Cheb i Sabbah’s Devotion
“Music is the only thing I know. It has the power to liberate one from whatever one wants to be liberated from.” – Cheb i Sabbah
Introduction from various sources
Interview by J.C. Tripp
Cheb i Sabbah grew up Jewish of Berber (Amazigh) descent in Constantine, Algeria, so the idea of mixing cultures was, you might say, in his blood. He moved to Paris in the 1960s, and, more or less by accident, became a DJ. By the late 1980s, he was pushing boundaries on the dance floor, seeking ways to work African, Asian, and Arabic music into the mix. Then, as the “world music” movement unfolded, Cheb i Sabbah took the inspired step of recording traditional and classical musicians himself and using those tracks to create bold, new creations—effectively, music “composed” by a DJ.
In the late 70s, Sabbah became acquainted with the late jazz maverick Don Cherry while touring with the famed “Living Theatre” in Europe. Kindred musical spirits from the start, it was no surprise when Cheb i Sabbah re-connected with Cherry in San Francisco. Cherry became his “mentor,” insisting that Sabbah had found his gift to the music world and that he stay with his path of spinning international sounds on the dance floor. From there, Cheb i Sabbah developed his concept of recording his own base tracks, always aiming for great music, not merely ethnic flavor. His first record, “Shri Durga” was created from tracks recorded with Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, one of the most respected classical singers in Pakistan, and his four, enormously talented sons. Salamat had long resisted pressure to record popular and even semi-classical music to expand his audience at home, but somehow, Sabbah won his confidence in a far bolder undertaking. This groundbreaking work was followed by MahaMaya (2000) and Krishna Lila (2002). Each album has its own distinct character. On As Far As (2003), Sabbah marshaled his complete repertoire of techniques into composing music, spanning three continents and nine languages. His DJ mix includes songs by Egypt’s Natacha Atlas, Guinea’s Sekouba Bambino, alongside his remixes of Don Cherry and jazz legend Paul Horn. This ambitious album set a new standard for bringing world music eclecticism to young listeners.
With “Devotion”, Cheb i Sabbah returns to India and the music of indu, Sikh and Muslim religious and ritual music. For Devotion, he traveled to New Delhi and engaged six leading vocalists, together with top local players of traditional string and percussion instruments, adding keyboards, guitar, electric bass—and on one track, banjo—to the mix. Some of India’s pre-eminent singers are featured on “Devotion”, including Anup Jalota, singer of Hindu kirtans and bhajans.Each vocliast sings in his or her own religious tradition, accompanied by Sabah’s arrangement of Indian and western instruments, rhythms and textures. It’s the pure essence of India filtered through Sabbah’s sublime touch.
Cheb i Sabbah now enjoys a worldwide reputation as a producer and a magician of the dance floor. On stage, he improvises his show using pre-composed tracks and massive, projected visuals, interwoven and juxtaposed as the spirit moves him. Sabbah believes in presenting his one-of-a-kind works to audiences in person, just as he did in Paris in the 60s, with a stack of 45s in front of him. Sabbah remains a DJ at heart, but he is also something more—one of the most innovative forces in contemporary dance music today.
Mundovibes had the opportunity to speak with Cheb i Sabbah on his musical journey after the release of “La Ghriba”, an album of remixes of his seminal release “La Kahena”.
MundoVibes: Man, you’re always stepping up and doing bigger and better things!
Cheb i Sabbah: Well, we try to stay inspired (laughter).
MV: Absolutely. I’ve been listening to “La Ghriba” and the remixes are phenomenal, they’re all very interesting re-interpretations.
CS: Yeah man, I also feel very happy and blessed that all of them turned out like that. You know, all different kind of flavors.
MV: Are these friends and new collaborators?
CS: I would say they are all friends, some are newer friends, for example the rappers Tahar and Farid, who did “Sadats: The Sufi Sonic Remix” I met in Marrakech just walking around with my friend. And then my son being a rapper himself, he did a duo with them and then he did a couple of live shows in Marrakech with like 3,000 people outside. And they were like the happening group, you know in Morocco.
MV: And then you worked with the rap group Fnaïre?
CS: Those guys I met when I was actually recording “La Kahena” and then when it came to remixes, I like what they do because they call it “hip hop tradicionale” so they use stuff from their country and then they put their lyrics to it. But I always liked what they do and then I did a couple of shows with them and then I thought ‘man they should do a remix’. DJ Sandeep Kumar is a Bhangra DJ in L.A. and he opens for me when I do Bhangra parties in L.A. which I’ve been doing lately. It’s been very successful and it turns out that L.A. is the biggest South Asian following I have which is pretty big for not being South Asian.
MV: But you’re strongly associated with that.
CS: Yeah man, because of the previous album and because of those bhangra parties. So, who else? Well, of course, like Bill Laswell, those people I know. Yossi Fine I know what he did and he ended up working a lot with Karsh Kale’s latest album. He was in San Francisco and I was like ‘is there anything you like on La Kahena you want to remix?’ And he was really psyched and came up with ‘Jarat Fil Hum: The Chalice Remix’. Temple of Sound are old friends you know? With Natasha Atlas and the U.K. kind of underground, they are like family for me. Who else is there, Gaurav Raina is one of the Medieval Pundits and he’s my engineer also. And The Chakadoons is the main guy and remixer for Quincy Jones.
MV: So, this group is international then?
CS: I guess so, you have India, you have the U.K., you have America, Morocco, South Asian origin like Sandeep, Yossi is Israeli. I never thought of it that way but it is an international crew.
MV: Tell me about your feelings about the whole remix concept, because it really has become essential for a lot of recordings.
CS: Yeah, it started like maybe 10 years ago it was like any innovative artist would see the use and the advantage of having a remix done, which is a different interpretation of their song but maybe more geared toward the dancefloor. And to me, because I am a DJ also, I’m not a musician in terms of having a band or I sing or I play an instrument. So, being a DJ I’m always on the dancefloor anyways, sometimes three or four times a week. So I have this ability to test everything right away. I don’t have to wait until whatever you know? I’ll tell you a little story. This happened a few times where my friends would play with their bands like somebody from Senegal or whatever. And I would be part of their show, opening or closing for them. And I would play one of their tracks and speed it up eleven percent. And they would hear the track, they would see everybody on the dancefloor and they’d go ‘God, what is this? I know it’s my song but what happened’ you know? So, they’d come in the DJ booth and go ‘what is it?’ and I’d say ‘it’s no big deal but it’s your song sped up 11 percent. They’d go ‘fuck man’. (laughter). Because, you know, with CD players the key doesn’t change you know? It doesn’t sound like chipmunks but it’s a faster BPM. So, from there I think people realized that to have a different interpretation that is more geared toward the dancefloor is another way of looking at that same song.
MV: And La Kahena is not really a “dance” recording.
CS: I would’t say that! It all depends, yeah if you play a club where it’s all house heads maybe it’s a little too esoteric but even then, what is dance and what is not dance? So, I think ‘La Kahena’ is fully dance, but then again it’s fully dance for some and not for others. It’s like, trance works for trance people because it works. I think all music works but it depends on what kind of environment, what kind of chemicals people might be on or not (laughter). So all of that ends up where ‘is it dance music or not?’ Nobody is there to say what is dance music and what is not. Of course there’s traditional elements but besides the traditional elements the beats are there, the bass is there. So, is that not dance music? Why? In Morocco it’s certainly dance music.
MV: Right. I guess, as you said, from a house head’s or some body who is all about the four-on-the-floor beats it’s different. But that’s really who you are, somebody who works with a lot of elements to create a mix.
CS: Yeah, and go there and record those musicians. I don’t take a little Arabic sample because it’s fashionable and it’s cool and then build around a little sample. It’s another approach, I think ‘La Kahena’ has what 43 musicians on it altogether. So, it’s that kind of effort to actually keep the tradition alive but give it a modern approach.
MV: Many of the vocalists for “La Kahena” were Moroccan?
CS: Yes, Moroccon, Algerian and Yemenite.
MV: And that’s quite a diversity within that region.
CS: Yes. The thing is, in Morocco you have some many different styles of music and some of it is greatly influenced by West Africa. Because of the history of bringing in slaves to Morocco from where we call Equatorial Africa. So, Morocco has a lot of those rhythms from West Africa plus it has a very complicated history starting with the Berbers and the Jews. Way before the Arabs and the Muslims. For example, if you take the Tuareg or what we call the “blue people”, a people that traditionally used to cross the desert with salt and bring it to sub-Sahara, which is Mali and Niger, all of those countries that are right below the desert. So, Morocco is very rich that way because of this whole history of people going in and out and leaving, staying. So, this is what you have now. So, for me Algeria wasn’t as easy to just go there and make a record but Morocco was a lot easier than Algeria. So, I ended up going to Morocco, althought I do have some Tuareg singing in there. I have Cheba Zahouania, she’s the biggest rai singer from Algeria. And, this is the best I could do. Of course, one album is really limited to try to represent many styles and I think that’s the strength because if I were to make an album with just Cheba Zahouania then to come up with eight tracks with her is more of a challenge, although the challenge with La Kahena was the records and artists I used is pretty raw, playing and recording and all of that. Because they are not people that go in studios every day or are session musicians. So, that was the other side of the challenge. At the same time, each song is such a different style — I think that’s what worked.
MV: Now, for you, is this kind of going full circle? Going back to Morocco and Algeria, since you had left there.
CS: As a teenager, yes. But I can always go back to India, I could go back to Mali and make a record. Time and money is always limited, that’s always what we lack the most. But in eight years with Six Degrees there are now six albums, you know? There’s only so much you can do.
MV: That’s very prolific.
CS: I also think it’s good when things happen one at a time and slowly because then there’s more for the future than all of it happening at once. It’s a different attitude but I think this one works for me.
MV: It’s beautiful material. Your DJing is such a central element in who you are and I’d like to ask you some questions on that. First of all, your history in San Francisco and Lower Haight and Nickies, what is the significance of that?
CS: There’s a little story about me being a DJ again in San Francisco, because I had been a DJ twice before. So, this was the third incarnation you know, as Cheb i Sabbah. I was working a Rainbow (San Francisco health food store –ed.) and I was the buyer of homeopathic remedies and Chinese herbs. So, I’m working at Rainbow and I made tapes, you know? So, I had this one tape I made of Raï music from Algeria. So, this tape was blasting at Rainbow on Mission. And then this guy is shopping and listening to the tape and goes to the counter and says ‘what kind of music is this?’. He is directed to me and says ‘hi, my name is Brad. I have this little place in the Lower Haight called Nickies. This is really cool.’ If you want to come and spin you can come on Wednesday night and try it out’. Cause I told him I had been a DJ. So, I showed up on the first Wednesday night which I think was a week before Christmas and that was sixteen years ago. And three weeks later there was a line outside. And Brad (original promoter of Nickie’s on Lower Haight and a pioneer in San Francisco’s acid jazz/world music scene –ed.). was at that time the person where every night the sound was what no one else was doing. And that was the cool thing about Nickies and from there I became a legend. So, that’s how I started.
The other thing that happened is that Don Cherry moved to San Francisco and I had known him for like 20 years. I met him when I was working with the Living Theatre, he came to a show and after the show I went to his hotel room. He was touring Italy with Naná Vasconcelos and so from there we became friends and we’d see each other whenever, in Paris, here there. And when he moved to San Francisco he asked me if I could be his manager, so I did that too. And then he lived on Divisidaro and Haight so every week he walked to Nickies and he was the one that actually helped me stay there because to tell you the truth I was like ‘yeah, this is OK but it’s nothing like Paris. The money or whatever.’ And he said ‘no, man, you’ve got to stay with it.’ And so helped convince me that I should stay with it. And from there I started to produce concerts from all over, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Guinea, whatever. And then I was on KPFA for like ten years, so it was a combination of being a DJ, being on KPFA and producing live shows. And then it wasn’t long after that DJs started to produce music. Because we might not play an instrument but we have an ear — we know what we want to hear. As opposed to musicians, DJs don’t play just their own music, they play every one else’s music. Anything that’s rhythmic, we are always hungry and looking for new sounds, you know?
So, the combination of all that, I started to produce and then I did a couple of remixes here and there. And then I started ‘Shri Durga’ on my own, with a credit card. And then I met Six Degrees and they heard like half of one song and said ‘no problem, we’ll put it out’.
MV: So, San Francisco has really given you a lot of opportunties with the scene there.
CS: Yeah, I think it was a case of ‘the right place at the right time’ but it’s what San Francisco is known for. It’s always been one of the places where you can do this kind of thing. This whole trajectory I’ve had, if I’d been in Paris 16 years ago trying to do that it would have been looked at as ‘huh, what is that thirld world shit’. Now it’s huge and it’s big but then it would have been looked at different.
MV: Well, you were definitely a pioneer in this, along with some others.
CS: I guess you could say that, yeah. I started a Nickie’s with vinyl and then I had a SONY walkman professional because I played cassettes. And then CDs started to come out and then I went throught at least six or seven discman professionals. So, I would have two turntables, one discman and one walkman, playing that music. Later on I became world music buyer at Ameoba in Berkeley. Trying to promote and present this kind of music and San Francisco is a good place for that.
MV: And it still is?
CS: Yeah, I feel it’s becoming a little bit saturated because what we are witnessing now is like everybody and their grandmother is producing now. Which is cool, there is room for every one but at the same time San Francisco is not New York, it’s not L.A., it doesn’t have millions of people living here. So, it’s somewhat saturated but the test is time, to see who will continue and who will not. And also, what DJs realize at the same time that without producing something well, you might have gone to Nickies and gone ‘man, this is great’. But someone in New York has no idea. Whereas when you start producing music then it goes out to the world. And that’s what brings the name out, by producing music.
MV: Well, now you an international superstar (laughter). I’m sure you are well known throughout the world and that must feel good.
CS: I feel like a rock star without the rock. I think the albums that were put out is what brought the name out. It’s the way it happens, it can’t just be from DJing at Nickie’s. It was good and it was the starting point for me again. Because if you asked me 20 years ago, what would I do in 2006 I wouldn’t have known man. I wouldn’t have said ‘I’m gonna be a DJ and producer’. You just don’t know.
MV: What are doing with your audience when you DJ? You’re not just entertaining them, you’re setting out to do something?
CS: I fuck with them man (laugther). First of all I’ve always felt that you spin and you play with the dancefloor, you don’t just do your thing and that’s it: ‘here’s my thing, you like it or you don’t like it’. I’ve always played with the audience and I think that comes from my theater background anyway. So, it’s always different, I never prepare any sets. I always try to bring new stuff in, play some of the old and the new. One of the flavors of this kind of spinning is that you’re dancing one song one continent and the next song is a totally different continent, differrent language and all of that. But at the same time it’s all very sophisticated dance music in the sense that it’s got everything that other dance music has. The bass is there — we have subwoofers too you know? (laughter).
MV: What other clubs did you DJ at that played a role in the scene in San Francisco?
CS: Club 1015, I have known Club 1015 and Ira Sandler the owner all those years. I used to do Sunday nights at 1015, I had my own night. I also used to spin in the front “gold” room on Friday’s, it was called “Martini”. So, I knew Ira all of this time but at the same time those kind of big clubs, the house clubs, the trance clubs, they don’t really give us a chance to play this kind of music on a bigger scale. But at 1015 there’s a crew here called “Dhamaal” which I’ve been working with since day one and I think we’ve done five parties every three or four months called “Worldly” and it’s on a Friday night and 1015 opens up for us like five rooms. I have headlined all of those shows and you know when you play that kind of music for 1,500 people in the main room with that kind of sound system. People who have never heard this kind of music, they always go ‘I didn’t know this kind of music existed!’. But at the same time I play small to medium sized clubs. And then after that it’s like festivals, it could be 10,000 people it could be 30,000 people that I spin for. But when it comes to the clubs with the big names with the two most-played styles, which we’ll call house and trance, I don’t know what it is. They think, what, world music is like this lower denominator? It’s like ‘fuck it man, I don’t play world music’. What is world music anyway? I never wanted to call it world music, it’s the worst. It’s like ‘do you play “world beat”‘. No man, I don’t play “world beat”. So, this is where we are and here and there you hear big name DJs, the really big name DJs. And they hear your stuff and actually like it but are they stuck in that one style and they don’t know how to get out of it? Or is it because they’re such big names it would be accepted because they’re playing it? But if you were to play there as an opening act, no that’s not really it man, we want the headliner because we know what that’s about. If the headliner played something you play, then it would be accepted. So, we’re still dealing with all of this ghettoization of ‘this style or music, that style of music’ you know?
MV: It seems to be even more so now.
CS: Yes, and I think it reflects the world, which is in a lot of trouble. But it’s a reflection of all those separations you know? There are a lot of things coming at us that we’re not in control of. But when it comes to music it does cross barriers in that mindset of clubs. I mean playing for 30,000 people at 1AM in Morrocco and everybody’s there, from kids to whatever, and everybody’s jumping is one thing. But, when it comes to those trance parties, those big house parties, they don’t allow us to come in and see what happens. But maybe it’s better, I don’t know. I’ve had some great opportunties to play like opening the Asian Museum or playing the Getty Center for 4,500 people or Summerstage New York where I’ve been twice opening for someone. So, those shows do come in all the time during the year. And I still haven’t touched Europe yet because the stuff I’ve done so far has not been well-distributed in Europe. Now it’s starting to come in so it’s like OK, when it wasn’t happening one could be depressed and say ‘oh, how come I’m not playing anywhere in Europe’. But, then again, I’ve played America and Canada, East Europe. If it’s going to start to happen in Europe then we do that now because I think it’s better to space it out. If things start to happen in Europe then fine. I mean I did play in Moscow, I’ve played in a few places in Europe but not like I play here and in Canada.
MV: That’s interesting because for a lot of artists they have to go to Europe to break out and then come back to the states.
CS: Right, and it’s also understandable that Europe already has a lot of South Asian and Arabic music. You know, the whole South Asian underground, and the whole Arab scene in all of the capitals, mostly Paris but also London. Everywhere man. A big Turkish thing in all of the German speaking countries. So, there is a lot more there than here. But then everybody’s different you know? I don’t think anybody does anything new, really. I think everybody’s taking something they’re inspired with and they put a new stamp on it. I don’t think anybody’s like ‘ohh, I’m the first one to do any of it’. I don’t believe that, you know?
MV: So that’s how you view yourself as well?
CS: Of course, it’s like you’re inspired by some sounds or some voice or something. Or by a style of music and then you do your own interpretation. But to say I’ve invented something is like ‘No, nobody’s invented nothing really.’ I think the main point is really, Don Cherry used to say it a lot, which is to really hear, you know? To hear what people are doing and hopefully the other people are hearing and that creates harmony. But the main thing is to hear. Hear and now.
Free MP3 song from “Devotion”
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