Jewish Music in Timbuktu


The first album from the Brooklyn-based band Sway Machinery was a raw, loud mix of the blues and ancient Jewish songs, inspired by bandleader Jeremiah Lockwood’s father and grandfather and their Eastern European cantorial traditions.

Rather than repeating the act, Lockwood took a vastly different direction with Sway Machinery’s new album, House of Friendly Ghosts, Vol. 1. While playing a festival in the West African nation of Mali, the band met Khaira Arby, one of Timbuktu’s biggest pop stars, and started jamming.

House of Friendly Ghosts, which comes out this week, is the result. The music is a cultural pastiche that takes the Sway Machinery’s signature sound and weaves it together with African rhythms and Arby’s deep-voiced, distinctive singing style. Songs like the opening “Surgou” sound almost like straightforward African rock. On others, such as the intense, grinding “Youba,” the Ashkenazi musical influence is at the forefront, with soaring Bambara lyrics floating over the fierce drums and staccato horns.

Short audio clips of life in Mali play between songs, with titles like “Women Singing in Timbuktu” and “Call to Prayer.” It makes the album feel less like a collaboration between a singer and a band, and more like a collaboration between a group of artists and the country that surrounds them.

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