DJ Cheb i Sabbah speaks his Worldly mind

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PHOTO BY ANUSHKA MENON

 

This Saturday night (2/9) at the Worldly party at Temple, Cheb i Sabbah -- the Algerian-born, San Francisco-based DJ and producer extraordinaire -- celebrates the release of Devotion, his seventh album on Six Degrees Records.

Recorded and produced entirely in Delhi, Devotion is Cheb i Sabbah's trance/fusion inspired take on raga (Indian classical music) and the rich and diverse musical traditions Hinduism, Sikhism, and Sufi Islam.

What sets Cheb i Sabbah apart from other producers of so-called global electronica --and what must partly explain a worldwide popularity that far exceeds his local fan base -- is his ability to add modern beats to classical music in a way that preserves the integrity of the original forms.

At age 60, Cheb i Sabbah's life has been as much a kaleidoscope of social and artistic movements as his music is of musical and spiritual traditions. In the early 1960s, Cheb i Sabbah was one of many Jews who fled Algeria after its independence and headed to Paris, where he spent his teenage years.

 

Cheb i Sabbah has had what he describes as three distinct incarnations as a DJ. The first was in 1964, when he was a 17-year old on his own in Paris making a living spinning Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Arethra Franklin. The second was in 1980, returning to Paris after over a decade of traveling, when he spun mainly Brazilian music. The final and most recent incarnation began in the early '90s, when he started his "1002 Nights" weekly at Nickies in the Lower Haight, where he still spins North African, Middle Eastern, and South Asia beats every Tuesday.

The span of Cheb i Sabbah's 40-year musical career was punctuated by involvement in two experimental theater groups -- the Living Theater from the late-'60s through the '70s, and the Tribal Warning Theater in the late '80s -- as well as a host of odd jobs, including work at Amoeba Records and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. His music was also greatly influenced by a long-time friendship and collaboration with jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, whose music Cheb i Sabbah remixed with that of Ornette Coleman and the poetry of Ira Cohen to create his debut album, The Majoon Traveler, in 1994.

With a thick French accent and extraordinary patience for helping navigate the dense weave of movements and traditions that compose his life story, Cheb i Sabbah talked to the SFBG about his most recent album, Devotion, as well as his long career in music and theater.

SFBG: You recorded all of the music for several of your albums, including Devotion, in India. What is it like working with highly trained classical musicians?

Cheb i Sabbah: What has always struck me about working with those musicians is how humble and really sincere they are. You are dealing with people who have done this all of their lives. When they meet me, they have no idea who I am. But throughout the session, this friendship develops. There are many cups of Chai in between. Later on, we keep contact.

The concept for my music is very simple: take classical music and add modern beats to open it up to more people. The fact that [the classically trained musicians] went along with it to me is still pretty amazing.

I feel that I am lucky because there is a sense that in the end I will be respectful to what they are doing. They do want to be involved with something that will reach a Western audience and something modern. But they are not always sure. Because take Bollywood music its remixes, for example: some are good, some are quite awful. That is the thing they are weary about a little bit—not to end up with something they hate.

Working on Devotion, the musicians actually liked what they heard because the raga was still there, in a way, untouched. What was added to it wasn't too much in the sense of distorting their thing. I seem to have been lucky enough to find the balance between putting the electronics with their classical thing and make something that was pleasing to them.

SFBG: Who composes the music?

CIS: It's not really a question of composing or not composing. It's more like -- for Devotion, when you come to an artist who does Kirtan, which is a call-and-response devotional music, I will say, "I would like to do a couple of Kirtans with you," and then he just sings them. The composition comes after the singing. The singer will say, "Yeah, okay, I'll do it, but write me a simple melody." So what we do is a little thing on a keyboard, send the MP3, and then they have that for a couple of days and return to the studio with the melody.

SFBG: Are the other musicians improvising?

CIS: No, they score the songs. Some do improvise -- I work with three percussionists who play every percussion you can imagine. They will score each song individually. When you ask a sarangi or sitar player, they listen to it once and say, "Ok, I got it." And then they just play—nothing is written whatsoever. They just play by ear, tune to the particular raga, and go from there. After that, of course, comes the electronic part, which is editing what you got from them, and take the best parts and maybe repeat it or loop a little bit of this or sample that.

SFBG: You've had a very interesting past. What was it like moving from Algeria to Paris as a 13-year old in the '60s?

CIS: Of course when you are dropped from North Africa into a big place like Paris, as you can imagine, there is so much going on. I didn't want to go to school, so I started to work when I was 15, which was even more freedom, all the way through May '68, when France stopped for a few months -- there was a general strike basically. I was involved with the artistic part and also with the Living Theater -- which was Julian Beck and Judith Malina. They happened to be in France because they had been in Europe for a few years in exile from America and from the IRS.

SFBG: What is the story of the Living Theater?

CIS: If you lived in Paris at that time, Julian Beck and Judith Malina had been part of the '50s bohemia trip in New York with Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Alan Ginsberg, and all of that. The Living Theater went to Europe and had become a mythical kind of a group -- just the way they looked, the way they acted, the kind of theater that they did. I was a DJ so I had free time. I was basically free from everything, just living on my own when I was 17-years old in a hotel room and being a DJ at night. When you went to see the Living Theater, it was just an amazing kind of experience -- I had never seen that before.

In '68, some of us took [over] the Odéon Theater, which was the bastion of French culture. We lived there for a while and had assemblies and reunions and all of that. Then, a few months later, in July, I went down to the south of France and stayed with the Living Theater for a couple of months while they were working on a play called Paradise Now. I wanted to join, but at that time, after May '68, they decided to split into three groups. One went to India, one stayed in Europe, and the one with Judith and Julian went to Brazil, where eventually they got arrested, went to jail, some members were tortured, beaten up, and all of that. Eventually they came out in 1970, and that's when I joined the Living Theater -- in New York City. We used to have a house across the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. We rehearsed there everyday.

SFBG: What brought you to the States?

CIS: I found myself being taken to America by an American woman actually. She kidnapped me and took me first to New York and then to Berkeley. When I arrived in Berkeley, it was the whole thing about the People's Park, and the Living Theater was touring the US. We met and reconnected with Living Theater in Berkeley. There was a memorable performance with Jim Morrison acting out during the play as an audience member but getting involved with Paradise Now, which was all about audience participation.

SFBG: How would you describe Berkeley and the Bay Area during that time?

CIS: It was the beginning of the end kind of thing. Compared to Paris, it was pretty lightweight. Because if you saw ten cops running, you saw hundreds of people running back, whereas in Paris it was a different thing in terms of the demonstrations.

SFBG: What was your role with the Living Theater?

CIS: My role was acting, but then I became Judith [Malina] and Julian [Beck's] assistant. I was very fortunate because I had never taken an acting class -- they just took me in. I would go on tour with them whenever they did lectures to raise money. They would go around East Coast campuses and give theater lectures, so I would always be with them taking care of little things, selling books. I have all that kind of training—a very close relationship with both of them. Then I became the money person. I would figure out the money with Julian and then pay the artists -- which wasn't very much money, but at least a weekly whatever, enough for subway and cigarettes maybe. Nobody got paid but we all lived, ate, and worked together.

SFBG: Was your involvement with the Living Theater through the '70s?

CIS: Yes, from the late '60s to the '70s. We lived in Brooklyn, as I said before, and then we went back to Europe. I had residence in a few places in Italy. And then of course, we toured Europe—France, Germany, and everywhere. We were invited to Italy by the Communist Party. One thing about the Living Theater was that whenever we did a play in any country, we did it in the language of the country, even if some of us did not speak the language, we said our lines in the language of the country.

SFBG: What was your involvement with music during that period?

CIS: There was some but at that time I was just acting. It was when I left the Living Theater and came to San Francisco. Suzanne Thomas and I, we were a couple. We started a group called Tribal Warning Theater. It was very successful. We always played to packed sold-out audiences. But it was hard to keep it going, you know. Obviously, nobody involved got paid. Most people had jobs, so we rehearsed at night and on weekends—and we performed on weekends. We performed at The Lab. We used to open for Psychic TV. That was when I started to do soundtracks. At that time it was the height of the industrial music -- you know, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, and all of those groups that were doing industrial weird kind of music. I would do a multi-track collage of sound that we would use as a soundtrack along with our lines, but we had microphones and everything else. We had slide shows and videos—a multimedia kind of thing. Our soundtrack was as loud as Psychic TV live. When we came on, it was massive sound, besides the visuals and the actual acting.

SFBG: How did DJing grow out of your involvement in theater?

CIS: All those major kind of things I got involved in artistically -- we're not taking about the shit jobs in between—it was always kind of by chance. It was a simple thing: I was working at Rainbow Grocery on 15th and Mission. I was the buyer in charge of homeopathy and Chinese herbs. I worked in the vitamin department. Of course, I was still collecting music. I would make tapes for the customers. I had made a tape of Algerian raï music. This guy came in and the music caught his attention. He came to me and asked what kind of music. I said, "That's considered Algerian raï rebel music." He said, "That sounds pretty cool." We started talking. He said, "You know, I run a place called Nickies in the Lower Haight. If you want to come and spin there, that would be cool." So I showed up the next week at Nickies. This year is the 18th year spinning there.

SFBG: When did you start to perform with Don Cherry?

CIS: Right around that time too, because he had moved to San Francisco to work with the Hieroglyphic Ensemble. I had met him a few years before in Europe, while I was in the Living Theater. I would see him wherever he was—Vienna, Paris—I would go to his concerts or he would come to Living Theater shows. That is how I met him—he came to a Living Theater show in Torino, Italy. From that first night, I went back to his hotel room, we had this long—I guess—25-year friendship. When he came here, we met again, and then before I was a DJ, he actually performed with us as Tribal Warning Theater. Don Cherry always wanted to do theater but never had the patience to sit through rehearsals and all that. We did a few plays at the Victoria Theater.

SFBG: What was your introduction to India and Indian music?

CIS: The music was my first introduction to India. In the '60s was yoga and everything—but I was never joining anything. That was another big thing with Don Cherry and I. If you look at the jazz musicians, most of them in the '60s during all the Black Panthers and everything else, most African American jazz musicians went back to Africa and Islam, many of them changed their names. But Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Charles Lloyd—they didn't go that route; they went to India, so did Alice Coltrane. They went to Indian spirituality. And that is an interesting kind of thing. Only a few did that. So Don Cherry and I had this other Indian music/spirituality and also Tibetan tantra.

SFBG: You have a large Western audience and are very popular in the Burning Man community. Do you ever feel that your Western fans exoticize Eastern and South Asian culture?

CIS: That's a hard one. In the West, there is a lack of initiation ritual and other places because everything is such a mess. There is a lack of communion with the village. That is what class and race and all of that have become. If you take techno or trance music, which is really based on repetition, you can see how, in the right environment, it brings people together and gives a ritual of togetherness through vibration, which in the end, everything in the universe is about vibration. If you feel good or feel better after going to dance or listening to music, you are definitely more positive towards the universe. It is difficult to be positive these days. And music does have that power. It might be short-lived, but anything we can do or think that is positive is what is needed.

Cheb i Sabbah Devotion CD Release Party, February 9th, 10 p.m., Temple Bar, 540 Howard Street, $18.

Cheb i Sabbah has had what he describes as three distinct incarnations as a DJ. The first was in 1964, when he was a 17-year old on his own in Paris making a living spinning Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Arethra Franklin. The second was in 1980, returning to Paris after over a decade of traveling, when he spun mainly Brazilian music. The final and most recent incarnation began in the early '90s, when he started his "1002 Nights" weekly at Nickies in the Lower Haight, where he still spins North African, Middle Eastern, and South Asia beats every Tuesday.

The span of Cheb i Sabbah's 40-year musical career was punctuated by involvement in two experimental theater groups -- the Living Theater from the late-'60s through the '70s, and the Tribal Warning Theater in the late '80s -- as well as a host of odd jobs, including work at Amoeba Records and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. His music was also greatly influenced by a long-time friendship and collaboration with jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, whose music Cheb i Sabbah remixed with that of Ornette Coleman and the poetry of Ira Cohen to create his debut album, The Majoon Traveler, in 1994.

With a thick French accent and extraordinary patience for helping navigate the dense weave of movements and traditions that compose his life story, Cheb i Sabbah talked to the SFBG about his most recent album, Devotion, as well as his long career in music and theater.

SFBG: You recorded all of the music for several of your albums, including Devotion, in India. What is it like working with highly trained classical musicians?

Cheb i Sabbah: What has always struck me about working with those musicians is how humble and really sincere they are. You are dealing with people who have done this all of their lives. When they meet me, they have no idea who I am. But throughout the session, this friendship develops. There are many cups of Chai in between. Later on, we keep contact.

The concept for my music is very simple: take classical music and add modern beats to open it up to more people. The fact that [the classically trained musicians] went along with it to me is still pretty amazing.

I feel that I am lucky because there is a sense that in the end I will be respectful to what they are doing. They do want to be involved with something that will reach a Western audience and something modern. But they are not always sure. Because take Bollywood music its remixes, for example: some are good, some are quite awful. That is the thing they are weary about a little bit—not to end up with something they hate. Working on Devotion, the musicians actually liked what they heard because the raga was still there, in a way, untouched. What was added to it wasn't too much in the sense of distorting their thing. I seem to have been lucky enough to find the balance between putting the electronics with their classical thing and make something that was pleasing to them.

SFBG: Who composes the music? CIS: It's not really a question of composing or not composing. It's more like -- for Devotion, when you come to an artist who does Kirtan, which is a call-and-response devotional music, I will say, "I would like to do a couple of Kirtans with you," and then he just sings them. The composition comes after the singing. The singer will say, "Yeah, okay, I'll do it, but write me a simple melody." So what we do is a little thing on a keyboard, send the MP3, and then they have that for a couple of days and return to the studio with the melody. SFBG: Are the other musicians improvising? CIS: No, they score the songs. Some do improvise -- I work with three percussionists who play every percussion you can imagine. They will score each song individually. When you ask a sarangi or sitar player, they listen to it once and say, "Ok, I got it." And then they just play—nothing is written whatsoever. They just play by ear, tune to the particular raga, and go from there. After that, of course, comes the electronic part, which is editing what you got from them, and take the best parts and maybe repeat it or loop a little bit of this or sample that. SFBG: You've had a very interesting past. What was it like moving from Algeria to Paris as a 13-year old in the '60s? CIS: Of course when you are dropped from North Africa into a big place like Paris, as you can imagine, there is so much going on. I didn't want to go to school, so I started to work when I was 15, which was even more freedom, all the way through May '68, when France stopped for a few months -- there was a general strike basically. I was involved with the artistic part and also with the Living Theater -- which was Julian Beck and Judith Malina. They happened to be in France because they had been in Europe for a few years in exile from America and from the IRS. cheb21.jpg SFBG: What is the story of the Living Theater? CIS: If you lived in Paris at that time, Julian Beck and Judith Malina had been part of the '50s bohemia trip in New York with Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Alan Ginsberg, and all of that. The Living Theater went to Europe and had become a mythical kind of a group -- just the way they looked, the way they acted, the kind of theater that they did. I was a DJ so I had free time. I was basically free from everything, just living on my own when I was 17-years old in a hotel room and being a DJ at night. When you went to see the Living Theater, it was just an amazing kind of experience -- I had never seen that before. In '68, some of us took [over] the Odéon Theater, which was the bastion of French culture. We lived there for a while and had assemblies and reunions and all of that. Then, a few months later, in July, I went down to the south of France and stayed with the Living Theater for a couple of months while they were working on a play called Paradise Now. I wanted to join, but at that time, after May '68, they decided to split into three groups. One went to India, one stayed in Europe, and the one with Judith and Julian went to Brazil, where eventually they got arrested, went to jail, some members were tortured, beaten up, and all of that. Eventually they came out in 1970, and that's when I joined the Living Theater -- in New York City. We used to have a house across the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. We rehearsed there everyday. SFBG: What brought you to the States? CIS: I found myself being taken to America by an American woman actually. She kidnapped me and took me first to New York and then to Berkeley. When I arrived in Berkeley, it was the whole thing about the People's Park, and the Living Theater was touring the US. We met and reconnected with Living Theater in Berkeley. There was a memorable performance with Jim Morrison acting out during the play as an audience member but getting involved with Paradise Now, which was all about audience participation. SFBG: How would you describe Berkeley and the Bay Area during that time? CIS: It was the beginning of the end kind of thing. Compared to Paris, it was pretty lightweight. Because if you saw ten cops running, you saw hundreds of people running back, whereas in Paris it was a different thing in terms of the demonstrations. SFBG: What was your role with the Living Theater? CIS: My role was acting, but then I became Judith [Malina] and Julian [Beck's] assistant. I was very fortunate because I had never taken an acting class -- they just took me in. I would go on tour with them whenever they did lectures to raise money. They would go around East Coast campuses and give theater lectures, so I would always be with them taking care of little things, selling books. I have all that kind of training—a very close relationship with both of them. Then I became the money person. I would figure out the money with Julian and then pay the artists -- which wasn't very much money, but at least a weekly whatever, enough for subway and cigarettes maybe. Nobody got paid but we all lived, ate, and worked together. SFBG: Was your involvement with the Living Theater through the '70s? CIS: Yes, from the late '60s to the '70s. We lived in Brooklyn, as I said before, and then we went back to Europe. I had residence in a few places in Italy. And then of course, we toured Europe—France, Germany, and everywhere. We were invited to Italy by the Communist Party. One thing about the Living Theater was that whenever we did a play in any country, we did it in the language of the country, even if some of us did not speak the language, we said our lines in the language of the country. SFBG: What was your involvement with music during that period? CIS: There was some but at that time I was just acting. It was when I left the Living Theater and came to San Francisco. Suzanne Thomas and I, we were a couple. We started a group called Tribal Warning Theater. It was very successful. We always played to packed sold-out audiences. But it was hard to keep it going, you know. Obviously, nobody involved got paid. Most people had jobs, so we rehearsed at night and on weekends—and we performed on weekends. We performed at The Lab. We used to open for Psychic TV. That was when I started to do soundtracks. At that time it was the height of the industrial music -- you know, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, and all of those groups that were doing industrial weird kind of music. I would do a multi-track collage of sound that we would use as a soundtrack along with our lines, but we had microphones and everything else. We had slide shows and videos—a multimedia kind of thing. Our soundtrack was as loud as Psychic TV live. When we came on, it was massive sound, besides the visuals and the actual acting. SFBG: How did DJing grow out of your involvement in theater? CIS: All those major kind of things I got involved in artistically -- we're not taking about the shit jobs in between—it was always kind of by chance. It was a simple thing: I was working at Rainbow Grocery on 15th and Mission. I was the buyer in charge of homeopathy and Chinese herbs. I worked in the vitamin department. Of course, I was still collecting music. I would make tapes for the customers. I had made a tape of Algerian raï music. This guy came in and the music caught his attention. He came to me and asked what kind of music. I said, "That's considered Algerian raï rebel music." He said, "That sounds pretty cool." We started talking. He said, "You know, I run a place called Nickies in the Lower Haight. If you want to come and spin there, that would be cool." So I showed up the next week at Nickies. This year is the 18th year spinning there. SFBG: When did you start to perform with Don Cherry? CIS: Right around that time too, because he had moved to San Francisco to work with the Hieroglyphic Ensemble. I had met him a few years before in Europe, while I was in the Living Theater. I would see him wherever he was—Vienna, Paris—I would go to his concerts or he would come to Living Theater shows. That is how I met him—he came to a Living Theater show in Torino, Italy. From that first night, I went back to his hotel room, we had this long—I guess—25-year friendship. When he came here, we met again, and then before I was a DJ, he actually performed with us as Tribal Warning Theater. Don Cherry always wanted to do theater but never had the patience to sit through rehearsals and all that. We did a few plays at the Victoria Theater. SFBG: What was your introduction to India and Indian music? CIS: The music was my first introduction to India. In the '60s was yoga and everything—but I was never joining anything. That was another big thing with Don Cherry and I. If you look at the jazz musicians, most of them in the '60s during all the Black Panthers and everything else, most African American jazz musicians went back to Africa and Islam, many of them changed their names. But Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Charles Lloyd—they didn't go that route; they went to India, so did Alice Coltrane. They went to Indian spirituality. And that is an interesting kind of thing. Only a few did that. So Don Cherry and I had this other Indian music/spirituality and also Tibetan tantra. SFBG: You have a large Western audience and are very popular in the Burning Man community. Do you ever feel that your Western fans exoticize Eastern and South Asian culture? CIS: That's a hard one. In the West, there is a lack of initiation ritual and other places because everything is such a mess. There is a lack of communion with the village. That is what class and race and all of that have become. If you take techno or trance music, which is really based on repetition, you can see how, in the right environment, it brings people together and gives a ritual of togetherness through vibration, which in the end, everything in the universe is about vibration. If you feel good or feel better after going to dance or listening to music, you are definitely more positive towards the universe. It is difficult to be positive these days. And music does have that power. It might be short-lived, but anything we can do or think that is positive is what is needed. Cheb i Sabbah Devotion CD Release Party, February 9th, 10 p.m., Temple Bar, 540 Howard Street, $18.

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