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.
“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.
Cheb i Sabbah developed his concept of recording his own base tracks, and created a totally unique catalog of CD releases, starting with Shri Durga (1999). From the start, Sabbah has set his sights high, always aiming for great music, not merely ethnic flavor. 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.
This groundbreaking work was followed by MahaMaya (2000) and Krishna Lila (2002). Each album has its own distinct character. Sabbah says, “Shri Durga and Krishna Lila are not remixes. MahaMaya is a collection of remixes from Shri Durga by most of the UK, South Asian underground. However, Shri Durga and Krishna Lila are totally produced albums in the sense that you get raw elements, and then from there you add bass, drums, loops, samples, and overdubs. Shri Durga happened to be ragas, and then from Shri Durga, I went into bhajans, which are devotional songs, much like ragas, music accessible to everybody in India.”
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. “Wherever you go in the world,” says Sabbah, “the predominant listeners to music are the younger generation. For music to survive, it has to reach them. So we are being defined by modern music, but at the same time, let’s dig into our culture and make a bridge that could lead to people understanding each other and getting along better.”
La Kahena is Cheb i Sabbah’s most personal album because it takes him back to his North African roots. The recordings he made himself were mostly done in Morocco. “We say that Morocco has rhythm and Algeria has melody,” says Sabbah, “because Morocco has all the West African influence.” History inspired Sabbah throughout the making of La Kahena. Much of the music on La Kahena connects with this history. Tracks by traditional ensembles B’net Marrakech and Ouled Ben Aguida reflect Berber traditions. Khadija Othmani conveys the matrilineal noble culture of Algerian Tuaregs. The Gnawa master Brahim Elbelkani brings the spirit of sub-Saharan African mystic healers, originally brought to Morocco as slaves. Nadia introduces the first music Sabbah remembers hearing in his life, elegant, Andalusian songs performed at weddings and celebrations in Constantine, Algeria. And Cheba Zahouania delivers the freewheeling spirit of rai, a music born in the pleasure-loving port city of Oran, Algeria, where many Andalusians fled after their expulsion from Spain. To complete the collection, Michal Cohen, a Jewish singer of Yemenite descent, shares a song based on a poem by Shalom Shabazi, the 16th century Yemenite Jewish mystic.
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.