I had several false starts with this w/u; after some pondering, I decided to summarize my rambling into 3 easy bits: the bio, the musicography, and a bit of blatant opining at the end.

Bio of a dj

How much can you learn of a man from interviews? Not a whole lot; some glib answers about this or that, some names dropped so the listener can nod wisely and ponder the intertwining of musical styles as influenced by local performers, and a bit of carefully chosen past. I can only provide here what is gleaned from these tidbits.

The music was there from the start (which was in 1947, Algeria). At that time in North Africa you could find Andalusian music played in the traditional way, oud and vocals, or you could find performers using a violin to play the same music. The music crossed cultural and spiritual barriers, and one could go learn music from a Muslim Ustad, or from a Hindu Pandit - and many did. Many didn't, since it wasn't the exactly "done" thing - Muslims mingling with Northern and Southern Indians, and all that. Rai artists rarely reached the Hindustani school of North India or the carnatic of South; much less both, which is what dj Cheb i Sabbah did. The results are intricate, sultry and atmospheric mixes of traditional and modern, aimed more at a chillin' lounge than the frenetic dance club; although well-suited to either.

Of course the progression to his CD releases wasn't quite that immediate - although obviously, that's the only place I know him from. Over the years, Sabbah DJ'ed soul and R&B in Paris in the 60s, created soundtracks for experimental theatre in San Francisco in the 70s, and then worked more in creating mixes and soundscapes to go with live visual performances that matched his Arabic/Indian/African influences. Creating Shri Durga, a compilation album of renowned Pakistani and Northern Indian classical musicians overlaying subtle background accompaniament seems like the next logical step of his experiments in crossing boundaries of media, musical style, and regional traditions.

Musicography

Shri Durga, 1999
Six Degrees Records

This is another album I owe to KVRX, the radio station for the University of Texas at Austin. As DJs, we had total conditional freedom over what we wanted to play, as long as we followed two simple guidelines - we had to play 5 of this week's new records, and 2 local artists. Assuming 5 minutes per song and throwing in the PSAs we had to do, that still left about 20 minutes per hour completely free. The beauty of that system was that not all of the new CDs in rotation were completely new - some had stuck around for more than a single week, either due to its outstanding popularity around the station, or to meager pickings for this week's loot. All of the CDs we got were freely donated, so some weeks were naturally more bountiful than others. So, you got to see some titles more often than others in the New CDs bin, and naturally you wanted to play something vaguely corresponding to your wishes - so all of the CDs got picked up, their mini-reviews read, and the songs spun. Shri Durga was one of those, and it intrigued immediately even before I put it on the spindle (well ok, on the CD tray).

Wow.

Tabla. Sitar. Santur. Sarangi. Slide guitar. Croons and chants by very talented and soulful performers. And the occasional explosion into drum and bass beat, supporting but not overwhelming the full frontal, sinuous and graceful music. Other times, a heavy slow bass imposes a dark and smoky rhythm on lighter notes, making a deliberate, somnolent piece into a more urgent one.

This genre is commonly referred to as Asian Fusion, but entirely too often this simply means some classic sounds thrown onto a simple, overwhelming beat. The genius of Sabbah is that his rhythms simply support, and always know when to leave off entirely. This trend was too restrained, and we got ...

Maha Maya: Shri Durga Remixed, 2000
Six Degrees Records

Having unleashed such a thing, Sabbah promptly remixes it - as do several other artists in the scene. I only listened to this on Amazon's music sampler, and didn't particularly like what I heard. It was faster, more electronic, less balanced - although that is of course subjective. I will probably pick this up one day, but I tend not to enjoy remixes of pieces I liked in the first place. Which brings us to ...

Krishna Lila, 2002
Six Degrees Records

Even more electronically sparse than the first album, Krishna Lila focuses far more on the interplay of classical elements put into new arrangements than on just adding modern music. This one goes quite a bit further into the "less is more" exploration, showing off Sabbah's mastery of arrangement, no matter what tools he's working with.

That's not to say it's completely devoid of modern beats; they're still there, but far more subtle than the first album.

As Far As - A DJ Mix, 2003
Six Degrees Records

Sticking to a subtle pattern, this one is a mix album again.

This is more of a mix tape (CD) than a composition; there is a new track by Sabbah and the transitions are by him, but the remainder of the works are by other artists. It's a nice fusion electronic album if you like that sort of thing (which I do, and it's in my rotation), but not nearly as jaw-droppingly fresh as his synthesis pieces.

La Kahena, 2005
Six Degrees Records

No data yet. I only just found out it was released recently, but hope to soon remedy it. It appears that dj Cheb i Sabbah has moved his search for sounds away from India and into the lands of his earlier life - North Africa.

The blatant opining bit

I was going to wax eloquent about the music, but upon closer examination of my credentials to do so, I have none. So I'll forbear. I will say however that Sabah's music made me interested in world (not fusion) music in the first place, and my collection grew to include recordings of classical Indian artists such as Debashish Bhattacharya (slide guitar), Ustad Vilayat Khan (sitar), Dhruba Ghosh (sarangi) or Tarun Bhattacharya (santur). So if you want to ease into the music of the Orient, dj Cheb i Sabah may just be a good way to go.


Sources:
Listening to Shri Durga, Krishna Lila, and As Far As
http://www.ethnotechno.com/chebi_shridurga.php
http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/france/interviewsabbah.html
http://www.asianvibrations.com/cgi-bin/getFeature.cgi?featureNum=8
http://www.sfjff.org/sfjff21/guests/interviews/chebiji.htm
http://www.chebisabbah.com/info.php

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