At the heart of this fascinating collaboration crossing boundaries of geography, language, culture and faith, lies a personal quest. In early 2009, after the death of his beloved and influential grandfather—a cantor, composer and sage—guitarist/singer/bandleader Jeremiah Lockwood took his band, The Sway Machinery, from New York to Timbuktu, Mali, to attend the Festival in the Desert, and record an album. The Sway Machinery has always made an unlikely fusion of bluesy, brassy rock and venerable Jewish culture. It seems, the band has always been a place where Lockwood worked out the contradictions in his life, starting with his dual fascination with his grandfather’s arcane spiritual world and the raw grit of American roots blues. Add to all that the Muslim trance vibe of the Malian desert and the brew becomes rich indeed. This CD is packaged with a booklet that artfully tells the whole story, but suffice it to say that in Mali, the New Yorkers hooked up with the takamba ensemble Super 11, the diva of Timbuktu Khaira Arby, and other local luminaries, and together they made wonderful, surprisingly coherent, and totally unique music.
Lockwood started with a cycle of songs that touched on ideas of pilgrimage, heritage, diaspora, the vanished past, nomadism and more. But everything changed in the desert. This CD, the first of two, intersperses Lockwood’s compositions with three songs by Khaira Arby, but also field recordings of women and children singing, the call to prayer, an excerpt from Lockwood’s father’s opera, and The Sway Machinery’s adaptation of a late composition by Lockwood’s grandfather. If this sounds like a hodgepodge, it’s not. The album flows pleasingly among these worlds, linking them in unexpected ways, for the are all deeply connected for Lockwood and his musicians. In the end, we go with them, much as the Malian musicians must have. They could not possibly have known what to expect.
Of Lockwood’s pieces, the airy, expansive “Golden Wings,” with an ethereal bed of brass, and a cameo by Vieux Farka Toure on guitar, is especially pleasing. Mande guitar giant Djelimady Tounkara contributes signature riffs to the tuneful “All The People.” Also wonderful is “Pilgrimage,” a loping blend of desert and delta with brass, fiddle and the tehardent lute blending nicely with layers of voices. Lockwood’s singing voice ranges from a growly whisper (“Skin to Skin”) to a plaintive, late-John Lennon like directness (“Golden Wings”). His guitar playing is crisp and sparky throughout, loaded with bluesy authenticity that makes a nice link to the Malian sounds. The band’s covers of Arby’s songs are spare and punchy. “Youba” is especially good, with a dirty roadhouse blues sound that fits like a glove with Arby’s searing melody. Heartfelt and inspired, this is a collaboration that transcends its overarching ambitions with abundant musicality.