The Nigun Project: The Baal Shem Tov's Nigun

Music

Ya Salaam: Jeremiah Lockwood performs with members of Khaira Arby’s band, in from Timbuktu, Mali.
Shulamit Seidler-Feller
Ya Salaam: Jeremiah Lockwood performs with members of Khaira Arby’s band, in from Timbuktu, Mali.

By Jeremiah Lockwood

Published September 02, 2010.
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I met Khaira Arby and her band, back in January of this year, at a rooftop party in Timbuktu, Mali where my band, The Sway Machinery, was en route to perform at the legendary Festival of the Desert.

Arby, known as the “Nightingale of the Desert,” is a mainstay of the Festival and has been one of the most popular singers in Timbuktu for decades. Her voice is breathtaking and her performance is imbued with incredible rhythmic and spiritual warmth. On top of that she is a brilliant bandleader and arranger, and her band’s angular, frenetic rhythms are a unique statement of the North Malian musical style.

I count myself incredibly fortunate to know her music — thanks to the internet; her first album is only now being released in the U.S. — and even more greatly blessed to count her as a friend and musical collaborator. Her voice is featured heavily on the forthcoming album from The Sway Machinery that we recorded in Mali and which will be released in 2011.

‘Nightingale of the Desert’: Malian musician Khaira Arby
Shulamit Seidler-Feller
‘Nightingale of the Desert’: Malian musician Khaira Arby

Arby and her band are currently on tour in North America and, naturally, I wanted to take the opportunity to record with her again for the Nigun Project. I was originally expecting to record a duet with Arby, and so I was in for a very pleasant surprise when she arrived at the recording studio with her entire eight-piece band. I had taken a small studio for us to work in, but thanks to the resourcefulness and the quick-on-his-feet work of engineer Dan Huron, we were able to squeeze everyone in and make the recording happen.

The nigun we recorded is based on a piece I learned while sitting around the table at my grandparents’ house. It is a very old nigun — one that my grandfather told me was supposed to have been composed by the Baal Shem Tov himself, which would date the melody back to the 18th century. I sang the piece for Arby and her band and explained what a nigun is, through the translation of Arby’s manager Christopher Nolan. The concept of a devotional wordless meditative melody was familiar to the Malian musicians, and we were able to quickly delve into the work of composing a new song together. Arby was put in the mind of praying by the old Jewish melodies I was singing, and her verses call upon the sounds of the Islamic tradition of her birth. Her two back-up singers sang the words “*Ya salaam,” meaning, “bring peace,” as a chorus to bind the two realms of spiritual expression that Arby and I drew from.

Listen to ‘The Baal Shem Tov’s Nigun, featuring Khaira Arby:

We intend to draw upon this special affinity between our respective worlds of culture and spirit next Wednesday, on Erev Rosh Hashanah as Arby joins The Sway Machinery for Hidden Melodies Revealed, “billed as part revival, part rock concert.”

The Sway Machinery’s ongoing Rosh Hashanah project that draws inspiration from the High Holiday liturgy and seeks to celebrate the birth of the world with exultation will hopefully reach even higher heights than ever with Khaira Arby’s ecstatic musical vision in the mix.

The members of Khaira Arby’s band are:

Lead Singer: Khaira Arby
Drums: Mahalmadane Traoré
Bass: Baba Laraw
Lead Guitar: Abdramane Touré
Rhythm Guitar: M’Barka Dembelé
Ngoni (traditional guitar): Ebellaou Yattara
Backup Vocals: Inna Diarra / Abdrahamane Cissé


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