find places in life where you can let them speak."
Since Lockwood finished some gigs with his other band, Balkan Beat Box, the Sway Machinery is again traveling down bumpy roads, this time via bus in the more familiar terrain of the U.S. But they've brought an important reminder of their time in Mali: Arby is touring with them.