Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Sway Machinery Seeks to Connect Disparate Worlds at The Festival in the Desert (Huffington Post)

The Touareg people, nomads from the south of the Sahara in Northern Mali, West Africa, have a longstanding tradition of coming together for annual meetings called Takoubelt. These congregations allow them to reconnect with each other, have fun, resolve conflicts between individuals or groups, and exchange ideas about the challenges that they were facing at the moment. These gatherings are what "Le Festival au Désert" is built upon.

Every year since 2001, amidst the sweeping barren landscapes of the Sahara Desert, artists, nomads, patrons, musicians, tourists, and traders converge to create, share, and celebrate. On January 7-9, 2010, the tenth edition of The Festival in The Desert will take place featuring an all-star lineup of musicians from all over Africa, Europe and The United States, including The Sway Machinery.

The Festival Au Desert seeks to combine modernity and tradition, simultaneously opening its doors to the outside world while still preserving the cultures and traditions of the desert. It is in that vein that The Sway Machinery were invited to perform. For a band based out of Brooklyn, NY, The Sway Machinery have a decidedly desert sound. The group's leader and songwriter, Jeremiah Lockwood, descends from a familial tradition of Jewish Cantorial music to which his grandfather introduced him at a young age. He was also indoctrinated into the American blues when he met piedmont blues legend Carolina Slim at a music festival and went on to play with him in the subways of New York City for several years.

Lockwood's deeply personal relationship to these two musical traditions helped him to forge a unique musical language of his own fostering a unique blend of deeply moving sounds and concepts, bolstered by a powerful horn section featuring members of Afrobeat collective Antibalas such as Jordan McLean on Trumpet and Stuart Bogie on Tenor Sax. Add Colin Stetson rounding out the bottom register on Bass Saxophone and Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on drums, and what results is The Sway Machinery's rich, other-worldly sound that fuses influences and traditions from divergent cultures and places. Powerful and dynamic, yet entrancing and captivating, The Sway Machinery have a presentation that communicates on many differing levels.

"We have always strove with our music to connect seemingly disparate worlds--the past and the present, the secular and the profane, the obscure and the populist," Lockwood describes the opportunity The Festival Au Desert provides, "In this latest journey I see a wealth of connections opening up between cultures and between musicians and between individuals that would never have been otherwise possible."

Malian music is and has been for some time a source of inspiration for Lockwood, "I've been heavily into Malian music for the last five years or so, initially having gotten excited about the music through hearing records of Boubacar Traore. I immediately heard in it connections to the early Blues records that have always been a central part of my musical life. This connection between the old world and the new also resonated with me deeply--it felt connected on a deep level with the process I am going through in trying to delve into my family's Jewish musical heritage."

The connection Lockwood identified is one many European and American artists have sought out in the past. In 2003, Robert Plant (lead singer of Led Zeppelin) performed at the festival and described it as one of the highlights of his career. The music of West Africa has had a global impact on many levels. Not only do contemporary African musicians like Vieux Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté tour the world and enjoy widespread acclaim and success, but American blues and rock 'n roll descend from West African musical traditions carried over through the Atlantic Slave Trade. Those musical traits have permeated contemporary musical trends all over the world several times over.

As part of their pilgrimage to Mali, The Sway Machinery plan to record an album in Bamako, Mali's capital city, at the legendary Studio Bogolan, which was founded by the late African guitar legend Ali Farka Touré. The album will feature Malian musicians including Khaira Arby, "The diva of Timbuktu." They also have enlisted eight-time Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker Jonathan Hock to follow the band through their journey and document their experiences.

A journey such as this is not inexpensive. Transportation costs for both getting across the Atlantic as well as maneuvering within the country will be substantial. Recording an album as well as filming a documentary will place an even greater burden on the band's monetary limits. Over the past six months, Jeremiah Lockwood has undertaken the massive effort of raising funds for their journey, but they are still in desperate need of donations. Lockwood describes their situation eloquently:

"I am a strong believer in the ability of the powerful emotions present in the aesthetic experience to enact deep change in the lives of those who are open to them. It has always been my goal with my music to create moments where this kind of change can take place. It is my deepest hope that our performance at the Festival of the Desert will bring this goal to its highest point yet. The recording and documentary film we will make about our experience will allow us to share this experience with all of the world!

"The missing ingredient is not passion or artistic achievement or even opportunity. The missing ingredient, sadly, is money. At this moment, I come to you all with open hands, wishing that you will open yourselves to our passionate desire to see this project to fruition and that you will help us in any way you can!"

If you are able and willing to help fund The Sway Machinery's pilgrimage of cross-cultural exchange and artistic ingenuity, please do so through this website:

FELA! Pumps New Life Into the Legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti (Huffington Post)

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a Nigerian dissident, multi-instumentalist, composer, innovator, and arguably the most dynamic protest figure the world has ever seen. His perpetual, uncompromising protest voice has influenced societies across several continents and his legacy is growing at an exponential rate. Knitting Factory Records is reissuing his entire catalogue in North America over the next eighteen months, afrobeat bands are re-inventing the genre Fela created all over North America and Europe, and FELA!, the Bill T. Jones-Antibalas production, began its broadway run at the Eugene O'Neill theater in New York last month.

FELA! enjoyed a widely acclaimed Off-Broadway run last year. Bill T. Jones, a Tony award winning director and choreographer, Rikki Stein, Fela's former manager and the executor of his estate, playwright Jim Lewis, and members of Antibalas, a Brooklyn Afrobeat collective, collaborated to put together a production that used Fela's music to tell the story of his life through 1978. With Sahr Ngaujah starring in the leading role, Bill T. Jones' ensemble cast and Antibalas re-created the atmosphere, attitude, and ambience of The Shrine, Fela's home night club in Lagos, Nigeria.

Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1938 to a wealthy family. He was sent to London to acquire a medical education at the age of 20, but enrolled in Trinity music school upon arrival. He studied the trumpet, arrangement, composition and started a band, Koola Lobitos. Fela returned to Nigeria and re-formed Koola Lobitos upon graduating, but found limited success establishing himself musically.

In 1969, Fela and Koola Lobitos traveled to The United States. It was in Los Angeles that Fela met Sandra Isidore, an American woman who was affiliated with the Black Panther Party. She exposed Fela not only to Malcolm X and African-American ideology, but also African-American funk music of the era. It was this key introduction that allowed Fela to make the initial breakthrough in his music, recording My Lady's Frustration, and creating an original distinctive style--Afrobeat--that brought together his traditional African rhythms and instruments with a funky sensibility.

Fela came back to Nigeria armed with his new sound and heightened political awareness, renamed his band to Afrika 70, and unleashed Afrobeat on his home continent. Fela used his incredibly infectious music to draw the peoples' ears and then spoke to their conscience with his unrelenting political diatribes against the injustices of the Nigerian government winning the respect of the masses across West Africa. Traditional African instruments, James Brown style funk, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, modal jazz improvisation and politically conscious lyrics all synthesized to create an original sound that influenced people all over the world.

Aaron Johnson, trombonist of Antibalas and musical director of FELA!, recollects his first encounter with Fela and afrobeat, "It was my college roommate, Torbit Schwartz at the New School, he played me my first Fela record, Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense. From the first time I heard Fela's music I was immediately so enthralled, and I just wanted to go hunt the shit down, and you couldn't find it anywhere, I mean I scoured New York City." Johnson's experience of being captivated but unable to dive into afrobeat headfirst is common. Although Fela's influence is widespread, his music is largely an underground phenomenon. His songs ranged from ten to twenty-five minutes in length, so he was never able to fit into a popular music category limiting his distribution in North America and Europe.

"That was Fela's thing, his thing was 'I'm not a pop artist. I don't have any intention of writing three and half minute songs for airplay,'" said Kevin Mambo, the Zimbabwean actor sharing the lead role in FELA! with Sahr Ngaujah. He pointed out the challenge Fela's elongated style posed to the ensemble cast, "We've found a really efficient way to convey this music without cheapening or making light of it. Antibalas--Aaron Johnson and Jordan Maclean--have done an amazing job of abbreviating the music without cheapening it.

"I really want people to have an appreciation of his music. I also want people to have an appreciation of the man," Mambo described his aim in portraying Fela on the stage. He wants FELA! to contribute to the growing afrobeat revival taking place in North America and Europe, "I also want people to leave the theater hungry for more. Looking to fill in the gaps, looking to understand more about his experience, looking to understand more about his culture, Yoruba Culture, looking towards Africa."

Aaron Johnson has played a major role in the afrobeat revival as part of Antibalas, "I remember when we first went on the road and there were no other afrobeat bands anywhere. Now every town we go to has one. I'm proud to have contributed to the growth and spread of the music all thanks to Fela. Fela is the ultimate artist, we're just trying to translate his music and bring it to a new audience."

The years of dedicated hard work has definitely paid off for Johnson and other afrobeat musicians who sought to further Fela's legacy. Kevin Mambo pointed out Fela's anti-establishment message has a new relevance today, "The stuff is now getting a life of its own and it's been introduced to a lot of people who knew nothing about any of this music when it happened, but it's all so relevant. The movement is growing. This is music for people, this is not music for money as such. This is not commercial music, there are not any other venues in which to participate unless it's on the ground."

Whether you're an abrobeat fanatic, or you've never heard of Fela Kuti before, FELA! will knock your socks off. Tickets are available online at, via phone, and at the theater box office. Group rates are available as well as rush rates (in person at the box office two hours prior to showtime). This play will take the afrobeat revival to the next level. Find out for yourself what the movement is all about.