An Interview with Zeb “The Spy From Cairo” on his Infectious Arabic groove
One of the amazing things about the deeply Jamaican music called Dub is its ability to act as a conduit. From its early days as stripped down versioning of popular Reggae tunes to its indoctrination into late 80 / early 90s UK Soundsystem & Dance Music culture, to its current massive mutation (with the “Step” planted firmly in its behind); Dub has shown itself to be not only a musical art form that stands strongly on its own, but also a vehicle of sorts that can transport and connect disparate musical universes. And it’s at the unique nexus of Dub and Arabic music that the Spy From Cairo sits the most comfortably.
The Spy From Cairo aka Zeb is the kind of musician that fits perfectly in with the downtown NYC music scene – Italian by birth, Gypsy by heritage, and New Yorker by residence, he has been closely associated with the Turntables on the Hudson scene for close to 12 years – producing dozens of albums as Zeb, the Spy From Cairo and the Organic Grooves project, as well as remixing for everyone from Baba Maal to Tosca to Billie Holliday to Novalima, steadily garnering a worldwide collective of fans and followers.
The Spy’s new album, “Arabadub” is perhaps his most realized vision of deep Middle Eastern and Jamaican sounds coalescing into something that sounds right and natural – because it was conceived and produced in just that natural way. There are no samples used on the album, and Zeb has programmed everything, as well as playing traditional Middle Eastern stringed instruments called the Oud, Chifteli and the Saz himself. Check the opener “Alladin Dub”, with its echoed out skanks, pulsing bassline, and majestic strings – and the deepness that is “Taksim Square”, complete with swirling, psychedelic accordion. Other highlights include the tense four-to-the-floor stomper “Desert Tears”, the rolling dub of “Sons of Hannibal” with it’s beautiful Middle Eastern vocal chants, the nostalgic “Egyptian Pulse” with its Steppers sound and melancholy vibes, and the dancehall vibes of “Prince Ahmed” – sounding like 3AM Kingston wrapped in a Bedouin Tent!
MundoVibe’s Editor, John C. Tripp, interviewed Zeb on his lenghty history in New York City’s ethnic dance underground and his trancendent Arabic dub that is rousing belly dancers worldwide.
MundoVibe: Your involvement with fusing rhythm, roots and electronics stretches back many years, from the East Village’s Organic Grooves and Turntables on the Hudson to many parties and albums and beyond. How did you first become involved with this influential music scene in New York?
Zeb: I was here (in New York) mainly because I played guitar with a band called The Indians which were signed to Polydor back in 89. The Indians had a very short life mostly because in the early 90s many on the major labels went through a lot of infrastructure issues and many people lost their jobs including the chairman themselves which led to the dropping of many bands including us.The eople had a minute or two of “glory” though because our tunes were used for the soundtracks of the movies Kalifornia and Reality bites.
After we got dropped we soon split and I found myself pretty much broke and kind of lost not knowing what to do next. I then took a job in a place called Bar 16 making espressos and it was then that i met Sasha Crnobrnja (yes the name is spelled right) and we started talking about music which led to the great late 70s and early 80s of the Italian club scene and names like the clubs Baia degli angeli, Cosmic, Le cigalle, Typhoon started to come up.Obviously DJ names were next – Baldelli, Loda , TBC , Mozart etc. So.. we started thinking “Hey! That stuff would be just great in New York these days huh?”
Next thing you know we spoke to Bar 16 owner and asked if we could do a weekly party involving DJ and live musicians promoting what we called Cosmic Music. Bar 16 happened to have a basement (only used for storage space ) which was actually an old Persian Hooka smoking lounge ( great uh? ). We cleaned it up and started a party in it called : Organic Grooves. The rest is pretty much history as far as the underground music scene in NY is about.we lasted over a decade and became a bit of a cult for many eople. Organic grooves kind of died out ( actually WE let it die) after 9-11. Many things were changing in NY around that time and we felt it all too well, mostly because most people in the collective were not from the US and we all had some kind of trouble with immigration and the fact that we had an interest with the East (middle east in my case) made us like some kind of terrorist supporters you remember Bush’s words ? “You are either with us or against us !” That’s what we had to deal with back then, sad huh?
Anyway I was happy to have left a mark in the NY scene and 5 organic Grooves albums by then! It was at that point that the “natives” (Nickodemus ) took over and started Turntables on the Hudson. TOTH was similar to Organic Grooves but a bit more tailored for the US. Nickodemus’ taste for the eclectic (and mastering of the turntables ) kept it fresh, Mariano was more of a straight ahead party “monster”. Last but not least people like Nappy G and me provided that live feel that people liked and missed so much from the defunct Organic Grooves. Having said that , I wanna give Giant Steps their credit too for doing that DJ/live musician thing even though Giant Step was more of a jazz funk thing and we had a lot more styles involved in the mix.
MV: What are some of the projects you’ve been involved in over the years that are most important to you?
Zeb: Frankly every project is important to me. I must say that I work alone most of the time so, the only collaboration I’ve been involved with is Nickodemus. Together we remixed some pretty big names like Billy Holiday , Natasha Atlas , Omar Faruk and a bunch of others I can’t even remember. Actually more recently Nick and I had the honor of making a tune with Afrika Bambaataa which ended up on Nick new album “Moon People” ( I still have to do another remix of that tune though). I have also kept close contacts with Sasha (now Inflagranti) and we put together an album called OBLIO which pays homage yet again to the Cosmic era we miss and respect so much. Sasha own label Kodek will be releasing that sometimes in the near future.
MV: With this long history in music, what has been your vision or trajectory over these years?
Zeb: This could take me forever to answer so I’ll keep it relatively short. Mainly, my object was to learn how to play more instruments (I play five now ) and to be self sufficient as much as I could. That’s why I pretty much do everything in my tunes ,including the mastering and sometimes even the artwork. As I’ve shown in the last couple of albums, I decided to focus almost exclusively on Middle Eastern music and especially on the Oud, the Arabic lute which I love in ways that I can’t even describe.
I believe that the eastern culture has been grossly misunderstood and I am there to make things straight if i can with music. Reggae and especially Dub is ALWAYS in the agenda for me too, because i like it and it has the spiritual element that marries so well with the middle eastern sounds. My goal as a musician has and always will be to make music with hope and beauty which we need so much these days to get over all the problems which this World seem to be so full of.
MV:P You have a longstanding relationship with DJ Nickodemus, first with Turntables on the Hudson and second being on the Wonderwheel Label. How has that friendship enabled your musical journey?
Zeb: Nick probably knows me better than i know myself by now.. =) I know he is a big fan of mine and he totally supports EVERYTING I do. I have always been happy to donate my music to his label Wonderwheel has definitely helped me a lot to reach more and more people. I just wish it will become bigger soon though because it is still relatively underground and it deserves better — I deserve better too..
MV: How did your upbringing influence your music?
Zeb: Actually my father used to wake me up when i was 8 in the middle of the night with a bunch of friends and made me play guitar for them while my mum was cooking and they were singing ( that at about 5 am ! ) Then my mum would join in and sing beautifully , harmonizing with my fathers voice.( after serving that food of course =). this is just an example of what music was to my parents ( way to go Gypsies uh? ). I don’t think i need to add anything to this.I’m just a “product” of that lifestyle i guess.
MV: For your album, “Arabadub” you programmed and performed everything on “Arabadub”, what was your desire to create on this album?
Zeb: I love arabic music and love dub ! I’ve wanted to do a record like this for a long time but i wanted to master all the instruments i play on it so i took my time. I really wanted it to sound EXACTLY like i envisioned it.actually i din’t play ALL the instruments on it though ( i wish. sigh! ). The orchestra parts were offered by Sultan strings ( turkey ) and the few Nay parts ( the bamboo flute ) played by a Tunisian friend of mine. Everyting else i played myself : The oud , The saz, The cifltelly, most of the darbouka ( some are samples.oops! ) and I programmed ALL drums and played the bass and the few synths parts. I am very happy of the outcome and it seems that people who hear this record get it instantly. It is exactly what the title says and i believe i did it respectfully to both worlds ; the Jamaican and the Middle Eastern.
MV: There are no samples on the album, was this a challenge to avoid? Why no samples?
Zeb: Actually there are a few samples but VERY few to even mention. I’ve been working with samples for so damn long.i just had enough.. this is why i keep, learning new instruments. After all.I am a musician uh?
MV: How did you go about arranging the music? What came first and was there a lot of improvisation before laying down a track?
Zeb: First of all i had to come out with a melodic idea which was obviously the arabic music so i’d look for traditional and classic arab tunes and “make them mine” by rearranging them with the Oud ( which i wanted to keep prominent in every track ) and the other instrumets like the Saz and Ciftelli. Then the orchestra parts had to be recorded and dulcis in fundo i laid down the reggae drums and bass line. When i had a strong foundation of the song I would make spaces for the Oud solos and the dubbed out parts ( let the tape delay do it’s thing.. ). I just made all of this sound easy but BELIEVE ME it was NOT. Arabic music notation is very different from western and it is great challenge to mix reggae 4/4 to a typical 1/5 or 1/7 arabic rhythm. That’s also why i had to play all the stuff live ( samples simply wouldn’t cut it.. ). I also pretty much re/wrote all the tunes in different keys to match the simplicity of the reggae sounds. All the tunes melodies came from traditional middle eastern music but by the time i was done they were MY tunes you can believe that!
MV: If there’s an overall mood to “Arabadub” it’s pensive and expansive. The beats are very heavy and deep and the accompanying instrumentation of strings and your oud playing create a counterbalance that is wistful. How did you go about balancing the heavy bass with your instrumentation?
Zeb: It pretty much came normal as i know Dub and heavy bass very well by now.. The Oud is a very deep sounding instrument and it was a time difficult to mix with the dub bass though..also the strings arrangements have a lot of depth so, i had my challenges here and there but i’m very happy of the outcome and as i answered previously i think i got the right balance. I think that i honored the Oud pretty well throughout the record which was my intention all together.
MV: Your principle instrument is the oud, a traditional instrument. Yet you have a deep involvement in digital music production as well. This is something you’ve been doing for sometime so what was the inspiration to fuse the two? There are certain producers that have worked with Arabic music in a dub context, most notably to met Bill Laswell. Where you influenced by his productions or others?
Zeb: I simply believe that there are NOT enough people doing what i do. I like and respect Bill Laswell and people like DuoOud or Jeff Stott but we are all different and i believe that there is plenty of room for more producers/musicians with an interest in The OUD. This instrument has been ignored for a long time and it has a great past!! why not give it a great future??
MV: Where did you learn the oud? Did you study under anyone?
Zeb: I picked it up by myself by listening to countless hours of Oud Taksims ( improvisations ) from the best players like Farid al Atrache and Ryad Alsunbaty to more recent players like Naseer Shamma and Simon Shaheen ( His brother Najib actually help me out a lot with picking the right style of playing ! ). The Oud has always been around in my life for one or another reason.. there was one hanging on a wall in my house when i was little but it was unplayable and all beat up so i played guitar in the earlier years.. i started to focus exclusively on the Oud 7 years ago and i abandoned the guitar all together to just focus on this amazing and honorable instrument!
MV: Do you find yourself having to defend your music to traditionalists or are they understanding of what you are doing?
Zeb: Interesting question indeed!! Well.. Classically trained arabic musician will NEVER go for what i do which is good so i don’t have too much competition..hahaha. The fact that I’m not really an arab is enough reason to turn off enough people but I also have big admirers from the Middle East JUST BECAUSE i’m not one of them but have so much respect for the Oud and their music. All in all, whatever people think isn’t gonna make me quit with my explorations in music.Real musicians from the west and the east understand that! The best music always came from those who were not afraid to mix things up after all right? One example was Mohamed Abdel Wahab , a great composer and innovator of arabic music which actually wrote music for none less than the great Um Kalthoum. nuff said!
MV: What was your exposure to music like growing up? It seems that you must have had a wide exposure to various rhythmic and experimental genres of music.
Zeb: I grew up in Brixton and Portobello road in London ( in the early 80s ) and was exposed to West indian ,Idian, Arabic music. The Brits were always keen on mashings things up, so to hear a hip hop beat with a sitar loop was quite common even back than to me. I think i grew up in the best country as far as experimental music goes. thats why we had Transglobal Underground , Loop Guru, Talvin Singh etc. The US are a bit more conservative about music to my opinion but don’t worry..I’m here now..hahaha
MV: Have you always had it in your mind to release solo records and what was the process in getting to that point?
Zeb: I ALWAYS wanted to do solo records..I know what I want and have little patience explaining to others so I just go ahead and make the music that speaks for itself.
MV: On your solo release “Secretly Famous” you featured vocal tracks yet other than “Thicker Than Hooka Smoke” and “Haboob” there are no vocals on “Arabadub”. Why the change to limited vocals?
Zeb: I think that vocals can alienate some people ( not everyone speaks arabic.. ) so i decided to let the music speak this time. Thats why i tried to add more depth and cinematic effect to it. I think there is enough melody in Arabadub to speak loud enough about -hope, love and beauty- the only 3 words i want people to hear in this record.
MV: What does your current live performance consist of? How do you recreate the songs of “Arabadub” live?
MV: Well.. the old laptop and midi controller show with live Oud and darbouka.and when i’m lucky i’m graced by some beautiful belly dancer flying around me like a butterfly.