Cantor sings the blues in multi-culti band Sway Machinery

You don’t often hear traditional cantorial vocals backed by indie rock guitar riffs, bluesy bass lines and African drumming — unless you’re listening to The Sway Machinery.

“I have always worked with Jewish music as part of a landscape of sounds,” says Jeremiah Lockwood, founder and leader of the New York-based quintet. “The fundamental concept of the band is to use cantorial music as a building block to create new music.”

The Sway Machinery, which Lockwood named after the motion of a body in the act of prayer, will perform its multicultural, genre-bending sounds Oct. 25 at San Francisco’s Elbo Room. The performance is sponsored in part by The Hub of the JCC of San Francisco and the JCC of the East Bay’s annual Jewish Music Festival.

Along with singer-guitarist Lockwood, the band includes drummer Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Arcade Fire’s Colin Stetson on bass saxophone, and Jordan McLean and Stuart Bogie of Antibalas, who play trumpet and tenor saxophone, respectively.

The group also has a full-length album, “Hidden Melodies Revealed,” coming out in January on JDub. It’s partially the result of a two-year project spearheaded by Lockwood through his involvement with the Six Points Fellowship — which helps New York-area artists develop new projects with a Jewish focus — to devise alternative Rosh Hashanah events.

The 2007 and 2008 multimedia concerts, also called “Hidden Melodies Revealed,” included the music of The Sway Machinery, storytelling by Lockwood, and stop-motion animation projections created by Lockwood and commissioned artists.

“The idea was to create an event that uses the key pieces of Ashkenazic cantorial liturgy, but is a different kind of event for Rosh Hashanah — more joyful, more celebratory, more visceral,” Lockwood says.

Nearly all the songs on the upcoming album were created for the High Holy Days. The lyrics are traditional prayers, and all but two are sung in Hebrew or Aramaic. On top of cantorial vocals, Lockwood and crew explore traditional blues and African music.

Lockwood’s history of intermingling the sounds of different cultures includes a stint with Balkan Beat Box, a group known for mixing klezmer, hip-hop and jazz, among other music styles. With The Sway Machinery, he unites the styles of his two, disparate musical mentors — one a cantor, the other a bluesman.

As a child, Lockwood listened to recordings of his cantor grandfather, Jacob Konigsberg, and watched him perform. Some of his uncles and cousins are cantors, as were many of his ancestors. His father, Larry Lockwood, is a composer.

As a teenager living on the Upper West Side, Lockwood had a chance encounter at a street fair with the now-82-year-old Carolina Slim. That led to a collaboration playing subway platforms as well as an enduring friendship.

Although half of the band is Jewish and the other half is not, Lockwood says all the band members love the historical aspect of the words and melodies. He adds it’s almost easier for the non-Jewish musicians to understand what he’s doing, since he uses more traditional, Old World songs. And the Jews are more accustomed to modern cantorial music.

Lockwood says cantorial music “was a big deal in the Jewish world” in the 1920s and 1930s, which he terms the music’s golden age. “People bought records of it, and they loved cantors and they had favorite star cantors.”

Because as that older generation of Jewish immigrants has declined, so has interest in cantorial music, he notes.

Speaking by phone from his Brooklyn apartment, Lockwood balances his 2- month-old son, Jacob, on his lap. His 2-year-old son, Moses, has already attended a few of Daddy’s concerts. Will they follow in his footsteps?

“You have to figure life out as you go along, but of course I would like it for them to carry on the family tradition,” Lockwood says.

The Sway Machinery plays 10 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Elbo Room, 647 Valencia St., San Francisco. For more information, visit or