Cheb i Sabbah
Cheb, I, Sabbah, Shri, Durga, free, mp3, download, Hindustani, ragas, Six, Degrees, Records
By J.C. Tripp
An attempt to reinvent an ancient and evolved art form that celebrates the Gods would be a daunting task even for a trained local musician. For an “outsider” to succeed in this project would be unlikely at best. Yet, Cheb i Sabbah has crafted a classic that is deceptively simple at first blush but underneath its skin has the skill and complexity characteristic of a true work of art. Krishna Lila has a fragile, fragrant beauty that lingers long after the disc has stopped playing. Like all his projects, Cheb i Sabbah has approached this one with reverence for the culture it represents and has taken no shortcuts.
The album has been in production for two years. Most of the musicians were recorded in Madras, Bombay and New Delhi, India, and others in New York and San Francisco. Sung in five different languages, it is strewn together like acoustic jewelry, the common thread being bhakti yoga (devotion) to Krishna. Lustrous, new gems are interspersed with uncut traditional pieces that echo timelessness not often heard on a CD. Krishna Lila is organized in two parts. The first five tracks recorded in South India are evocative of Krishna’s pastimes in the garden of Vrindavan. Dressed in garments of gold, and with an orange flower tucked behind his ear, he wanders through the garden playing his magic flute. The gopis (cowgirls) are entranced by the sweetness of the music. Some are bathing in the nearby pond. They emerge, still wet and askew. Others are breastfeeding their babies but cannot wait to set their eyes upon Krishna. They trip through the cool grass. Drunk on the melody of the flute they sway through the trees until they finally feast their eyes upon him and fall to the ground to kiss his feet. The next four tracks are recorded in North India and include vocals and some instrumentation in the distinctive thumri style.
During the making of Krishna Lila, as with his earlier Shri Durga, Cheb i Sabbah embarked on a two year odyssey. The results more than justify his considerable efforts as Krishna Lila’s reverential ambience is immediate and unforgettable, being nothing less than the timeless sound of India itself. A complex blend of cultural, technological and religious components informs Krishna Lila. Listeners will find themselves transported to a realm of celestial beauty, making occasional stops along the way at a dance club whose turntables spin ragas and electronica with equal grace. (Courtesy of Six Degrees)
Cheb i Sabbah was interviewed after the release of Shri Durga but his words are still pertinent and relevant to Krishna Lila.
MUNDOVIBES: Where did your relationship with Six Degrees come from?
Cheb i Sabbah: They are based in San Francisco. Somebody I knew that became a friend kept telling me that he found this job as an intern with a label called Six Degrees and they had come to shows I’ve done—live shows. And he kept saying, ‘you have to come meet them.’ Finally I went and I brought with me a DAT. Basically, I had started Shri Durga on my own with a credit card, so I brought it to them and they said ‘if you want to, we definitely want to put it out.’ It was very simple. At that time they were with Island Records. They were the same as Quango—a sub label of Island, like Axiom, like Mango. But then there was this big shakeout at Universal Records, so they (Island) got rid of everybody and Six Degrees was the last label they got rid of. There was this big shift, and Chris Blackwell left.
MUNDOVIBES: So, you were developing this project on your own. What was the inspiration to begin this trek?
C: Well, I had done a few remixes already and I met Ustad Salamat Ali Khan in San Francisco, because some of his children had moved to S.F. So that was a big blast for me. It started as mixing one song, but from there it grew into a whole record. We went to the studio and did like two sessions of really incredible material and the second night I took a mix, real rough. We also had a tabla and I had put a very simple pattern on a drum machine. So, I had this off-the-board mix and the next week I took it to a post-production studio, and the guy who did the recording was going to dump it onto a 24-track. I said ‘wait for me’ and when I got there he had already done it. In the process of dubbing it by himself he had totally lost the sessions. And what I had left was, you know, it sounded good but that drum machine was just in the way. Without the drum machine I could’ve managed something. The tracks were together, it was a mix off the board. So, that was the first attempt that didn’t work. There was nothing I could do, I had to accept it.
MUNDOVIBES: Did this force you to develop your ideas more?
C: Yeah. It was the beginning of it so it was only like three tracks.
MUNDOVIBES: Is this something you had previously experimented with—the relations between you and the other musicians?
C: Because I’m a DJ it was a way to formulate— there’s this great classical music, traditional music and I have to add enough so it could become danceable material but without sacrificing the tradition. Or create something so modern that the tradition is superficial or there’s very little of it.
MUNDOVIBES: It seems you’ve succeeded—every review I’ve read praises it for that.
C: Yeah, it seems that it worked. But, also if you look at jazz, that’s what it is also. It’s not as old, but there’s a tradition there and you can say, ‘I’m going to add some more to that.’ But the thing just plays and you can add to it. So, in a certain sense, it was like listening to Don (Cherry) a lot, spending a lot of time with him as a manager and friend before he passed away. We listened to a lot of Indian classical music.
MUNDOVIBES: How do you learn music?
C: I only have the ear. It doesn’t translate through hands or breath. But it seems that I have the ear, that’s what I work with.
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MUNDOVIBES: You began before a lot of us were around, in the sixties (laughter). You’re basically talking the whole history of popular music.
C: It seems that way, or at least dance music with that kind of format; dance music you hear within a certain space, and somebody playing the music for you. That was the mid-sixties discotheque in Paris. Between then and now, besides raising a family and a few jobs, this has been the trajectory.
MUNDOVIBES: What have you wanted to do with this? Did it start as a hobby?
C: When I started DJing, it was right into the middle of professional spinning in clubs where you have 1,500 people on the dance floor. I grew up with a lot of music. During the day a friend and I worked as hair dressers. We dropped out, but my friend became a DJ just like that. And, so he brought me in. I didn’t pay any dues, I didn’t have to learn it or do this or that, it was right into it because I started to replace him and then right away I got my own gigs.
MUNDOVIBES: Do you think it was easier then? Were the standards that different?
C: There were not that many clubs you could work at. At that time, when you worked at a club in Paris it was like five or six nights a week plus afternoons. It’s every day. It’s not once a week, or a party once in a while. When you’re in, you’re in and some way or another you’ve got to deliver and the competition is fierce. But there weren’t that many clubs. There weren’t like now, where there are so many parties. It was also the beginning of it. You asked me what I wanted to do with DJing. The way I like to spin, the most pleasing way for me is like using theater, as far as doing a real show. Again, in Paris show business is a profession. What that means is you put on shows for people and there’s an art in them. What I see mostly in America is a club and a promoter without the art of theater.
MUNDOVIBES: It’s hype.
C: It’s hype and at the same time there’s no substance. There’s no profession there of putting on the show with details, dancers, a beginning, a middle and an end. Which, when I started to do theater that’s what it is—it’s very detailed and there is structure. That to me is what I like to do most, which I do when I put on live shows, because basically I direct the show in a certain way. If you are a person who pays to see the show, it begins from the first person you meet at the door. To me that’s when the show starts. And when you leave, it’s last person that greets you out—then the show is over. They’re here because they came for something and you have to deliver it, and you have to be very graceful and have class. But America is difficult. Maybe in Vegas it exists, but I don’t go there (laughs).
MUNDOVIBES: I’d like to talk about the music that you are immersed in. You’ve culled musics from all over the world into one theme. Are you inspired by everything and you just want to bring it in?
C: There’s things that I like but I don’t play. I try narrow it down to basically Asian, Arabic and African. I can do a six hour set of Afro-Cuban music, I have that kind of music. I have music from other parts of the world, or other styles, but I let other people do it. So, I narrow it down to those three continents and within that I play some traditional with some modern. I do play songs rather than non-lyrics.
MUNDOVIBES: Is that a strong feeling you have?
C: Yes, because you can tell the difference between Khaled and Nitin Sawhney, who will compose a song with a real singer. To me, that’s the kind of music I want to spin. There’s plenty of people that do the other music, which is not a song—it’s a groove. But sometimes it’s hard to tell which was the last groove and which was the next, which is done very well with beat matching. But I don’t do any of that; that’s not what I want to do. And since there is room for all of us, I have chosen to spin dance music that are songs.
MUNDOVIBES: Isn’t that amazing that that would be an anomaly?
C: I guess, because most club music is pretty music groove-oriented rather than song-oriented. One thing you have to realize is that a lot of the music that comes from certain areas, or countries; those people never go to clubs, but they always dance. And here it’s kind of the reverse; people don’t dance, but then they have to go to clubs to dance. There are so many cultures where singing and dancing is part of life. You grow up with it and the way you celebrate things in life are important; it’s always celebrated with singing and dancing. So, I’d rather play that kind of music than the music that’s specifically for clubs.
MUNDOVIBES: Is it what you came out of?
C: I came from a culture where singing and dancing was always there. And also because to me, I’d rather listen to a song than groove-oriented music. To me, after a while it kind of sounds the same. If you listen to different singers, different songs—not that I understand every song that I play either. A lot of times I have no idea what they’re singing about; that’s the chance I’m taking. At the same time you can tell if it’s a song from Algeria or a song from Pakistan because there’s somebody there with vocals and telling their story.
MUNDOVIBES: On that same idea, how about that of a remix? You’ve handed over your tracks to various recognized and respected artists, and some of them have come up with a whole deconstructed sound. Is that cool with you?
C: That’s cool with me. Personally I would never be a remixer artist, cause I have a different ear. But I think in this case the remixes to me are all very good and I really like them and the fact that they are deconstructed, yeah it’s OK. It’s like one experiment, I won’t make a career out of it personally. As far as an experiment I think it’s a successful one.
MUNDOVIBES: Is there ever a debate between you and a traditional musician over the fact that a lot of musicians have lost their jobs because of DJs.
C: I don’t agree with that, because if it weren’t for DJs nobody would hear music. Musicians would not exist without DJs, because DJs club wise or radio wise are the ones that play the music that comes out.
MUNDOVIBES: I’m thinking more of…for example, there was a New York club called Tramps and now it’s strictly DJs. So, that’s one less venue in New York that can feature a band. And the thing that’s disturbing is that it was done as a means of maximizing profits—not having to pay musicians.
C: Those changes are taking place and our lives are changing, whether we want it or not. It’s part of everything else. It’s the same thing for me, when somebody invites me to spin somewhere, it’s only one plane ticket, one hotel room and one fee. That’s cheaper than a band, but at the same time it’s a different function and people don’t come to clubs to see me do anything, they come to dance. You go see a band, you watch the band. Yes, you dance too but you also watch the musicians in action. With DJs, there’s not much to watch.
MUNDOVIBES: Some people actually do watch the DJ.
C: I know, and if you don’t have turntables you’re not a real DJ.
MUNDOVIBES: You have a wider perspective. I’m sure at some time it was another issue.
C: Yes, it’s always something. I don’t use turntables, so sometimes I get the look. You know, ‘CDs, that’s not a real DJ.’
MUNDOVIBES: Your materials are probably impossible to get on vinyl anyway.
C: Right. My point is, I’ve already done turntables (laughter). I just do CDs because it’s easier. Actually it’s not that easy, because you can’t see anything on a CD, so you have to know songs pretty well—you have to use the intros, the outros. There was a time when it was vinyl and cassettes, because CDs didn’t exist yet. If it wasn’t on vinyl then the only way to play the music from a lot of countries at that time, like 12 years ago was cassettes. So, I had two professional walkmans. And I would know where the song is, because I had it written down and I would have a search function and then I would play the song on the cassette. So, you can’t be stopped by ‘is it vinyl, is it this or that?’ because the song is there to be played, is doesn’t matter what the medium is.
MUNDOVIBES: That is such a barrier for a lot of people.
C: There’s definitely an art in spinning vinyl and beat matching. Absolutely. But that’s not what music is all about.
MUNDOVIBES: I shared some of these thought on an e-mail list I’m on. I just posted my thoughts on the whole idea with sound in a club: it’s this groove, this monotonous kind of groove that you get lost in. There’s no beginning or end, there’s no song. In New York it’s even more so. In San Francisco you could hear a lot of influences, in New York you’re either there for “2-step,” “deep house,” or “trance” and that’s all you’re going to hear all night.
C: It’s so bland. It’s like the blandness of society and if you look at food it’s pretty much the same. If you look at a lot of things it’s pretty much the same. It’s like a unified kind of a bland something that, to me, is scary.
MUNDOVIBES: Tell me about your involvement in theater? It seems your thoughts from theater really seep into your music.
C: And vice versa. In Paris, in ’65 I saw Living Theater perform there, because they were in exile from here because of the IRS. They were in exile in Europe and they became a legendary group there. So, I saw them perform and I was like ‘wow.’ They were a working company, touring. So I saw them perform there, and I had been in a small theater group that were doing things around rituals. And then there was May ’68 in Paris and all of the buildings were being taken over by the students, workers and anarchists. In June a friend of mine said, Ôlet’s go to Living Theater down south. They’re rehearsing in Avignon. They’re rehearsing “Paradise Now,” to open at this festival of Avignon.’ So, I went there and stayed for two months, living where they lived and rehearsed. And then they left from the festival as a support to May ’68 and said ‘fuck bourgeois culture, we’re leaving the festival.’ Then they came to the U.S. to do a tour and I was then in the U.S. for the first time, living in Oakland, California. So, I saw them there again and I wanted to join.
At the same time, at the end of the tour the group was splitting up into three groups. One stayed in Europe, one went to India, one went to Brazil. Living Theater went to Brazil with a group of people, working the favela, did plays, got busted—supposedly the police found a kilo of grass in New York. Went to jail, some people got tortured, benefits were done in America. A lot of intellectuals, artists, big names wrote letters to the Brazilian government. They came out of jail, came to New York and in 1971 I came to New York and joined the Living Theater. I stayed, I left, I came back two or three times.
Then in 1987 I went to San Francisco and started a group called Tribal Warning Theater. And that was the first time that I made soundtracks for the actual plays. One was called ‘Against (His)story’ and we played in clubs. We always had a sound system, and that’s when I started to blast soundtracks and at the same time, the soundtrack was all of the cues that were necessary to act with. So, that’s the theater and in between and I would go back and forth with DJing and also because I had two children, I had some jobs.
MUNDOVIBES: San Francisco is your home.
C: It’s been my home for fourteen years. I didn’t want to raise children in New York, I didn’t feel I had it. I went to San Francisco because it has more space, more open air.
MUNDOVIBES: Do you want to break out your sound? Do you think that people need to be educated?
C: I don’t believe that people need to be educated. I have no intention of educating anyone. But, if I’m invited I will go. It’s like in the theater—it doesn’t matter who you play for and where, you just do it. You don’t say, ‘oh, these people are cool, but these people are not cool.’ That way, I’m still the same. I will go anywhere I’m invited to, but on my own I don’t have a mission where I go somewhere and I have to reach anyone. I don’t think music can be forced, it’s not didactic like politics or causes. At the same time, one thing you know is that ‘yeah, a lot of times music works.’ The way people react to music, you know that music works. There’s no need for inspiration. So, in that context, yes you do go places sometimes where people are not expecting you and they go ‘wow, I didn’t know this music existed.’
On one hand, on the other hand if they’re really stuck and conditioned with house or techno or popular styles, then they’re kind of like ‘what is that?’ In the theater we used to say, ‘if you did one play and you could touch one person, then it’s a success.’ But what happens with the unconscious is that whatever you register will always come back and one goes ‘oh, that was that.’ That’s the way that theater works, so if you can do that with one person it’s successful.
MUNDOVIBES: Is the goddess Shri Durga something that is at the core of your beliefs?
C: Yes. On the mystical level of the feminine aspect, this rules everything. Biologically, without woman we wouldn’t be born. The different parts that make Shri Durga is definitely this journey and this offering to the feminine aspect. Which happens, in India, to have many names and many forms and Durga is one of them. But, she’s also that aspect of good over evil. And the times that we are living in are so uncertain that it seems that we need all the blessings we can to even go out on the street. So, it was definitely an offering and devotional act to the feminine goddess, which is Shri Durga. Some say, ‘Shri Durga. It sounds like the soundtrack for a movie, because there’s no stops and it goes places.’ That’s true, it’s more like a journey into the mystical approach to who we are, where do we come from and where do we go. To me, it’s important to know—what are we doing, who are we, what for?
MUNDOVIBES: With the music you’re spinning that’s a theme of yours. Do you try to take people outside themselves.
C: It’s not me, it’s the music, it’s certain prayers, mantra. Those things, I didn’t invent them, they are already there and I think that when they are put together obviously it’s inspiring. It inspires me, because when I listen to Shri Durga, I’m still practicing the raga. See, I don’t listen to Shri Durga like ‘it’s my record and I’m singing my song.’ I don’t want to make records like that. To me the prayers or the raga that I hear on Shri Durga is something that I’m still growing with. It’s not, ‘yeah, I wrote that song, I did this, I did that.’ It’s not that kind of music—the purpose of that music is different than most music offered. This kind of music is to inspire you, to awake some kind of devotional respect for the fact that we are here breathing and are part of this madness. It brings in more of the metaphysical questions, which might not necessarily have answers. But the main thing is really the inspiration, which is what ragas are based on—devotional music. So, to find that perfect tuning is to be closer to perfection. And the way we see the world, we don’t have to look too hard, because there’s a lot of negative things going on in the world.
MUNDOVIBES: Sometimes it’s the simplest things that are the clearest things. Why put out more aggressive, hard energy?
C: At the same time, simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve.