This unclassifiable, uplifting band is led by the singer and guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood, the grandson of the renowned cantor Jacob Konigsberg, whose choir Lockwood once sang in. Lockwood’s diverse musical influences also include a nearly two-decade apprenticeship in the New York subways with the legendary Piedmont blues master Carolina Slim and a collaboration with several prominent Malian musicians which took place on a long visit there a few years ago. All these incongruous influences are present, in varying degrees, in the group’s upbeat new record, “Purity and Danger.” On it, Afro-pop horn parts and Lockwood’s intricate vocals (often sung in Aramaic or Hebrew) are held together by the standout beats of the group’s drummer, John Bollinger.
THE SWAY MACHINERY: Press
In a return to Afro-pop infused cantorial traditionals and modern blues myth-making, The Sway Machinery comfortably resettles into its epic vision, though this time with even more variance in vocals, guitar styles, and layered and progressive sound structures.
In 2010 a rock band from New York trekked to Mali to appear at the famed Festival of the Desert and collaborate with some of the top Saharan artists. Noteworthy, but not that unusual. But, oh, did we mention that the band bases the bulk of its material around centuries-old Jewish Cantorial music?
That continues to be the defining moment for the Sway Machinery, those clashes of cultures now refined into an enticing, exciting mix on the band’s new, third album, Purity and Danger. The thing is, with the vision of founder and leader Jeremiah Lockwood, whose grandfather was in fact a famed New York cantor, there are no clashes at all.
Such songs as “Magein Ovus” show how natural a fit this combo is — surprising maybe to some, but not at all to those who know of the intertwined cultures the spread for centuries from the Mediterranean up through Europe and down through the northern part of the African continent. No shoehorning was needed to get the Jewish melodies (which are, of course, related to Arabic and African melodies) to mesh with the skittering modern African rhythms.
It helps that the band was assembled with an elastic embrace in mind. The core includes musicians who have been part of the Brooklyn Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas, with such other contributors as sax player Matt Bauder, who has worked with artists from avant-garde composer Anthony Braxton to Arcade Fire.
This is also an American rock band, though, so Lockwood finds a place for some harder guitar sounds, some foursquare drive and even some punk/metal/alt-rock in his adaptations of the spliced styles. The overdriven surf guitar that opens “Longa” is like Dick Dale goes to the Sahara. Or the Kibbutz. Or Coachella. Or all three at once. Hey, that sounds like fun! As does “My Dead Lover’s Wedding,” despite the ominous title. Here the Sway Machinery obliterates borders not just of cultures and eras, but of sensibilities. There’s a lot to be appreciated in the seamless combinations. Or you can just enjoy the grooves.
The Sway Machinery Release Another Fiery, Eclectic, Psychedelic Masterpiece
The Sway Machinery are one of the real feel-good stories of the New York rock scene. They’ve come a long, long way since their days in the early zeros, when as one esteemed New York guitarist put it, they were sort of the “cantorial AC/DC.” There’s no band in the world who sound remotely like them. Mashing up hypnotic Saharan duskcore, biting postpunk, Afrobeat, funk and ancient Hasidic ngunim with a searing, guitar-fueled undercurrent, they’re one of the most individualistic and consistently exciting groups to emerge from this city in this century. They’ve got a new album, Purity and Danger, due out next week (hence no streaming link, although three of the tracks are up at soundcloud) and an album release show on March 1 at 6 (yes, six) PM at Baby’s All Right. Cover is $10, which is dirt cheap for that venue.
The big difference with this album is that it’s something of a return to their hard-rocking roots. Bass saxophonist Colin Stetson has been switched out for Antibalas‘ guitar-bass team of Tim Allen and Nikhil Yerawadekar, who provide a bouncy contrast for frontman Jeremiah Lockwood’s tersely searing reverbtoned guitar riffs. The album opens with the brisk, punchy Afrobeat-tinged instrumental title track, Lockwood’s chords blasting in the right channel, Allen playing lithe jangle in the left against the bright harmonies of trumpeter Jordan McLean and saxophonist Matt Bauder over a groove that’s equally catchy and hypnotic.
Rachamana D’Onay mashes up Middle Eastern rock, reggae and Ethiopiques into a surreallistically dancing stew. Revive the Dead has an irrepressible drive that’s part Sly Stone, part pensive 70s European art-rock, with a long jam that’s a study in tasty guitar contrasts, and a soulful trumpet solo out. My Dead Lover’s Wedding circles and careens around a rhythm that’s part 70s stoner art-rock, part camelwalking assouf desert rock.
On Magein Avos, Lockwood makes a bouncy, trickily rhythmic anthem out of its otherworldly, rustic cantorial theme, drummer John Bollinger pushing it with a restless, hard-hitting pulse. The band does Longa, another number based on an ancient traditional theme, as marauding Middle Eastern surf: imagine Eyal Maoz out in front of Budos Band. Then Lockwood returns to a lingering, resonantly psychedelic groove with Al Tashlicheini, a launching pad for his soaring, impassioned baritone vocals.
Od Hapaam is a mashup of joyous oldschool soul, blazing Ethiopiques and searing, suspensefully cinematic stadium rock, Lockwood’s rumbling solo leaving a long trail of sparks in its wake. My Angel’s House skirts funk, desert rock and rhythmically shapeshifting art-rock without hitting any of those style head-on, although Lockwood’s sputtering guitar here wouldn’t be out of place in a Bombino song. The album winds up with Rozo D’Shabbos, by the great Russian-American cantor Pierre Pinchik, reinvented as a vigorously crescendoing anthem that rises out of a hypnotic Afrobeat vamp. Knowing the band, they’ll probably jam the hell out of these songs live.
The music of The Sway Machinery boasts incredible personal and communal depths, intertwined like a double helix. Every shiver and yowl of band leader Jeremiah Lockwood’s voice reveals his own passion, but also resonates with something deeper and older. His band, meanwhile, darts between Western rock sounds and roots in traditional Jewish liturgical music…Its entrancing grooves and emotionally charged vocals carry an incredible history without sounding stale.
Des cuivres d’apparence classique lancent un bal sombre, triste, mystérieux. Puis une guitare tournoyante annonce un élan afrobeat au ralenti pendant qu’une autre rappelle l’Orient avec des accents plus légers…Le blues y est universel et l’afrobeat, futuriste. Le disque est une réussite.
[The classic horns signal the appearance of something somber, sad, mysterious. The momentum builds with a swirling Afrobeat guitar, while another recalls the Orient with lighter accents…The Blues is universal and the Afrobeat, futuristic. This album is a hit.]
Goings On About Town: Night Life
Sway Machinery and Ceci Bastida
Feb. 23: The horn-driven quintet Sway Machinery draws on a mélange of influences—from Latin jazz to Ashkenazi cantorial tropes—to forge a dance-friendly, at times ecstatic sound. The group, founded by the guitarist and singer Jeremiah Lockwood, the grandson of the esteemed cantor Jacob Konigsberg, sought to meld Lockwood’s Jewish musical roots with a wide-ranging interest in world music. Since its inception seven years ago, Lockwood and his ensemble have collaborated with numerous musicians, including the renowned Malian singer Khaira Arby and the Haitian marching band DJA-Rara. This show, a celebration of the carnivalesque Purim holiday, continues that tradition: They’ll perform a set and then back the Mexican rock singer Ceci Bastida.
One of the joys of Montreal’s festival is discovery of new and exciting artists you just happen upon...One such discovery for me was the band from Brooklyn known as The Sway Machinery that somehow has escaped me, until now that is! They are a six-man band featuring multiple horns and a front man, Jeremiah Lockwood, on guitar and vocals who keeps the energy going as he leads the group of young-bloods, all dressed as bankers in snazzy suits, jumping and jiving to a constant, driving beat of a jazz, rock and world music mix that is hard to explain but impossible to ignore.
Sway Machinery and Khaira Arby Bridge West Africa and West Side of Manhattan
Jeremiah Lockwood had to keep reminding himself where he was one night last fall. He and his bandmates in the group the Sway Machinery were mingling with Malian singer Khaira Arby and her band. Arby was playing with young kids on the floor, music and dancing was breaking out spontaneously – and a big meal was being prepared in the kitchen.
A few months earlier, he'd been in pretty much the same scene with most of the same people, but in Timbuktu, where it all made sense. Sway Machinery had gone there to record with Arby and other local musicians, invited after having collaborated before onstage at the annual Festival in the Desert in Mali. But this was at his parent's house in Manhattan. The kids weren't Arby's grandchildren. They were Lockwood's sons, aged 2 and 4. And the food wasn't exotic to him but to the Malians.
"My wife made a big meal," he says, the occasion kicking off a stay for Arby and the band joining the Sway Machinery for a few US shows. "They didn't really like the food. I have to say that for them American food is as weird as Malian food is for us."
But they got by. There was couscous, familiar to the Malians. And they made "Taureg tea" – "You brew it over and over with a lot of sugar – strong, dark tea," he says. "First time it's overpoweringly bitter, second time more bland and then more sweet with the sugar. In terms of eating and drinking in Mali, the special tea is the dialect."
The real touchstone of continuity, though, was the music that night.
"We played, mostly," he says. "Khaira's band played her songs, played a new song she'd written about coming to America. A very good song."
It's a song that Arby discussed in an installment of Around the World just before making that trip, the column running in connection with the release of her 'Timbuktu Tarab' album. The arrestingly powerful collection marked her first release outside of Africa and ranked among 2010's best world music releases.
"She has the backup singers who were dancing, and the Tamashek guitar player who played ngoni was on the floor playing," he adds.
Still, Lockwood had to keep doing reality checks.
"It's hard to put into words," he explains, still in wonder. "The very startling juxtaposition, seeing these faces who had become friends of mine, but coming from a very radically part of my life all of a sudden in the apartment where I grew up, Upper West Side of Manhattan. The mind flips."
Well, it's also fitting. The album Sway Machinery have made using the Timbuktu sessions – 'The House of Friendly Ghosts Vol. 1,' credited to the Sway Machinery Featuring Khaira Arby and due March 8 from JDub Records – is an impressionistic exploration of dislocation vs. traditions, the displacement and cultural juxtapositions that have become the norm over the course of the past few generations. That Lockwood is a New York Jew with European roots while Arby's heritage is in nomadic Saharan tribes is mere detail.
The last Sway Machinery album, 'Hidden Melodies Revealed,' drew on inspiration from Lockwood's family – his grandmother's roots in Hungary, his father being a transplant from the West Coast to New York, the insular nature of New York life ("New York people hardly ever leave their world of New York – weekend in the Catskills," he says) and, most directly, the music made by his father, composer Larry Lockwood, and, in particular, his grandfather, noted composer and cantor Jacob Konigsberg.
"This project is a continuation of that realm, that concern with the past and creating dreams about the past, a parallel dream world," he says.
The experiences in Africa, he found, meshed well with that.
"The trip to Mali fits in with how I'm trying to make the dream world a mythological world that I'm creating, connect to other musical, spiritual, cultural traditions that involve oral transmission from generation to generation," he says. "There's New York City, and Timbuktu is another place like that. In ancient times, it was a meeting ground for many cultures. You hear that in Khaira's music. She is of a multi-ethnic background, and her music is multicultural in the truest sense of that world. Our music has a kinship on that level, both concerned with preserving our past and at the same time looking forward, using everything in our worlds to create."
That all came together pretty naturally, right from the welcoming party in Mali that would later be mirrored in New York.
"Arriving in Timbuktu was definitely a moment we'd been working toward and imagining a long time, and when it actually happened it was amazing, getting on the rooftop and the house and the reception from Khaira's band, instant fraternity with them," he says. "The language of music was shown in all its glory as a cultural connector, but so nakedly. It's a metaphor people use, but here it was blindingly present in a beautiful way. People in as radically different a culture as we're likely to encounter, and we played together like a family."
That continued in the studio. They overcame language issues for the most part, and the rest happened quite naturally with two different approaches to the sessions.
"One was where we'd create a new track with her," he says. "Basically we were playing her music. The other is we'd take tracks we'd pretty much already finished, basic tracks at least, and talk about what she could add to it. Both processes were awesome. She's an incredible bandleader. Even though we don't have the same musical, cultural signifiers to tell her band, we still came up with cool things."
Much of this simply unfolded as they played.
"There was extremely exciting interplay when we recorded live in the studio, songs like 'Hey Ha Youmba' and 'Gawad Teriamou,'" he says.
"I would say those were the most fun," he says. "Irrepressible personality! And the pleasure of learning new music that's challenging. Also joyful to play!"
There were a few songs for which they took a more elaborate approach, bringing in some other musicians, including Vieux Farka Toure – who showed up unexpectedly right before he was supposed to step on a plane to Australia and set down a gorgeous guitar solo – and a young group called Super 11, which can be heard on what became the album's first track, 'Sourgou.'
"That's the most adventurous one," Lockwood says. "We took in Super 11 to record chord changes over one of the songs. We did that and recorded horns over it and had Khaira sing over that, layering pretty different musical concepts together."
That guest appearance comes with its own amusing story.
"When we played at the Festival of the Desert, we heard this band called Super Khoumeissa, another incredible band from the north of Mali, Tamashek origins," he says. "They play tacumba, a style of music that's little known outside of Mali but I think that will change sound. It's out there. When we first heard it we were flipping out. Animal Collective was there as well and was floored. Sounds like electronic music or something. There are not a lot of recordings of it outside of Mali.
"So we talked to the organizers and wanted to do a performance with them on the side stage. They put that together, they showed up and we did a performance. There's a clip on YouTube someone put up. Played close to an hour. We were, OK, we'd like you do come to Bamako to record with us. Got in touch with this guy, one of the festival organizers, and he was going to help make it happen, and when it was their day to come to the studio, it wasn't Super Khoumeissa. It was another band! Strange thing. Our friend at the festival manages this band. But it worked out great. Super 11, they're also an incredible band, brilliant musicians in the same style. That's how it went down."
And it went down so well that there are plans to have more Super 11 sessions spotlighted on 'The House of Friendly Ghosts Vol. 2.'
Lockwood was also quite gratified to find that not only did the music mesh so readily but that the cultural themes he pursued were also just as harmonic.
"The most important connection I found was that Mali is a Muslim country where people don't have negative feelings about Jewish people," he says. "That's not a major issue here. People are interested in Jewish culture and are aware that Jews were part of Malian culture, especially Timbuktu in the early Middle Ages and in modern times. We sang in Hebrew, sang some of my grandfather's music, and people loved it. Some said we were the best-received Western act that had played there! It's not the story we're hearing most of the time, but it's one we need to hear more. Any time something good happens, I want it to be in the news. Greater meaning than talking about the same negative interactions.
"So that was the goal and we wanted to see if it was a negative or positive issue. I'd say it was almost a nonissue. People there are so accustomed to musicians being intergenerational, people exploring their own pasts. It's de rigueur to them – everyone is a child of a musician. Griot transmission of cultural information. People could relate to what I was trying to do. I felt affirmed in that aspect of what I was doing."
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.
The Sway Machinery | The House Of Friendly Ghosts, Vol. 1
REVIEW: The Sway Machinery is led by guitarist-vocalist Jeremiah Lockwood, who is interested in integrating Jewish cantorial music with contemporary sounds (Lockwood’s grandfather was a cantor). He’s also a skillful blues player, and his band features horn players Stuart Bogie and Jordan McLean from the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. All these elements come into play on the band’s second recording, which was made in Mali while and after they attended the Festival In The Desert in Timbuktu. By all rights, this should be a god-awful hash of a project; actually, it’s quite brilliant. The rhythm section and horns absolutely cook, Lockwood’s evocative lyrics and singing (especially on tracks 2, 9 and 13) offer a somehow appropriate contrast, and guest Malian vocalist Khairy Arby (her Western debut, Timbuktu Tarab, was recommended here last year) totally steals the show on tracks 7 and 11. Like Balkan Beat Box (for whom Lockwood plays guitar), The Sway Machinery is forging a new, uniquely American-melting-pot musical genre. This one is most highly recommended to any listener with an active imagination.
In his hard-hitting band the Sway Machinery, singer and guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood radically reframes the traditional Jewish melodies he learned as a child from his grandfather, prominent New York cantor and composer Jacob Konigsberg. A regular collaborator of Balkan Beat Box, he's well connected musically, and for the group's impressive debut album, Hidden Melodies Revealed (JDub), he recruited a superb all-star band—including reedist Stuart Bogie and trumpeter Jordan McLean of Antibalas, drummer Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and killer bass saxophonist Colin Stetson—that braids together elements as disparate as Balkan and Turkish music and hard rock. Lockwood sings the sacred melodies with the high drama and refined precision of a traditional cantor—occasionally letting loose with some heady vocal improvisations—which at first blush makes for an odd contrast with the driving, horn-heavy arrangements. After a few listens through the album, though, it becomes plain that this juxtaposition is what gives the music its power. In a 2008 interview for the blog the Bluegrass Special, Lockwood discussed the difference between his band's performances and the original cantorial versions sung by his grandfather: "It's obviously the same piece," he said, "but his version is nonmetered, first of all—cantorial music doesn't have rhythm in the way we think of it—it's not pulse-based rhythm; it's rhythmic phrases. What they call the mawwal in Arabic music, the nonmetered improvisations." By contrast the Sway Machinery's renditions use an insistent pulse; though Lockwood stays true to the original texts and melody lines, it's easier to get a handle on the tunes when they're wedded to a fixed tempo. Lockwood leads a different quintet here, with only Bogie from the album's lineup. Members of Khaira Arby's band may sit in as well. —PM
I wouldn't have guessed the Jewish Cantorial tradition would be categorized alongside other music modernizations. Granted, I know little of the genre, outside of sitting with my fiancé's family at services. I must admit, however, I have loved what I've heard.
Inspired by studies of this vocally charged genre, Brooklyn-based guitarist/vocalist Jeremiah Lockwood formed the Sway Machinery to reinterpret this sound with a modern beat. Already moonlighting with my favorite Eastern European-influenced band, Balkan Beat Box, Lockwood invited members of Antibalas and Arcade Fire along for the ride. The journey led them to the Malian desert, where on its second release, Sway has fashioned a groundbreaking take on Tuareg music. Championed nearly a decade ago by desert rockers Tinariwen, the sound has spread its wings and lifted numerous artists to international fame, including Toumast, Etran Finatawa, Bombino, Terakraft and, most recently, female vocalist Khaira Arby, whose Timbuktu Tarab made many Top 10 lists in 2010.
One of my favorite sounds on the planet -- Tinariwen's recent collaborations with Carlos Santana and Indian vocalist Kiran Ahlwualia, covering Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, are great examples of how malleable the music is--any "fusion" attempt would fall flat. Nothing of the sort on The House Of Friendly Ghosts Vol. 1 (JDub, Feb 8). Featuring Khaira Arby on most tracks, this record documents the first part of their pilgrimage. WIth African greats like Vieux Farka Toure and Djelimady Tounkara joining in, the blending of African rhythms, Daptone-style ruggedness and stupendous playing on this 15-track album kicks off the new decade with a cross-cultural collaboration that, for all parties involved, feels perfectly at home.
The Sway Machinery's new album, The House of Friendly Ghosts, Volume 1, is coming out February 8 on JDub Records. The new album explores history, identity and spiritualism through the lens of traveling to the edge of the Sahara desert to make this dynamic and energetic document. In anticipation of this record, which was recorded in Mali and features Timbuktu-based singer Khaira Arby, check out the free download of the song "Skin to Skin."
Brookyln's Sway Machinery – inspired as much by the entrancing guitar scorch of desert blues Tinariwen as the historic Chazzanuth recordings of majestic bass-baritone belting Cantor Zawel Kwartin from the 20s – have somehow managed to reconcile the disparate influences of contemporary Islamic African blues and ancient Jewish spiritualism into a magically charged-up sound all their own.
This past January, the adventuresome members of Sway Machinery, led by singer/guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood (who has well-regarded Cantor Jacob Konigsberg as his maternal grandfather in addition to studying blues guitar with noted Piedmont stylist Carolina Slim) gladly accepted the wild card role at Mali's annual Festival au Desert and wowed the assembled crowd in Essakane. Evidently it went so well, they decided to hang around Bamako for 10 more days where they recorded an album with their new pals, Vieux Farka Toure and Djelimady Tounkara along with celebrated singer Khaira Arby. First rising to notoriety as a featured vocalist with Bamako's Orchestra Badema in the late 80s, desert diva Arby – the Agouni-born cousin of Ali Farka Toure – soon went solo and became known throughout West Africa as Mali's "Nightingale of the North." Yet despite popular acclaim at home, Arby hasn't really connected with audiences in Europe and North America which should be remedied by her current tour which brings her to Toronto tonight (Sunday, September 5) as the guest vocalist with Sway Machinery for their free show at Harbourfront's Brigantine Room (235 Queens Quay West) at 11 pm.
The brilliant pairing of powerhouse shouter like Arby – drawing on her mixed Berber and Songhai roots – with the amped up Brooklyn bashers of Sway Machinery should make for an explosive cultural collision that's certain to be a highlight of this year's Ashkenaz Festival. The handful of people who witness the showdown will likely be raving about it for years to come. Those who can't make the Harbourfront gig tonight should check out Arby's fantastic new disc Timbuktu Tarab (Clermont Music).
Band on the Street
Sway Against the Machine
Jeremiah Lockwood makes the ancient modern and the mythological real
The braying horns run wild at first, but soon get tamed and yoked into towing the plodding guitar, which trembles like a long tracking shot in a Jim Jarmusch film. The singing begins, and unless you were raised with a healthy (and possibly heaping) dose of Judaism, these are not lyrics you understand, yet they fold you into the ritualistic rhythms, soaring brass lines, and guttural voice of Jeremiah Lockwood, mastermind behind the Sway Machinery. Lockwood's arrangements of Jewish cantorial songs whip up a frenzy wherein all the world's music can do that which music does best: celebrate. Arrangements of Yiddish, Aramaic, and Hebrew lyrics mesh with Antibalas horns and American rock 'n' roll blues thick with call-and-response field hollers. Such joyful synthesis is what music is all about, not to mention what New York is all about. So it's no surprise that Lockwood, a born-and-raised Gotham denizen, embraces such a melting-pot perspective. "It's about the subcurrent of all folk music," he says. "The ability to find identity in mythological places, not political places."
Lockwood grew up regaled and schooled by the songs of his grandfather, the renowned cantor Jacob Konigsberg. The young prodigy was steeped in music that demanded an individual voice willing to submit to a grander purpose that transcends the individual—the Sway Machinery apply the same rubric. What the band's players share most in common is not religion, however, but the passion for channeling emotions and ideas that would otherwise go unheard. Drummer and Sway Machinery co-founder Tomer Tzur sits steadily behind the drum kit, sharing rhythm section duty with Colin Stetson on bass saxophone, not bass guitar. Stuart Bogie and Jordan McLean (on tenor sax and trumpet, respectively) round out the band—together, the quintet tells ancient stories ranging from meditative and snaking to madcap and bone-rattling.
Lockwood’s earliest musical endeavors—street musician gigs playing Southern blues on subway platforms—were an extension of all those hours he spent absorbing his grandfather’s records. The Sway Machinery thrive on that same energy of tradition translated, an absolutely vital variation that’s inventive but no less reverent. The result is buoyant, evocative, and incredibly physical—songs that combine styles with seemingly nothing in common toward the aim of celebrating everything we do have in common. Namely, the language of song, even if the words themselves don’t make much sense.
The latest indie supergroup has a sound that.... well, you just have to hear to describe. Listen now!
New supergroup development! Brian Chase, drummer for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Colin Stetson, touring saxophonist for the Arcade Fire, and Stuart Bogie and Jordan McLean, Antibalas' tenor saxophone and trumpet player, respectively, have joined Balkan Beat Box guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood for the Sway Machinery, whose self-titled debut EP is set to arrive September 16 via JDub.
With such a wild assortment of musicians, what could this new project possibly sound like? Well, listen to the eclectic afro-beat, blues, and Jewish-cantorial (songs sung in synagogue) melange of "P'sach Lanu Sha'ar (Open the Gates for Us)" below, the very first leak from the band's forthcoming album.
The very name of The Sway Machinery, a Brooklyn-based cantorial-infused supergroup, brings to mind the conjunction of the natural and the created, the human and the machine, and the group’s music rejoices in that paradox.
The musicians, coming from relatively mainstream bands, here align themselves with the primeval drive to dance and with its sublime manifestation as transcendental shuckling (swaying). This not the stiff, traditional hazanut of your fathers and grandfathers, nor is it the increasingly common polite avant-garde jazz/klezmer fusion. Sway Machinery’s sound pulses with barely controlled movement.
Frontman and guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood (also of Balkan Beat Box) described to the Forward how The Sway Machinery’s first album, “Hidden Melodies Revealed” (released April 7), is profoundly wild, with layered brass employing unique sources — even the sounds of imagined prehistoric animals. The braying, interlocking trumpets that kick off such tracks as “Intro,” “Anim Zemiros” and “A Staff of Strength” (among others) suggest a marching band or an elephant parade gone berserk, and hearing the choral crowds chant in the epic crescendo of “Adiray Ayuma” reminds one less of a High Holy Day congregation responding to its cantor than — again in Lockwood’s words — “of a triumphant army brigade emerging from a tunnel.”
To simply call the group’s sound, as many reviewers have, an eclectic blend of klezmer, blues, indie-folk, Afro-pop and hazanut does The Sway Machinery no justice. True: The group’s sound is certainly not free of the influence of these historically and culturally familiar genres. Indeed, The Sway Machinery’s composition is as diverse, primal and epic as its sound. But with the deep woolly mammoth bellows of bass saxophonist Colin Stetson (of Arcade Fire); the brassy, blaring, and sharp tones of tenor saxophonist Stuart Bogie and trumpeter Jordan McLean (both of Antibalas); the dramatically raucous jazz beats of drummer Brian Chase (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and Lockwood’s mildly raspy but mostly grandiose voice over his understated but critically centered arpeggiated guitar, this all-star lineup attempts a new genre of post-cantorial music with a flair that transcends even the sum of its independently talented parts, achieving a musically fresh visionary space that celebrates both the primal and the sublime.
I hadn’t heard of The Sway Machinery until last September. An Israeli friend of mine had been visiting New York City for the month and had recommended we meet up at the Millinery Center Synagogue on Sixth Avenue at about midnight on a Thursday. To those unfamiliar with the contemporary post-Hasidic bohemian scene, this may seem like a strange place and time for a licit rendezvous. But for those in the know, the Millinery Center Synagogue informally hosts a weekly gathering affectionately known as “The Chulent.” This gathering attracts a smorgasbord of traditional, neo and post-Hasidic Jews, as well as anyone interested in vegetarian chulent, the occasional Torah lecture or folk concert, and general night-long rabble rousing and merrymaking.
When we arrived, we saw chulent-eaters with and without yarmulkes, sidelocks, frocks, piercings and colored hair, spread out in what was becoming a crowded space. Some had spilled out onto the already crowded porch area for a cigarette break; others retreated to some of the more hidden rooms in the back for what seemed like a more aromatic convention. It was only after midnight that The Sway Machinery took the stage, and although I hadn’t anticipated a performance by the band that night, I was transfixed as the musicians played into the early morning.
After the performance, Lockwood described the experience of playing The Chulent as surreal, dreamy and of incredible personal importance. Watching men and women who had either shed or retained their full Hasidic garb excitedly sway and jump to the words of familiar liturgies and melodies — High Holy Day and otherwise — and to the sounds of the brass- and blues-suffused but lofty cantorial-driven rhythms, almost as if they were at a tish (gathering) around their fathers’ and grandfathers’ rebbe, was reason to rejoice. I was similarly startled by the band’s strikingly fresh-but-familiar sound, driven into the rhythms struck by Lockwood’s entrancing guitar and sharp hazanlike voice, and by the accompanying bleating horns. And that’s when I realized: The Sway Machinery posits a grand and ambitious vision. This is the cantorial music of our generation: It is the rhythm and accompaniment to which we would set our traditional melodies, had we the tools and vision Lockwood and his Sway Machinery possess.
That night, The Sway Machinery’s stage presence and voice transcended even the traditional roots the band claims as their base: At times, Lockwood interjected the swinging cantorial favorites with a mystical, nasal and preacherlike voice, telling original and home-spun folktales reminiscent of those midrashic or Hasidic. At other points, he seemed to get lost in a Robert Plant-like blues-jam, hearkening back to his previous projects with blues legend Carolina Slim. He, along with the rest of The Sway Machinery, displaced all the usual musical anticipations with the surprisingly rich yarn of story, song and sway.
Gratifyingly, “Hidden Melodies Revealed” similarly captivates with a rich presentation of diverse vocal tonalities and musical genres. On the album, Lockwood successfully and dramatically replicates the storytelling technique you might witness at any of the group’s live performances, introducing at least three of his songs with his own grand mythologies of fallen kings (“The Mask”), misunderstood princesses (“The Princess”) and disillusioned artisan immigrants (“When I First Came to This Country”). His cantorial-infused songs are likewise influenced by multiple sources: “I Shall Chant Praise,” for example, is not a cantorial favorite; in fact, I was surprised to learn from him that the song is a variation on a traditional Breslov melody. And while the ambitious and elaborate “Ahavas Olam” and “Avinu Malkenu” have stronger cantorial foundations, both are original compositions of Lockwood’s recently deceased grandfather, cantor Jacob Konigsburg, with whom he spent weekly childhood visits listening to such great cantors as Zawel Kwartin, Pierre Pinchik and Berele Chagy.
For Lockwood, cantorial music’s “mythical potential” transcends even the genre’s spiritual nature. Expounding on cantorial music’s world, reminiscent of a fairy tale, as well as on his influence by the Hasidic tradition of folk tale and music, he explained how the music principally evokes a mythical world of possibilities, a world in which we are invited to find and create our own stories. Through a freshly cast sound in (what often seems to be) a dry and obsolete tradition, The Sway Machinery encourages us to make our own stories and locate that “mythical space”— what Lockwood calls “the fairy-tale-like quality” of cantorial music. Through his medium, what he hopes to teach is, “Everyone needs to dig into the realm of stories and mystical teaching,” and that Judaism will return to this “intellectual promise” in which Jews will “continue to plunge into stories,” connecting and continuing their inherent folk tradition through story and music-making.
Slipping away from The Chulent at around 2 a.m., I was left with the resounding, triumphant vision of Hasidim of the old world dancing to familiar music retold and recast in a new age; and I retained echoes of the words Lockwood croons so well on his sole English and blues track, titled “Tell It All to Me”: “Oh babe/I put my symphony in your hands.” Indeed, Sway Machinery’s symphonic achievement is the disenfranchisement of its claim to meaning, myth and music. We are the myth-makers; we are telling and retelling our stories, forever making them relevant. We are those New Age Hasidim dancing to age-old tunes set to even fresher rhythms.
In fact, it is so wonderful simply because it is in our hands.
A Joyful Noise
Fronted by Balkan Beat Box guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood, indie supergroup the Sway Machinery — which also includes members of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Antibalas, and Arcade Fire — formed in 2006 but waited three years to issue its first full-length release. Now that it’s here, we say it was worth the wait.
Hidden Melodies Revealed features Lockwood singing the Hebrew verses he learned from his grandfather, a famous cantor named Jacob Konigsberg. (Lockwood’s pedigree also includes a stint in the New York City subway system supporting bluesman Carolina Slim.) But if Lockwood’s inspirations are rooted in the past, the album itself is emphatically forward-looking, fusing elements of Afropop, blues, jazz, and post-rock, and capturing the sweep and intensity of the Sway Machinery’s high-energy stage shows.
Sway Machinery was co-founded three years ago by Jeremiah Lockwood, a blues guitarist and grandson of renowned Jewish cantor Jacob Konigsberg. The band includes some of the heaviest hitters in the jazz, funk and rock scenes in New York, including Stuart Bogie (tenor sax) and Jordan McLean (trumpet) of Antibalas, Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Nick Chase and bass saxophonist Colin Stetson, a multi-instrumentalist and regular touring member of Arcade Fire. Stefan Schneider, a member of Bell Orchestre, which features members of Arcade Fire, has been filling in recently for Chase on the drums.
It's safe to say that Sway Machinery has arrived at a sound that is both inimitable and challenging. The music was deep and funky at times, bluesy and hypnotic at others. Bogie, McLean and Stetson were monsters on their instruments and the result was a bottom-heavy funk with Antibalas-esque horn blasts all over it. But, Lockwood's cantorial delivery, which resides somewhere in the neighborhood of Tuvan throat singing but deeper, was jarring. He delved into Yiddish, Aramaic and Hebrew throughout the night. And while the instrumental passages often seemed to crash into the vocal sections, it also made for some exhilarating, incomparable moments.
One of those was the closer of the 45-minute set, "Ahzemair Bishvecho," which started slowly but built into a soaring call-and-response. Lockwood's singing shrunk from verses into rapid-fire raps, and Bogie and McLean stabbed right back with short horn blasts. "Adiray Ayumah" was a sort of cantorial blues, with the band joined by Bay Area multi-instrumentalist Dan Cantrell on accordion and opera singer Megan Stetson on background vocals. On "A Staff of Strength," from the band's forthcoming album, Hidden Melodies Revealed, the band bathed Lockwood's lyrics in a sultry riddim lathered with pungent horns.
Jeremiah Lockwood's sterling vocal pedigree was a birthright; he
descends from a long line of cantors and rabbis, but he's the first
to apply that mesmerizing singing-chanting style to all manner of hip
beats. His grandad, Cantor Jacob Konisberg, debuted in this same
venue, back in '49, when it was a real synagogue, and on this very
date. So the ancestors will be hovering and with Lockwood working out with his band Sway Machinery you may become a true believer.
What do you get when you take bluesman and Balkan Beat Box guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood, add the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s drummer Brian Chase, two horn players from Antibalas, Stuart Bogie and Jordan McLean, and bass saxophonist Colin Stetson of Arcade Fire and Tom Waits’ band? The funkiest bar mitzvah band on the planet, The Sway Machinery. I first heard about the Sway Machinery from Stuart Bogie six months ago while interviewing him for an article about Antibalas and had been eagerly anticipating seeing the band in concert ever since. I checked them out Wednesday night at University Settlement on the Lower East Side. They totally blew away my extremely high expectations.
The Sway Machinery is a project inspired by Jeremiah Lockwood’s grandfather, the legendary Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, who exposed Jeremiah to Jewish Cantorial music at a young age. Lockwood sings in Hebrew perfecting the other-worldly sound the musical arrangement creates. The Sway Machinery is definitely like nothing you’ll see or hear anywhere else. They have a harsh, powerful sound anchored by the bass saxophone and enhanced by the rest of the horn section. Their set exhibited great range going from slow, deep, dark, and mysterious to fast funky, happy, and danceable.
The Sway Machinery are playing several upcoming shows this summer: June 8th at 92YTribeca and July 20th at Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park If you like music that pushes the envelope hard, go check them out. With the amazing roster of talented musicians on stage, there’s no doubt it will be an amazing show.
rom the festival, I took a three-minute walk to another world in the Prospect Park bandshell to hear a "Celebrate Brooklyn!" program of recording artists for JDub, an indie Jewish music label...
Next came The Sway Machinery. They describe their music as "ritualistic Afro-pop and cantorial blues," which is to say, indescribable; the band, dressed like early Elvis Costello in dare-you-to-laugh suits and ties, blasts through frantic horn-laden tunesSway machinery 1 7-20 anchored by guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood (who, yes, sings like a cantor). Aside from one family in the audience, there wasn't a yarmulke in sight, just words and music emerging from the diaspora through surprising new voices.
Even in a heat wave, it was good to be back home.
Jeremiah Lockwood Fuses Cantorial Music with a Big Beat, and Reveals Hidden Melodies on the Road to Faith
Almost from the time he was 13 years old and an apprentice blues guitarist and singer on the streets and in the subways of New York City, Jeremiah Lockwood, now pushing 30 and about to be a father for the second time, has envisioned fusing what he has inherited in family, faith and music into a singular experience that speaks to many worlds: with songs drawn from the recorded canons of several prominent Cantors, not the least being his beloved grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, and his twin interests in both the mysticism and philosophies of the Jewish faith as handed down through the generations, all coupled to a fairly encyclopedia knowledge of and stylistic immersion in country blues and early rock 'n' roll, Lockwood is taking Jewish music to places it simply hasn't visited before, in what he views as a deeply spiritual act of restoring an ancient tradition he describes as having ben “essentially lost, or degraded” with the waning of the Cantor’s influence in the Jewish community.
His group The Sway Machinery, formed in 1996, has evolved from a hard rock trio with jazz overtones (it occasionally used a small horn section) to a basic quintet (its members have impressive resumes, having played with indie rock favorites such as Antibalas, Balkan Beat Box, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and unconventional, unclassifiable musicians such as Tom Waits, et al.) that challenges-nay, defies--a listener to pinpoint the multitude of sources informing its music. Middle Eastern and, now, Afro-beat stylings are predominant features of the Sway Machinery soundscape, but right smack in the middle of a clanging, raucous workout, whoa! There's Lockwood injecting a spitfire, hard-picked run on his Telecaster that comes right out of the Scotty Moore playbook, circa Memphis 1954; or the blurting, blaring horns offering a sly, sweet riff that also hearkens to Memphis, but rather to the Memphis Horns of the late '60s-early '70s Stax Records juggernaut across town from the Sun Studio from whence a revolution began a decade earlier. To some it might sound like clatter, or free jazz, but sticking with it reveals a compelling symmetry in the instrumental give-and-take, the casual appropriation of sources Eastern and Western that lend the sound a distinctive sweet and pungent flavor; and riding over it all, Lockwood's jittery, dramatic, resonant baritone vocals, oftimes singing lyrics in Yiddish but rendering them accessible in the context of the total presentation. In short, you may not understand what he's singing from a literal standpoint, but the music's energy and Lockwood's emotional commitment make a statement that obviates the need for translation.
Lockwood himself has recorded a striking solo album, American Primitive on the Vee Ron label (and has another solo project in the can, unreleased), but more so than exploring new avenues of musical expression in rock-influenced songs penned expressly for the Sway Machinery lineup, Lockwood is engaged in shaping a mammoth musical project, “Hidden Melodies Revealed,” a work encompassing “20 to 25 songs,” in the artist’s estimation, some being original but most of them drawn from cantors’ songbooks from the early 20th Century and from Jewish prayer book texts (“they’re very abstract, mystical poetry, mostly”), which speaks to the Jewish music tradition he learned from his grandfather and that expresses his own feelings about his faith, which is a source of ongoing study on his part and very much a factor in shaping his artistic sensibility.
Lockwood grew up with music all around him on Manhattan's upper west side. His father, a Gentile who converted to Judaism, is a classical composer, his mother is a public school teacher. It was her father, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, something of a star in his world, if you will, whose spirituality, discipline, intellect and strength-and recordings-made a deep and lasting impression on young Jeremiah. Tellingly, when asked to define the role of the cantor in the Jewish faith, Lockwood offers an answer that could almost be a self description. To wit: "There's a simple answer and a more complex one. The simple one is he's the person who leads the prayers and sings them, and has to know the prayer modes for all the different seasons and all the different times of day. There's different modalities and melodies for all the different holidays of the year and also for the prayers that happen at different hours of the day. So it's kind of like a wide knowledge of specific musical information and they also have to have a good voice, be a good musician.
"That's the simple answer. The more complex answer is they're more like a spokesman, kind of a collective focal point for the spiritual experience, in its classical formation, in its classical concept, the cantor is the person who guides the group into spiritual experience through the cathartic experience of music. And sort of like a storyteller also. They're telling this story through music. The prayer modes thereof, each one is very specific in terms of creating an atmosphere and certain feeling."
Cantor Konigsberg, the American-born son of immigrant Jewish parents who lived resolutely in the world of their fathers, embraced the new world he grew up in on Manhattan’s lower east side, while worshiping in his parents’ world.
"My grandfather’s way of thinking about the world was very American and very much of his generation, but still he was completely comfortable in both parts," Lockwood says. "I'm lucky in that even though I'm coming from a completely secular background basically, I also have one foot in this other world of my grandfather and his house, listening to old records of old cantorial music, and hearing him sing. So there are ways in which, even without the structure of the circumscribed religious life, you can have elements of it that translate into an experience that still makes sense, that's still accessible, even if you're not living in a ghetto."
Lockwood’s entrée into music was less through the classical or the cantorial than via what he calls his parents' "party music," meaning "Motown, '60s R&B, Elvis, stuff like that." At age 12 dad bought him a guitar, by 13, entranced and inspired by a father-son duo of blues musicians he encountered playing on the street, he himself had become a street performer. A family friend turned out to be a student of the great blues artist the Rev. Gary Davis, and he in turn taught Lockwood some of the tricks of the trade. Then he met Carolina Slim.
"Playing on the street I met Carolina Slim, this great blues guitar player from South Carolina, a singer, and that's when it began more seriously. I mean I started playing on the street and spending all my time listening to blues records and playing pre-war country blues as best I could. Meeting him was like direct from a first-hand source, learning the tradition. He's a very tough teacher, told me I didn't know anything, that I was terrible, that I should probably stop playing. But he was also very nice and kind to me, giving me the time, beating me down so I would be able to rise up."
From the beginning he adopted some aspects of the cantorial singing style he had learned listening to his grandfather in person and on record. These days the cantorial style is the predominant feature of his singing. It’s a natural fit, given its multi-cultural components.
"Cantorial singing style has a foot in two different worlds," Lockwood explains. "One is the world of a mythical past of the Jews in ancient times bringing this modality from wherever they came from in ancient history in the Middle East; and the other foot is in western European music. It draws on both world views, and people debate a lot about where it comes from. There are definitely recognizable elements of Slavic folk music and Balkan-style vocal effects and Turkish-Ottoman classical music, on the one hand; and on the other hand there's a very obvious influence of bel canto western singing. In the 19th Century it started becoming par for the course that in addition to learning all the traditional music cantors would also study western musical theory. That had a very palpable effect on the music. My grandfather could have been an opera singer; he had an amazing bel canto style voice. But he chose to stay in this realm of traditional music. And also, the cantor is an improviser. They're working with traditional material but it's not like set in stone exactly how it goes. You take the modes and you bend it and put your own particular style on it. And then, also, most of the great cantors also composed pieces that access elements of traditional motifs, but would also go off in different directions."
Hidden Melodies Revealed made its public debut in September 2007 as a “secret celebration” of the Jewish new year Rosh HaShana performed at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on the lower east side, formerly a synagogue (built in 1849) where Cantor Konigsberg gave his first big concert in 1949.
“This is music of great power,” Lockwood says, “music that’s extremely visceral, immediately emotive, expressive of history but at the same time very present in the moment. People listen to records of old cantorial music and I don’t think they hear much of anything, really; it’s too esoteric for most people; it’s too dry. It’s like listening to country blues. You know, most people can’t listen to country blues. They say, ‘What is it?’ They have no context; they barely hear anything. Like those frequencies in their ears aren’t working. So, for a lot of people country blues got real popular in the ‘60s through the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan—someone said, ‘Let me show you how to listen to this,’ and gave them a context.
“So I thought, something like that, with cantorial music. To use the other things I know about making music, from studying blues, from studying African music, which has become increasingly important to me, from the songwriter—use these skills and treat the cantorial music tradition with these tools, and create something new with them. That was the idea of starting the project.”
“In your average synagogue in America, it’s not on the same level that it used to be. In the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, maybe even into the ‘60s, when people would go to a synagogue to hear a cantor and they loved cantorial music, it was their music, it told their story. I don’t see that when I go to a synagogue today; and even if the cantor is good, and trying to do the tradition in an authentic way, just the interaction with the community isn’t there. That’s very depressing to me, because I grew up loving cantorial music, from hearing my grandfather doing it, and it was in a very beautiful, very aesthetic, intense performance kind of way. I believe that the music is capable of being communicative, and if I don’t see that happening, I think, I’m good at communicating through music, so maybe I can do something. I’m good at capturing peoples’ attention—from playing in the street for years and years I know how to scream and shout and jump up and down. So I can use the strength of my ancestors’ tradition and use my own skills that are more in the contemporary moment, and maybe something will come of it.”
But this is not his grandfather’s or any other Cantor’s music. At root it is, because the songs are from Cantor Konigsberg’s repertoire, or from other legendary cantors such as Mordechai Hershmann, whose “Misratzeh B’rachamim” dates from an early ‘20s recording, but is retrofitted for the 21st Century. “You listen to the Sway Machinery version of it,” say Lockwood, “and it’s obviously the same piece but his version is non-metered, first of all—cantorial music doesn’t have rhythm in the way we think of it—it’s not pulse-based rhythm; it’s rhythmic phrases. What they call the mawwal in Arabic music, the non-metered improvisations. Like most cantorial pieces are like mawwals.
“But our idea is,” Lockwood cautions, “that we’re going to turn it into an explosive experiential music experience. Kind of like a party but one that makes you go inward and outward at the same time. People are seeing it either as kind of like party music, or they’re seeing like avant-garde music, or they’re seeing it as spiritual music. I’ve had all three responses. I would say that our audience is not exclusively or not predominately Jewish. Which is also by design. I think it’s music that’s good for anybody.”
On an even deeper level, Hidden Melodies Revealed is in fact revelatory of Lockwood’s ongoing spiritual inquiry. As a student of the Talmud and other Jewish texts—“I’m studying Jewish texts all the time, more than I like to admit or that I own up to. I don’t think of myself as a religious person, but on the other hand, I am studying these texts all the time.”—his pursuit of the music and the ancient wisdom of the Jewish elders of old are inextricably intertwined, at least to the extent Lockwood recognizes faith working in his own life, which he likens to “an archeological process.
“It’s intellectual in a way,” he responds to the question of what faith means to him. “It’s very much being concerned with an aesthetic, an idea of learning as a form of meditation, by studying ancient texts or studying old music--that that’s the spiritual act, that learning, going in to yourself and this process of discovering something that’s outside the realm of the everyday. That’s where the spiritual experience lies. Obviously then it blossoms in the moments of experience when you’re singing the music, and you experience it in a different way. But for me, when I think about religion I think it means a hermetic, inward, very intellectual experience of going into yourself, and getting to this place through something that seems like it’s not necessarily spiritual; maybe it’s more in the head, but this process gets you to something which is hidden, it’s underneath.”
So studying the ancient texts is done in the pursuit of wisdom, or of spiritual guidance?
“Perhaps wisdom is the right word, but wisdom in the ancient sense of wisdom as almost like an ether, like a substance that we can attain by doing certain ritual actions, and one of the ritual actions is learning. It’s kind of a Platonic idea. There’s this other sphere and we’re here and we can get to that through these little lines that are drawn from there to here. And the lines are words; if you look at them closely you see all the letters of the alphabet on the line.”
And would Cantor Konigsberg have approved of his music being transformed as it is in his grandson’s hands?
“Yeah,” Lockwood answers without hesitation. “He would have liked the idea of it. I don’t know if he would have been able to listen to it and understand it. Any music that had rhythm to it, he was kind of like, ‘What is this? Kids’ new fangled stuff.’ Louis Armstrong was a little too risky for him.”
There has always been something of an air of mystery hanging over some Jewish melodies. The hidden powers attributed by some to niggunim — the insistence of just that syllable being sung on this note — suggest that music is something more than melody, harmony and rhythm. If one could unlock those secrets ... then what? Would the Messiah come?
Jeremiah Lockwood, the extraordinary blues guitarist and singer whose band The Sway Machinery also works its way into postmodern readings of Jewish music, is a little circumspect about his own expectations for the ancient tunes. He is, after all, the grandson of a famous cantor, Jacob Konigsberg (who died this summer), the son of a prominent composer, Larry Lockwood, and he grew up listening to his grandfather’s recordings of Golden Age chazanos. He has fully incorporated that tradition into his own work, never more so than in a new piece, “Hidden Melodies Revealed” that he and the band will premiere on Sept. 12.
“My grandfather is the primary inspiration [for the piece],” Lockwood said in a recent phone interview. “But I am also trying to mythologize about a place of Jewish identity outside the contemporary options that are available. There’s a paucity of traditional feeling both in the mainstream Jewish world and the exclusionary extremism of the ultra-Orthodox world and the morally questionable elements in Zionism. As a diaspora Jew [none of these] answer my craving for a place of Jewishness.”
In a sense, then, “Hidden Melodies” is about retreating into the past to find that place, a secret locus of Jewish identity and spirituality that speaks to Lockwood through music.
In his notes for the project, Lockwood has written, “ The music of the great Cantors is an astounding synthesis of personal creative innovation and total subservience to traditional art forms. In the work of the master Chazzanim can be heard a knowledge of the modes and gestures of ancient synagogue art and the communication of an individual soul rooted in its particular time and place.”
Oddly enough, that is exactly how I would describe the place of the individual artist in the blues tradition, the other musical heritage in which Lockwood has steeped himself. And like the blues tradition, a lot of chazanos, despite the higher degree of education found among its practitioners, is passed along orally. When he sat in his grandfather’s study listening to Zawel Kwartin, Pierre Pinchik and Berele Chagy, Lockwood was being inducted into their mysteries much as he was when he began playing with Carolina Slim.
His band has changed considerably to meet the new musical needs of its leader. Gone is the trio that had been the Sway Machinery, replaced by a new, sleeker model with more moving parts. It’s a change that pleases Lockwood immensely.
“It’s new stuff for me,” he admitted. “Larger ensembles more and more are what I’m about in music, being a composer, arranger, organizer as much as an instrumentalist.”
No secret there.