Playing in Mali

The Sway Machinery Play Festival au Desert

By Jeremiah Lockwood

Published February 10, 2010, issue of February 19, 2010.
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Jeremiah Lockwood just returned from a trip to the West African nation of Mali with his band, The Sway Machinery. The band performed at the Festival au Desert and recorded an album with Malian guest artists.

In the Presence: The Sway Machinery with the incomparable Khaira Arby, the golden-voiced diva of Timbuktu.
TATIANA MCCABE
In the Presence: The Sway Machinery with the incomparable Khaira Arby, the golden-voiced diva of Timbuktu.

Americans grow up hearing “Timbuktu” used to mean the most remote place in the world. Though readily reachable these days, the real city of Timbuktu, Mali, is indeed touched by the color of the exotically magical. The city is made up of red dusty bricks that look as though they might blow away if not for the binding spell of an incantation. But the true magic of this city is in its incomparable cultural riches.

On our first night in Timbuktu, our friend and tour guide, Mahmoud Arawane, had invited the great singer Khaira Arby to meet us on the rooftop of the house where we were staying. Arby came with her whole band, some of the best musicians in the area, and we played an impromptu concert together under the stars for an audience of a few European tourists and a group of young Tuareg men. The unexpected intensity of our reception, and the sheer joy of music-making in this fantastical atmosphere, made this one of the most exhilarating musical moments of my life.

At the Festival au Desert, held just outside Timbuktu this year, we performed for an audience of thousands. As the first performers of Jewish music to be playing at the festival, I was overjoyed by the welcome we received. The crowd, which was predominantly made up of traditionally garbed desert-dwelling Tuareg, seemed to be both intrigued by the unaccustomed American sound of our music and filled with a surprising affinity for what they were hearing. Despite the foreign rhythms and energy, The Sway Machinery’s integration of spiritual music into secular music culture is a very familiar idea to Malians.

The idea of playing with traditions and fusing disparate musical worlds is a staple of Malian music. When I introduced one song in our set as being by my grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, many in the audience clapped and cheered. They did not need to have any notion of what a cantor is to feel the value of a young man carrying on family tradition. Seeing turbaned men pumping their fists in the air along with my grandfather’s “Aveinu Malkeinu Z’khor” is certainly one of the most memorable and inspiring images from our journey.

From a Jewish perspective, Mali is perhaps uniquely well situated in the Muslim world to welcome cultural interaction. I came to Mali making my Jewishness very public, and I met nothing but respectful curiosity and friendly interest. Mali has an amazing potential to be a point of positive image-changing in the world of Jewish-Islamic relations. It is an Islamic nation with an incredibly welcoming and warm society that is deeply comfortable with the notion of people belonging to different tribal backgrounds. I would be overjoyed to see more Jews making the trek to Timbuktu, which was once the home of a venerable Jewish community that thrived in the rich culture of this formerly dominant outpost of commerce and learning. The journey is deeply soul expanding.

While at the festival, I made friends with the great Tuareg musician Abdulla Ag Mohamed, percussionist and musical director of the band Tartit. Tuareg men have a charming habit of walking hand in hand together. While we were walking together, Ag Mohamed wanted to hold hands. I manned up and pushed past my cultural discomfort, and we walked together in this way, hand in hand.

Ag Mohamed invited me into a Tuareg tent, where men were singing together in call and response. He nudged me into the circle, and we clapped and sang along. Two little girls were accompanying the group with drums, under the watchful eye of their mother, who was coaching their playing. Everyone was laughing and applauding each other’s creativity with raucous catcalls. In my mind’s eye, I saw the needlepoint on my grandparents’ wall, and I could hear the singing of zemiros, or Jewish hymns, and the sound of nigunim, wordless melodies, with my grandfather and my cousins at my grandfather’s tish. I looked around the faces in the tent and saw the kindness born of mutual respect. And I was grateful because I had been blessed to fulfill a verse of scripture: “Behold how good it is to sit in the unity of brotherhood.”

Musician and native New Yorker, Jeremiah Lockwood lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two sons.


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