Erin Rioux, a Brooklyn-based electronic artist, bridges pastiche with panty-dropping…
- Posted on Feb 1st 2011 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
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.
The Sway Machinery Featuring Khaira Arby, 'Gawad Teriamou'
"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.'
The Sway Machinery Featuring Khaira Arby, '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."