Cantorial Blues: The Age of Myth Returns

The Sway Machinery Frontman Jeremiah Lockwood on His Musical Development

By Hillel Broder

Published April 01, 2009.
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Jeremiah Lockwood is a Brooklyn-based singer, songwriter and visionary. He has appeared with J-Dub artists Balkan Beat Box and released a blues-oriented solo album “American Primitive” (Vee-Ron Records), in 2006. Lockwood’s most recent project, The Sway Machinery sees its first album, “Hidden Melodies Revealed” (J-Dub Records) debut April 7. The Sway Machinery’s impressive fusion of genres — bringing together traditional blues and traditional hazanut — highlights Lockwood’s broad musical mastery.

Lockwood recently spoke with reporter Hillel Broder about his own creative process, musical development, personal history and spiritual vision.

Hillel Broder: How did you begin your musical career, and what is your musical background, or formal musical training?

Jeremiah Lockwood: I started out playing on the streets of Manhattan, working out on the country blues I was obsessed with. I was performing on the streets seriously from the age of 13.

Who are your greatest and most important musical influences?

My first influence was my father, composer Larry Lockwood, whose work involved incorporating elements of different folk music cultures — including Jewish music — into his compositions. My earliest memories involve my dad composing his opera, based on “The Dybbuk” by S. Anski, at the piano. Later, I started listening to old blues, and that quickly became my focus. The year that I was 12, I listened to the complete recordings of Robert Johnson several times a day.

Who is your favorite contemporary music personality?

Maybe the RZA [aka Robert F. Diggs, music producer, rapper and actor]. I love the band Tinariwen [a Saharan blues/folk group].

So much of your interest in cantorial music stems from your relationship with your grandfather, cantor Jacob Koenigsburg. How did he inspire you to be engaged in cantorial music, and why is it so important that others be exposed to this new take on such traditional music?

My grandfather was an enormous personality, filled with joy for life and intense emotion. Hearing him sing was a powerful experience of folk tradition, transmitted in a way that felt both culturally authentic and true to the man in front of me. He brought great spiritual intention to his listening to the music, as well as to his performance. I feel that hazanus is one of the true paths to Jewish folk culture, and as such it is one of the essential pieces of the human story.

Before your commitment to the cantorial music that informs so much of Sway Machinery, you had a strong relationship with blues and blues master Carolina Slim. Do you feel that the blues has informed your latest project?

I met my friend and teacher Carolina Slim when I was 14, playing on the street. He was incredibly generous with his knowledge of music. He also practiced tough love as a teacher, which was important for me as a youngster. I thought I knew everything. Many of the ideas I learned from him have become integral parts of my musical concept — ideas about rhythm; performance intensity; storytelling in song; call and response — and are central to the music of Sway.

One of the many ways in which your music differs from the cantorial originals is the layering of deep rhythms on what were originally non rhythmic pieces. How does this change the original for you?

The main innovation of Sway involves combining rhythmic elements with cantorial music. My inspiration for this comes in part from the music of Mali and other African Muslim countries, which have so seamlessly integrated elements of Islamic modal chanting — the muezzin call, Koran cantillation — with the ancient African musical vocabulary.

Many of your cantorial pieces are inspired by the High Holy Day liturgy. Do you feel that your live shows simulate those peak days on the Jewish calendar?

Yes. Certainly the image of the hazan wailing on Yom Kippur, bringing the entire congregation to an ecstasy of tears, is one of the central inspirations for Sway.

The Sway Machinery has often been described as a “supergroup,” as it is composed of members of other star groups. How does this collaboration affect your band’s dynamic?

More like a group of amazing musicians. I think of the band as being a brotherhood of like-minded artists.

Would you call your music a religious expression or a spiritual one? Why, or why not?

The music is deeply spiritual and deeply connected to history. Part of the idea is to take this important spiritual tradition out of the binds of one small context and bring it out to the world.

What is the role of the storytelling that is so much a part of “Hidden Melodies Revealed”?

Stories are an inherent part of the music. The melodies tell stories. The stories I tell as part of our performance attempt to accentuate the narrative element in the ancient prayer poems, which are the texts of the songs.

What might be one message, or feeling, you hope your listeners take from your music?

The message: The age of myth returns.

To read a feature story on The Sway Machinery and its new album “Hidden Melodies Revealed,” click here.

Listen to “Anim Zemiros” by The Sway Machinery below:

Listen to “A Staff of Strength” by The Sway Machinery below:

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