The Algerian-born musical mystic got his start spinning American soul in mid-1960s Paris as a scrubby 17-year-old. But his outernational obsession didn't really take hold until 1980, when he launched a Parisian monthly club featuring Brazilian, North African, and Indian sounds, along with accompanying dancers and visuals. Now, from his San Francisco home, Cheb i Sabbah is one of the foremost practitioners of transglobal (in his case, trance-global) rhythm swapping, a concept he had practiced long before it earned a rack at Tower Records.
His approach to music reflects a passion for bringing people together. "Dance music can only grow bigger, because it's one way all people [can] have some sort of communion that's not present in Western society." Arguing that clubs fulfill a basic social need that goes back much further than breakbeats and cover charges, he believes that his interaction with the audience is far more important than just creating a groovy vibe -- a fact that often fills his DJ booth with dance floor vacationers.
Cheb i Sabbah's interest in audience interaction stems from his late-'60s experience with the Living Theater, an experimental performance group that explored innovative ways to involve the audience -- including taking LSD and getting naked. When Cheb i Sabbah moved to San Francisco in 1986 to raise his two children, he became involved with the similarly minded Tribal Warning Theater. While there, he began exploring new musical avenues as a DJ, splicing together disparate musical parts for the theater's soundtracks.
He continued to inject theater into music -- and vice versa -- with his now-defunct world music series "1002 Nights." Aiming to expand San Francisco's internationalist reputation, Cheb i Sabbah invited artists such as Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, London's bhangra son Bally Sagoo, and Indian sarangi stylist Sultan Khan to perform. He organized these nights thematically, so that the music, video collages, décor, and food all reflected the performer's home country. His goal was to create a world the audience could feel and inhabit, if only for a night. "There was a period of six or seven years where I put on 41 concerts," he says. When reminded that our tally shows 961 nights to go, he laughs. "The expenses are so high that not many people take chances," he says. "I took 41 chances with a credit card."
Nonetheless, Cheb i Sabbah's largest innovations have come through music alone, inside both the club and the studio. At "Africa/India/Arabia" and his other frequent gigs, the DJ mixes traditional Indian ragas -- North Indian devotional songs -- with the work of British artists Asian Dub Foundation and Nitin Sawhney, fellow Algerian Rachid Taha, Senegalese pop star Baaba Maal, and Egyptian-styled singer Natacha Atlas, whom Cheb i Sabbah first broke on the club scene. Despite the variety of his source material, his vision runs distinctly counter to that of other sample-happy DJs who grab freely from the multiculti pickle jar. "I play an actual song," Cheb i Sabbah explains. "It has a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end."
This attention to song is a path that's largely been ignored by the world-music-sampling DJs and producers who have followed him, but it's a reflection of both Cheb i Sabbah's reverence for his sources and his unique approach to electronic music. "I am a traditionalist more than anything. I try to keep a certain amount of respect so you hear the tradition of the music. What I try to do with producing music is make more of a balance between where it comes from -- the source of it, the tradition of it -- and bring in the dance sound." For his 1999 album Shri Durga, the artist recorded Hindustani singers and musicians performing classically based ragas over rhythm loops he brought from home.
K. Sridhar, the Indian-born sarod player who contributed to Shri Durga and to the DJ's forthcoming album Krishna Lila, feels Cheb i Sabbah's deep understanding of Hindu culture allows him to bring traditional Indian music into the electronica realm. "Most people do fusion and it leads to confusion," Sridhar says. Claiming to dislike electronic music in general, Sridhar says that Cheb i Sabbah's efforts offer due respect for India's culture and history.
Cheb i Sabbah cites the physical communication of the music he draws upon as a source of his fascination. "What do we use music for? If you take Andalusian music from North Africa, or if you take Persian music or Indian music, they have a certain effect when you listen to them. It's more of looking for music that does something specific rather than the country [it comes from]." By way of explanation, the artist mentions a study in which researchers found ragas to be the most soothing form of music for babies. And while Cheb i Sabbah's DJ sets rarely inspire calm, his listeners frequently share blissful looks -- whether or not they understand the traditions he explores. "I'm not trying to educate people, but really educate myself. When I listen to something at the club, I'm discovering it too," he says.
At one time, the DJ aimed to please an audience that included émigrés like himself. "It was immigrant music for immigrants," he says of his goal when he starting spinning at Nickie's 12 years ago. Even though he was happy that people were showing up to hear music from their former homelands, he still encountered problems. At times he was forced to balance tensions between people from different countries and backgrounds. "It is assumed, but it is not always the case, that anybody from one place will accept any other place [you represent on record]."
Despite his otherworldly bent, Cheb i Sabbah refuses to be pigeonholed as a DJ who just spins international music; frequently he blends hip hop tracks and jungle layers into his sets. "One does not say, "I can make a soup but I can't make a sauce.' If you cook, you cook. If you spin, you spin."
"I think DJs are editors. We listen to a lot of music and select. That's part one. Part two is how you put it together." His recordings are a natural extension of his love for juxtaposition. "We are not meant to dance 24 hours a day. So what kind of music do we need when we are not dancing?" He explains, "[Shri Durga] was an attempt to have a record sound good at home at a low level, but also loud on the dance floor."
Even as some DJs complained that the album was too slow for their sets, others offered club-worthy tributes on last year's remix album, Maja Maya. Karsh Kale, a New York-based tabla player, producer, and sometime collaborator with Cheb i Sabbah, feels that the DJ's innovative efforts at bringing Asian music to clubs reflects how long he has spent exploring music. "He's really coming from a lot of different places," Kale says. "Cheb i's sound is definitely a traveled sensibility." Kale adds that Cheb i Sabbah's inimitable sound is a product both of his transglobal influences and of his San Francisco home.
Cheb i Sabbah continues this amalgamation with his soon-to-be-released Krishna Lila, which will explore the Indian music of Bombay and Madras. He also has a track on an upcoming Bill Laswell disc of Arabic-derived music, and a cut on a remix album of Paul Horn's 1968 solo flute recordings inside the Taj Mahal. In the meantime, he'll continue spinning music from around the world, both for former residents of faraway places and for travelers of the mind.
"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 says.