It was a decidedly multinational crowd that gathered a couple of months back at Louis XIV, the French restaurant on La Brea Avenue, to hear the Algerian-born DJ Cheb i Sabbah mix up some heady sitar- and tabla-tinged sounds. The women stood out. One girl, dark-haired and very pretty in a Salma Hayek kind of way, wore a cell phone in a holster strapped to her right arm, which was as tanned and smooth as her back. Next to her, a black woman in dreadlocks talked to a white woman in dreadlocks, though only the black woman carried a backpack that looked as if it had been made out of her own hair. Also on hand (smoking bidis on the patio) was a sallow young American woman whose deepest wish, to judge from the saris and unbelievable amount of weighty silver jewelry she was wearing, seemed to be to have been born in Bengal or Madras rather than Echo Park or Woodland Hills.
Oh well. For an hour or so, DJ Cheb i Sabbah made the fantasy seem almost real. He began by playing a 40-second invocation to the Hindu deity Lord Ganesh, the “remover of all obstacles,” and it seemed to work: It cleared the air, even as the air itself began to thicken with incense and hashish. Standing on a narrow upstairs balcony overlooking diners (eating monkfish and fricasse de poulet) as well as some freestyle dancers who had presumably finished their dinners, the 52-year-old Sabbah smoked aromatic Gudang Garam cigarettes while flipping switches on the soundboard with small, precise hands. Wearing a floppy wool hat, orange T-shirt and chains, he looked every bit the mad musical scientist combining sounds rather than chemicals.
As music to dance to, Sabbah’s work is on the slow side. It‘s really trance music, almost holy music. Though designed for the club scene, it’s supposed to evoke in its listeners a sense of blissed-out religiosity, as if they were dancing barefoot on the banks of the Ganges rather than (as in this instance) in a chic French restaurant a few miles from the Hollywood sign. Listened to at home, however, the effect is slightly different (and the “dance” element more subdued). It makes great background music, if that‘s what you want, but it can be enjoyed in its own right too.
Though a lot of people may have learned about Sabbah only recently, with last year’s CD Shri Durga and his new Maha Maya — which is a remixed version of Shri Durga, with the mixes done by Sabbah and his colleagues in London‘s South Asian club scene (Trans-Global Underground, FunDaMental, etc.) — he has actually been around for a long time. He started out as a DJ in Paris in the 1960s, after his family had moved there from Algeria “with a mattress and some boxes,” as he puts it. (As Berbers of Jewish descent in a predominantly Muslim population, they had been issued French passports by the French colonial government.) By the late 1980s, he had become a fixture on the San Francisco club scene, where he created a series of world-music concerts called “1002 Nights” and, in 1994, produced The Majoon Traveler, in which he mixed the music of Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman and Angus MacClise with the Gnawa and Jilala music of his native North Africa.
Sabbah will be back in L.A. on Friday, June 30, when he plays at Vynyl. Recently, he spoke by phone to the Weekly about his life and music.
L.A. WEEKLY: What kind of music did you play when you first deejayed in Paris in 1964?
SABBAH: American soul music, on seven-inch vinyl. If you wanted to be a DJ, that’s what you had to play. I did that for a while, then I did some theater, then May ‘68 came (and went). I was 21 in ’68, and that was a very exciting time for a lot of us. Then I came to this country at the end of ‘68 and joined the Living Theater in 1971. I acted in New York and Europe with them. I started an acting group in San Francisco about 14 years ago called Tribal Warning Theater. We created plays and sold out every time we put one on. We did street theater too, just as in the Living Theater.
Then I realized that it was very difficult to do theater in America, partly because there was no money in it, but also because it was hard to find people with the dedication that I have found in other places. So I decided to become a DJ, because that way I didn’t have to rely on anyone else to be on time and do their homework. It‘s a little lonely sometimes, but you only have to rely on yourself.
How is it working with CDs rather than vinyl?
It’s a different way of working, because you can‘t see the grooves as you can on vinyl. Most of the music I play doesn’t come on vinyl, so I‘ve had to adapt. CD players can loop, sample, speed up, slow down, and some of them can speed up or slow down four times more quickly than a turntable. So when I use four of them it’s kind of a studio mix there — playing four things at once on two double CD players. Vinyl is restricted to dance music as we know it — hip-hop, house, trance, techno, drum ‘n’ bass — however, there‘s a large portion of dance music that’s not geared to the club market, and that‘s what I fall into. I try to play songs rather than dance-beat music, which has very little or no vocals, and very little or no instruments. That music works in the environment that it works in, but the other music also works — songs, real songs.
The dichotomy here is that in a lot of countries most people don’t go to clubs, but they do gather to listen to music — music is a gathering principle. In other parts of the world, women will get together to sing their songs, men and women will gather to celebrate a birth, a wedding, a departure, but in the West it seems you have to go to a club to have the gathering element. You have to go somewhere to dance — it doesn‘t happen right in your courtyard; there’s no one playing live right outside your doorstep. Here we buy the music, and we go somewhere to listen to the music. Hopefully, going to listen to music is an act of celebration.
A lot of the music you sample is religious or spiritual music. Do you really think it can be transplanted into a Western setting with its spiritual dimension intact?
It‘s always easy to be holy in a holy environment. But what happens when you’re not in one? I have no problem playing anything spiritual anywhere. My feeling is that it‘s done in total respect, and at the same time, we have to live with the good and bad — we can’t just say that it‘s all good, and that the bad doesn’t exist. There‘s nothing bad about bringing something spiritual into a club where you might have people looking for sex or taking drugs or whatever. We’re all creatures of the sacred and profane, so when I play those samples I‘m trying to bring something good wherever I go.
What can we expect to hear from you at Vynyl on June 30?
It always depends on the dance floor and the vibe, and I never know till I get there. So I adjust to the conditions. As far as tempo, I like to play low beats per minute. I can play low tempo for hours. Some people call it chill music. I can also play fast tempo, but again it’s according to the crowd, because as much as you need good players, you need good listeners as well.