By Zeb Resman
Few artists have as impressive credentials as Cheb i Sabbah. The Algerian native has been performing and producing music for nearly four decades. Throughout his career, which has taken him around the world, Cheb i Sabbah has seen and experienced lots of change since he began DJing in Paris as a teenager in the 1960s.
“As a DJ in a club it was like a monthly job,” he explains. “You got paid every month, and you were there five or six nights a week, plus afternoons. You work full time, and typical for the French, you got four weeks paid vacation.”
Besides having a full-time gig that has better benefits than most people’s day job, he also mentions something about back in the day that’s sure to blow the minds of many vinyl junkies who cherish their coveted music collections. “You did not own the music—the club bought the music. Wherever you went to spin, the club would already have the music. Once a week we would go to a couple of the major record stores that would get all the stuff from the U.S., all the seven inches, and the club would have an account with the record store, and you would pick whatever you wanted, and the club would pay the record store.”
After living in Paris for six years, Cheb i Sabbah would end up traveling and living all over the world. Gradually he started making trips to the U.S., and eventually settled in San Francisco, where he still lives to this day. Through his travels, he developed and produced his own blend of worldly electronica, mixing classical Indian, Asian and African styles, with the dance music that influenced him early on. Rather than using samples, however, Cheb i Sabbah travels all over the world to record a variety of musicians to help create his tracks. Recordings he then takes to cut, chop and remix, much to the delight of the artists he works with.
“Let’s say you’re recording someone who plays tabla. They’re really good, but they’re not necessarily always on the one. With [music] software, that’s where you kind of clean up all the percussion, so that they are on the one,” he says. “And sometimes you might have to take a phrase and clean it front to end and repeat that phrase because that’s the best phrase they’ve played. In the studio you just let them play, you’re trying to record them the best way they play it, and then after that is when you make all the changes. Often, when they hear what you’ve done afterwards they’re kind of amazed, like ‘Wow man, I play good!’ So it’s like, ‘You play really good, but right there, I did some tweaking that actually you didn’t do.’” He pauses. “But, it’s said nice and sweet; part of it is teasing.”
In San Francisco, Cheb i Sabbah not only found his permanent home, but a record label, Six Degrees Records, as well. Releasing six of his albums since the late 1990s, it’s now gearing up for his latest release, Devotion, which comes out on January 28. A concept album, “Devotion” represents three very distinct faiths of India: Hinduism, Sikhism and Sufi Islam. “All the tracks are all devotional music from India. It’s trying to represent the three major faiths of India, through a particular style of music that is devotional. It is not totally classical though. It’s huge in India. It appeals to everyone there no matter which faith they belong to.”
With his new album being released at the beginning of the new year, 2008 is looking to be a very busy one for Cheb i Sabbah. “People call me to do shows here and there all the time. So within that, I’ll be doing a tour in the winter, and then spring and summer is more like festivals.”
But talking about his success as an in-demand DJ, Cheb i Sabbah remains very humble. “I feel fortunate that people still like me enough to actually hire me to play places.”
Cheb i Sabbah joins Bombay Beatbox residents DJ Warp & Radiohiro, with visuals by the Video Janitor at Sonotheque, 1444 West Chicago, (312)226-7600, on November 30, at 9pm. $15.