I listen to music as an act of perceiving history. I am listening to hear the voices of ghosts from bygone days, who sang their songs before I was born. And when I sing the music of my own family’s past, I feel that I am receiving a surer transmission from the recesses of history than any written history could promise.
The paths by which traditional music travels into the present from the past have been as serpentine and complex as the routes that the merchants of antiquity took across desert trade roads. With each iteration of a melody, changing details of a story or the strictures of a particular religious practice, the information would subtly yet distinctly change, reflecting the needs of both listener and place. In this way, strange and wonderful transformations of cultural ideas take place, engendering constant change and newness in the realms of folk culture.
Growing up, the first music that I came to love on my own, separate from my family’s cantorial music tradition or the European classical music I heard from my father, was the blues — specifically, the classic 78-rpm recordings of prewar rural blues guitarist-poet-singers, artists like Charley Patton, Bukka White and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Their voices opened a passageway into an art of truth telling that was both a product of its culture and a forum for transcendent personal expression.
This is the nature of the bard — the communal storyteller — to be a complete servant of the cultural knowledge he possesses and to simultaneously struggle to create new art. The fact that both blues singers and hazanim share this communal role is part of what unconsciously drew me into this musical art form.
My passion for blues music drove me to study it like a science. And as should any respectful student of a tradition, I sought to know its history. This led me to the music of Mali, a West African nation linked by history to the Americas through the slave trade. When listening to artists like Boubacar Traore and Ali Farka Toure, contemporary masters of Malian music, you hear the incredible modal and rhythmic connections to American blues music. The musical traditions of the Islamic African lands asserted themselves as being particularly pugnacious in their survival in the New World.
Listening to the blues, I hear the musical traditions of Mali, and listening to the classics of Malian music, I hear the profound impact of the music of Islam, as is befitting of a nation that has been Muslim since the 11th century. In the particular modalities of Malian music, the muezzin call and the cantillation of the Quran are indelibly present. In Malian music, I hear the integration of disparate cultural strains into one living strand where no one element is foreign or takes precedence over the other.
In my work with The Sway Machinery, a musical project exploring the cantorial music tradition, I look to Malian musical history as a powerful paradigm. Jewish music came to America in the late 19th and early 20th century and almost immediately opened an ongoing dialogue with the African-derived forms of music in the New World. My work is a continuation of this process.
And now The Sway Machinery has been invited to play in Mali, at the Festival in the Desert, a music and culture festival established by the Tuareg to celebrate their truce after a violent uprising against the Malian government. In an Islamic country where Judaism was banned at various points in its history, we have been invited to bring our voice of New Jewish Music before an audience of thousands. To me, this feels very much like an opportunity to bring a diasporic thread full circle. The Muslims who left the Middle East to bring their religion into the depths of the Sahara desert will soon be met by a small convoy of Jews who were exiled from the Holy Land thousands of years ago and are now returning to the Old World via the New. It is a circuitous route opened by the hands of passionate aesthetic imperatives. It is a meeting between cultures that I pray will be greeted with open arms on both sides.
Musician and native-born New Yorker Jeremiah Lockwood is taking his band, The Sway Machinery, to Mali in January.