“Be tolerant. And help others so we can solve problems like poverty and ignorance. Anyone and everyone can do that. You can do that through music or dance. Music makes you feel good. When you dance to it, you send positive vibrational energy and love into the world. Everyone is good at something. Find out what you can do and do it. When you put positive vibrational energy into the world you can multiply it by two or ten. You can spread happiness, help someone see and eat.”
Cheb I Sabbah
An evening with Cheb I Sabbah
By Sharon K. Sobotta
On a cold, drizzly San Francisco evening in January, 2007 I
worked my way to the home of the man known as Cheb I Sabbah. I was in the final
stages of my first book, The Journey of
Life: 100 Lessons from Around the World, on the heels of a deadline for Nirvana Woman magazine and busy with my
day job as a college administrator. Cheb
i had been busy traveling back and forth to India, working on his album Devotion, while continuing to spin on
Haight Street in San Francisco, at Temple Bar in Santa Monica and at an array
of other venues throughout the world. Even though I knew Cheb i was a busy man, I was determined to have him in my book. The
Algerian-born man in his early 60s, sporting long hair strategically placed atop
his head, a gold hoop in his ear and glasses had won over the hearts of so many
people with his young-at-heart presence, and boundary-breaking music that
brought so many types of people together. I had first discovered Cheb i five years earlier, when I stopped
in at his weekly event at Nicky’s in
SF and I had been hooked ever
since. I knew that Cheb i fit perfectly into my book’s mission, to bring people of all
walks of life together, to inspire people to listen to music they don’t
understand and to empower the world to envision the world through multiple
lenses; I just had to figure out how and where he fit.
Sleep deprived and running on pure adrenaline, I buzzed the
door, greeted Cheb i, “Namaste,”
quickly following up with my all-too common greeting, “Sorry I’m late.” I
followed Cheb i up the stairs to his
apartment, found a cozy spot on the floor in the living room, set down my bags,
sifted out my little red notebook and launched into my first question.
“Wait, dear,” Cheb i
said in a subdued voice. “Sit for a minute, chill. I made us some Turkish
Cheb i went into
the kitchen and came out with a serving platter and two petite cups of
perfection. I had been so set on taking up as little of Cheb i’s time as possible, that I had almost forgotten to live in
the moment. Cheb i quickly brought me
back to the present. Sipping my coffee and chatting with Cheb i, I set into my surroundings---a dimly lit charming room
filled with a seemingly infinite amount of CDs, mixing equipment, an assortment
of DVDs---clearly Cheb i’s center for
inspiration. “Do you take grass?” Cheb i
asked as he pulled out a long, intricately designed, slender pipe. Those who
knew Cheb i likely know that he was a chain smoker of sorts. I remained
professional, but I knew that I needed to remove my “hurried journalist” hat
and give this music mastermind and kindred spirit the space to share his story.
I also knew that this would definitely be one of the most memorable interviews
I’d ever do. And it was.
I had envisioned Cheb
i Sabbah as the perfect candidate to share a piece of inspiration to be
paired with the lesson in my book about the importance of eclecticism, living a
life without borders. I’d loved that I could always count on Cheb i’s spinning for some
shoulder-shaking Bhangra beats, hip-swaying Middle-Eastern, an intriguing mix
of other world music, not to mention an extremely eclectic crowd. But, as I
chatted with Cheb i, it quickly
became clear—even if he did live a borderless life and bring all sorts of
people together on the dance floor, he had no interest in being branded as
“Umm.. I wouldn’t call my music eclectic,” Cheb i said. “It’s not that eclectic is
a bad thing, or anything but…” We paused and laughed. “When I produce, every
album has a different theme and I stick to that theme,” Chebi explained.
I decided to scratch my agenda, and simply chat with Cheb i about his music, his vision, his
philosophies of life and more. I knew that Cheb
i definitely had a universally applicable lesson that would have a home in
my book, but it would take time and a lot more chatting to determine what that
would be. By the end of the chat, I’d learn that Cheb I Sabbah was much more than a musician. Among other things, I’d
learn that Cheb i was a firm believer
in karma, that he believed that people had an obligation to “give back” in
whatever form that they can, and that he was genuinely committed to making the
world a better place. I would conclude that Cheb
i was the best fit for the lesson about practicing karma.
It wouldn’t be until one year later, that Cheb i would agree to speak ‘on the
record’ about his new album, Devotion. Here
are snippets of our conversations and a glimpse of the mysterious man we have
all come to know and love as, DJ Cheb i
What is the best part
about being a deejay/musician?
I don’t have a background in music, I’ve never (formally)
studied it, but I know what I like to hear. Being a deejay, we are editors. We
listen to a lot, screen out what we like and what we think people will respond
well to on the dance floor and play accordingly. DJing is an art form. It is
not something that anyone and everyone can do.
In what way do you
hope that your music inspires others?
I always try to be humble and in the background. If I can
inspire anything (peace or anything else), that’s a bonus. Don Cherry told me
that music is a gift and that if it’s given to you, you should share it. I
didn’t invent music. I take something that already exists, put my own stamp on
it and share it. Music always comes back to vibrational energy.
How did you get such
a large following at the Temple Bar in Santa Monica?
I started out there 3-4 years ago. I don’t even remember
how/why I got there. It’s become a big Bhangra party. There’s basically no
advertising—sometimes it’s listed in LA Weekly, some people are on my e-mail
listserve, some of the regulars bring a friend and there are always some new
ones coming to see the madness. There are tons of South Asians there and the
funny thing is I’m one of the few non-South Asians there. It’s a difficult
phenomenon to explain.
Are people ever
surprised to learn that you are Algerian, not South Asian?
“Sometimes people are surprised. They don’t know how to
categorize me. Some people think I’m Persian, some don’t know. When they ask
me, I say I’m a born-again reformed Punjabi,” Chebi said jokingly. “I’ve got
the long Sikh hair going for me, and I’m vegetarian, but I don’t have the
You do a lot of
Bhangra shows. Why Bhangra?
“Bhangra is the most happening thing on the dance floor. It
is adapted to every style of music, even hip-hop. I find songs that I like,
that I think will work on the dance floor and mix them up.”
What makes your music
such a hit at the Temple Bar?
“I’m always looking for the magic. It’s indescribable. When
it’s there, everyone knows it and everyone feels it. It’s not about me—it’s
really half me and half the audience.”
If you had to choose
one tip or piece of wisdom to share with the world, what would it be and why?
“Be tolerant. And help others so we can solve problems like
poverty and ignorance. Anyone and everyone can do that. You can do that through
music or dance. Music makes you feel good. When you dance to it, you send
positive vibrational energy and love into the world. Everyone is good at
something. Find out what you can do and do it. When you put positive
vibrational energy into the world you can multiply it by two or ten. You can
spread happiness, help someone see and eat.”
How is this album
“I can only make albums with one particular theme. La Kehena
(2005) shows the diversity of North African music including its history, its
religions and its musical heritage. It was a large undertaking for listeners.
In 60 minutes, listeners had to digest seven or eight different styles. The
reviews of La Kehena were good, but the response was limited. I would say South
Asians listen to me more than Arabs do and putting out an album with music from
the Arab world may not have been the best idea for the U.S. (where the fan-base
seems more interested in South Asian music).”
What do you hope your
listeners take away from Devotion?
“It’s summed up in what I put on the back of the CD. This
album was created with utmost respect to all mystical and spiritual traditions
of the Indian sub-continent in the soul
aim of sharing and spreading peace, love and understanding.”
This album represents
several South Asian religious perspectives. Why did you choose to put out a
spiritual-toned album now?
“Why not? I would say some people wake up every morning
trying to deal with the whole cosmic whatever it is, and some not. For the ones
who do, people can do that without going to war. Music transcends barriers.
Music is the weapon. It doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe; if it
inspires you to do something good for the world, that is what is important.”
You sometimes refrain
from using the term religion. Tell me about that.
“Religions don’t get along and each one claims it’s the only
one. That’s not good enough. It seems that if we put10 religions in one room,
we could have10 wars. If we put 10 mystical traditions in one room, we might
get to what is the absolute truth; if there is such a thing.”
What is the most
important lesson you learned while creating this album?
“I’m a musician of a certain kind. But, all I have is my
ears as a producer. There are five singers and 30 musicians involved in making
this album. It has been so far a blessing to work with all of them. The
musicians and singers had such talent, humility and knowledge. Working with
these people (some of whom have devoted 30-40 years of their lives to music)
can really help one learn how to hear. The problem in the West—in Jazz and
other forms of music is that we can improvise, but nobody really hears each
other. The hearing process is so important.”
Is there anything
that you wish that your listeners knew or better understood about you?
“On a technical point of view, people assume that I’m creating
a remix. But I’m an artistic producer—I gather musicians, do sessions, cut out
things and make it fit. (To produce Devotion)
I took three trips to New Delhi in the past year (to create an original piece).
I try to stay low-key and try to be respectful toward the music that I produce.
All the singers have not heard the final product; they will hear it when I have
the real CD. I want their names and credits to get out there to the public.
Hopefully they will like it.”