The Sway Machinery aims to make music big again
Jeremiah Lockwood spent February 5 like approximately 111 million of his fellow Americans: watching the Super Bowl on TV. As a lifelong New Yorker, he was no doubt pleased by what he saw. What he heard, however, is another story.
“I was struck by the commercial music,” he says on the line from his Brooklyn home. “It sounded like somebody had made it on their laptop, in GarageBand or something—it was so cheap-sounding. I was like, ‘Man, this is the big time of American popular culture?’
“Even the big artists, their records sound real small now,” he continues. “It’s not like a really big sound that people are going for, and why would they? They’re also getting hit by the lower returns on the investment of making a record. But let’s get big again, people. Come on: let’s be Cecil B. DeMille! Spectacle can’t only be a visual thing; it has to involve all the senses.”
Lockwood’s band, the Sway Machinery, knows a little bit about spectacle, at least on the auditory level. The eclectic quintet, which occasionally shares members with the similarly larger-than-life Arcade Fire and the hard-swinging Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, has concocted a deliriously extroverted fusion of traditional Jewish music, West African rhythms, and Balkan brass, with occasional touches of jazz, punk, and dub. But it’s no postmodern mashup: Lockwood’s exploratory soul is firmly anchored in the lessons he learned from his grandfather, Jacob Konigsberg, a near-legendary figure in the rarefied world of Jewish liturgical singing.
The group’s earliest outings often reworked traditional Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) celebrations for the 21st century, with Lockwood playing electric guitar while dressed like a new-wave rocker but singing like he was straight out of the Warsaw synagogue. The group’s recently released The House of Friendly Ghosts Vol. 1, on the other hand, finds the band in Timbuktu, collaborating with veteran Malian singer Khaira Arby, jamming with Tuareg nomads, and celebrating the ancient but often suppressed connections between two desert peoples: the Muslims of the western Sahara and the Jews of the east.
Travelling to the remote Festival au Désert was an eye-opening experience for the former Balkan Beat Box sideman.
“We landed in Bamako,” Lockwood recalls, “and went straight to a party at the Farka Touré residence—the home of Ali Farka Touré, who’s now dead, but his wife and his son Vieux made a big party for different people who had come to attend the festival. It was an incredible way to arrive in the country—and then we got on the road the next morning, driving 14 or 16 hours a day and seeing little villages along the way, people herding cattle along the side of the road—and texting on their cellphones while they were doing it.”
The singer-guitarist notes that there’s a similar relationship between the pre-industrial age and the modern world in his own music, adding that his trip has strengthened his own resolve to make sounds that offer “a joyful, cathartic experience” for listeners.
“Seeing how the artists in Mali take on that imperative as performers—like, ‘What can we do that’s really going to move people?’—was very inspiring.”
The Sway Machinery plays Electric Owl on Saturday (February 18), as part of the Chutzpah Festival.