The thing is, people dance at Garaj Mahal gigs. They always dance. So, even though Garaj Mahal is booked to play the San Francisco Jazz Festival this Friday, "jazz" is just one part -- albeit a crucial part -- of the Garaj Mahal sound. The other parts include funk, blues, gospel, African, south Asian, South American, and classical (yes, classical). It's all melded together in a way that works not just for Garaj Mahal but its devotees, who shake their appendages to songs like "Gulam Sabri" and "The Shadow."
"At the core, we're really all jazz musicians, but we have all these different influences," says Garaj Mahal keyboardist Eric Levy, who lives in the Sonoma County city of Rohnert Park. Levy says the band is "very much aware" of fans who crowd to the front of its performances to dance, saying the atmosphere is indicative of Garaj Mahal's "jam band" ethos: Playing songs that can last longer than 20 minutes and splinter off in any musical direction. Garaj Mahal shares this jam band approach with countless musical groups, including the Grateful Dead, but few other four-piece bands have Garaj Mahal's ability to move across musical continents so adeptly.
The San Francisco Jazz Festival, with its emphasis on eclectic music -- especially "world music" -- is a natural venue for Garaj Mahal. The festival, which continues through November 20, 2010 is also showcasing singer-guitarist Taj Mahal with West African mainstays Toumani Diabate and Vieux Farka Toure (October 23), Indian icon Ravi Shankar (October 27), Cuban legend Omara Portuondo (October 30), Mexican-American crooner Lila Downs (November 3) and Arab diva Natacha Atlas (November 4).
Besides Levy, who was weaned in Chicago on blues, gospel, jazz and classical music, Garaj Mahal features Fareed Haque, an Illinois-based guitarist of Chilean and Pakistani lineage who was trained in classical music and is now a virtuoso in many styles; Kai Eckhardt, a Berkeley bassist of German and Liberian descent who excels in everything from jazz to funk to south Asian; and Sean Rickman, a singer and drummer from Washington, D.C., who joined the group in place of original drummer Alan Hertz. The band formed ten years ago, taking its name from a list of more than 800 submissions from fans. The name is a take-off of the historic Taj Mahal building in Agra, India, and the word "garage." As Levy explains it, the name symbolizes the aural bridge that Garaj Mahal has emphasized from the beginning:
"It's two separate words, two separate missions. The 'Mahal' part is the more sophisticated, elegant, world music (part). 'Garaj' is like, 'Let's hang out in the garage.' It's music that's more raw, has a little bit more edge to it."
Edginess. It's what keeps Garaj Mahal's fans, sometimes called "Mahalics," on their feet at the band's performances. You can bet they'll be in full force at the Swedish American Hall on Friday. The festival itself is using the labels "cosmic convergence" and "roots and grooves" to describe Garaj Mahal's performance. That's as good as any description for a group that can be hard to classify.
"We all have a lot of interest in playing music in odd time signatures," Levy says, "so the challenge for us is this challenge of: How can we keep people dancing and throw odd time signatures around and play around with these elements of music but do it in a way where it still has a groove?'"
Find out for yourself when Garaj Mahal plays the Swedish American Hall on Friday, October 15. For tickets and information visit sfjazz.org.