Bands On The Run: The Sway Machinery Go To Jail In Mali

In the first installment of our new series, we talk to Jeremiah Lockwood about the time The Sway Machinery spent some time in a Mali jail. Read More

By / March 23, 2011

We all remember the most awesome concerts or festivals we’ve ever been to (unless they were awesome for alcohol-induced reasons), but when you’re a band on a ten, twenty, hundred-city tour, what becomes memorable for you? What makes a stage in New York different from a stage in LA? Chicago? Portland? While grabbing coffee with Jeremiah Lockwood of  The Sway Machinery, I found the first of many answers to my question. We were talking about his band’s newest album, The House of Friendly Ghosts, Vol. 1, which the group recorded while in Africa for Mali’s “Festival of the Desert:” as it turns out, the greatest (or most awful) memories can also be made for bands after their amps have been unplugged.

Can you give a bit of background? What were you doing “the night of?”

We were playing at Ywah Michelle, this outdoor club that was situated on the Niger River. It was kind of like a juke joint, nothing fancy, but Mangala Camara was playing there. Mangala was a very famous singer in Mali. One of his songs was the theme song for the re-election campaign of the president of Mali. He passed away last November, ten months after this story took place… Anyway, getting to the club was an ordeal in and of itself. We drove around for almost an hour with the cab driver trying to figure out how to get there. Finally we were dropped off by the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There were no lights, no signs, no noise. We walked a few steps deeper into the darkness and came upon this enormous walled compound that overlooked the river, where we finally heard the music of Mangala.”

So after the performance, you got into another cab to head back home …

And we hit a police checkpoint. They told the cab drivers to pull over. We couldn’t understand a thing. We were all a bit nervous, but I felt confidant that our friend Ibrahim, who had brought us out to the club, would be able to handle the situation… That didn’t prove to be true. It was really unclear how much trouble we were actually in.

What was everyone’s immediate reaction when you were first pulled over? What did you think was going to happen?

Well what happened was that it was after a certain hour, and after that hour you were supposed to carry identity papers. We didn’t originally know this, and besides, it didn’t seem like a good idea to be running around the Malian countryside with our passports in our pockets…

So you were brought to the police station…

The checkpoint was actually right by the police station– they walked us in. Actually, the “station” was a concrete block with a corrugated tin roof. Outside there were a few men sitting around a trash can bonfire playing video games. We sat in there for quite a while until help came.

What? Did they just refuse to let you go? You didn’t try to pay them off?

At first, our friend and translator Ibrahim tried to persuade the police officers to let us go because we were “very important,” international artists visiting Mali. That didn’t work. I think they basically didn’t know what to do with us.

That’s especially scary, because who knows how long they could have held you there without “knowing what to do!” How did you eventually get out?

Ibrahim called the owner of the club, Michelle. She came with her boyfriend, who was a tall, imposing army officer.  Michelle was still attired in the gorgeous robe, covered in intricate gold designs that she wore as hostess of her nightclub. She and her boyfriend were a formidable sight entering the little decrepit box of a police station. He said two words to the officers and we were immediately released.
What happened after you were released? Was that the end of the story?

Well the funny thing is that we were almost immediately stopped at another police checkpoint. This time Stuart Bogie took some money from his pocket and gave it to the police officer and we were released right away!