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World Music Features

DJ Cheb i Sabbah

By Douglas Heselgrave
Published June 3, 2008

Over the years, DJ Cheb i Sabbah has developed an increasingly fluid touch when it comes to mixing the traditional music of India and North Africa with the hypermodern sound of electronica. Devotion, his latest offering is a celebratory groove excursion that brings Sufi, Sikh and Hindu influences together in harmony.

With his latest album Devotion, Cheb i Sabbah has created a CD of modern sacred songs that in a perfect world would be equally at home in a temple or on the dancefloor. Ecstatic states have always been a source of fascination for Sabbah— in an embrace between ancient holy songs and cutting edge digital sound, he uses electronic beats to elevate scriptures and create music that’s unpredictable, uplifting and thoroughly intoxicating. With sounds like these at the ready, the apparent spiritual divide between the hedonistic revellers at England’s annual Glastonbury Festival and the sadhus at India’s Khumba Mehla festival has never seemed so narrow.

 

Sabbah’s first three outings—Shri Durga (1999), Maha Maya: Shri Durga Remixed (2000) and Krishna Lila (2002)—documented his initial fascination with the relationship between ancient Indian spirituality and modern technology, and have since become DJ and dance floor favorites. But while these first three releases focus on mythology and music from the Hindu tradition, Devotion is a much wider scope, as it also incorporates prayers from Sikhism and Sufi Islam. The album represents a great leap forward for Sabbah as a composer and a producer, and is certainly his most fully realized journey into the musical and spiritual heart of India.

 

“It was a decision to represent different styles of music in the devotional or Bhakti context,” he explains, still buzzing from a New York City club date the night before. “For the first two albums, it was all Hindu kirtans [sacred hymns], but I expanded the scope this time and explored Bhakti, which is based on the inspiration of the sounds of devotional worship. It says in the Bhagavad Gita that the best yoga for Kali Yuga—the era we’re currently in, according to Hinduism—is Bhakti yoga. I’m not saying that I understand all of it, or that I’m pushing anything, but what I hear and what anyone can hear when they come to India is this rich history of sounds from the various spiritual

traditions.”

 

The music on Devotion conjures a rhythmic and meditative mood that is not at odds with contemplation, yet the pulsing undercurrent in each of these songs could just as easily send one spinning off into inspired fits of kundalini dancing. His mixing is discreet and understated he avoids using obvious grooves or beats as a way of bridging disparate musical ideas. Unlike some world fusion projects where the “exotic” sounds used by producers feel like an easy way to give a mystical edge to an otherwise weak song, the eight compositions on Devotion are models of thematic and musical unity. “[Jazz trumpeter] Don Cherry told me once that when you’re a musician, you’re not doing anything that’s never been done before,” Sabbah points out. “That’s why I think that what I do is really about sharing and processing something that I’ve experienced, and I try to be humble a