Cheb i Sabbah, musical adventurer, global spiritualist and producer extraordinaire has returned to the Indian subcontinent for Devotion, his seventh album on Six Degrees Records. Hundreds of artists in the world music genre, or for that matter any genre, have come and gone like bottle rockets, but Cheb i Sabbah’s light keeps burning and it is his bhakti (devotion) to the spiritual essence of music, and to truth and humanity, that is responsible for his longevity. Sabbah was nominated for the BBC’s 2006 Award for World Music in the Club Global category.
Cheb i Sabbah—a.k.a. dj 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. With four landmark recordings under his belt, Sabbah recently returned to his native North Africa to gather the raw material for his most ambitious project to date, La Kahena, a set of eight pieces created from music by eight different acts, all featuring women singers. Sabbah remains a DJ at heart, but he is also something more—one of the most innovative forces in contemporary dance music today.
“As a DJ, you have ears,” says Sabbah. “This is your instrument; you know what you want to hear on the dance floor. A lot of genuine world music artists are fantastic musicians, composers, vocalists, but they don’t know how to master and mix for the dance floor. They are not acquainted with the technicalities of how to construct songs that are DJ-friendly with breaks or stops, so you can go from here to there. With this insight and understanding, it only made sense to forge forward with producing world music for the dance floors, founding a new approach to the process, bringing our two worlds together. It’s only in the last ten years that DJs have become producers, and you could say that we compose music.” The possibilities in this new realm are endless, and Sabbah makes no secret of the thrill that freedom gives him. “Musicians don’t like to hear this,” he says, “but DJs have no limitations. If you take a soukous musician or a blues musician, they are very good at what they do, but if you say, ‘Oh, let’s play some Balinese music now,’ they say, ‘I don’t know about this.’ As a DJ, in a split-second, I can go from here to wherever the next place is.”
dj Cheb i Sabbah now enjoys a worldwide reputation as a magician of the dance floor, from the crowded confines of New York’s Knitting Factory, to nightclubs in his adopted home, San Francisco, to the likes of L.A.’s massive Getty Center, with its capacity of 4500. 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. As DJ culture evolved, Sabbah increasingly charted his own course, until the source material he wanted to work with simply couldn’t be found on vinyl. The scratching, spinning and “beat matching” that define the modern DJ’s art are not part of his act at all, so Sabbah is used to having kids watching him pop CDs in and out of players and saying, “Man, this guy isn’t doing anything.” But Sabbah has made countless converts along the way. During a recent performance at Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot Festival, he was pleased to notice “hip hop kids” recording the concert with their cell phones. “At that point, it doesn’t matter if you’re spinning vinyl or not,” he says, “Because the beats are there.”
For Cheb i Sabbah, the strength of La Kahena is its variety—eight songs by different groups from different regions. In the studio, Sabbah labored to create the best possible presentation of each group. But during the recording sessions in Morocco, he worked casually, meeting informally with the musicians and then taking them to the studio to record two songs each. Sabbah says, “I don’t try to direct them. I just take what they give me. These artists have their own unique style of making music. They’re not studio musicians. They already have a hard enough time being in separate rooms, one with the lute and headphones, and then four other women in the other room, also with headphones, playing percussion and singing the chorus. At one point I had this group of elder women called Haddarates. They normally get invited to homes, weddings and celebrations, so this was completely new. They were having a blast because the studio was somebody’s house. In one room the ProTools was set up, and then the other room was at the far end of the courtyard. We communicated through cameras and monitors. It was an amusing sight for them to do such a recording. But you can’t do this kind of work without separating the different sounds.”
Sabbah’s insistence on having female singers posed a particular challenge when it came to the Gnawa. “I went to Brahim Elbelkani,” he recalls. “You know, he doesn’t do that often, but I said to him, ‘I know you are the maalem, the master, but I want you to sing with women.’ So he got his sister-in-law, her sister, and his daughter, and we had Brahim Elbelkani with a female chorus.”
With La Kahena, Cheb i Sabbah’s life and art come full circle. An innovator in one of the most contemporary musical realms, he is clearly committed to creating new forms. “But at the same time,” says Sabbah, “the more important focus for me is to keep the tradition alive. You take Haddarates: there aren’t many people wanting to learn this style of singing and preserve their tradition. There are only two or three Haddarates groups in Morocco at this moment. Once they go, it’s over, then what?” From dance floor DJ to defender of ancient traditions, Sabbah is a true musical iconoclast and visionary on the contemporary scene.