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The Pragmatic Mystic: Remembering Cheb i Sabbah

Perhaps more surprising than the fact that San Francisco-based DJ Cheb i Sabbah passed away last Thursday is that he survived nearly two years longer than his initial one-month assessment after being diagnosed with Stage Four stomach cancer in 2011. Then again, for everyone who knew Chebi, his tenacity and stubbornness in clawing at every last tendril of existence was no shock at all.

Born in Algeria in 1947, the open-minded explorer made a living in Paris in his late teens by spinning records at cafes and clubs six days a week. Though Jewish growing up during a time of great turmoil, he had no biases, cultural or musical—we can safely dub him the originator of the term ‘World Music DJ.’

Through numerous incarnations—including a close friendship with globetrotting trumpeter Don Cherry in New York City, finally settling for the remainder of his life in the Bay Area—Chebi became an inspiration and friend to those who later dreamt of fusing seemingly disparate global sounds with electronic beats. Even as late as July of this year, the final time I had the honor of sharing the decks with him in Santa Monica, he knew how to control a dance floor. It made sense, given that he’d been doing so longer than any of his contemporaries had been alive.

The man could be as mysterious as the dancing gods he honored on his well-known trilogy of Indian classical-based electronica: Shri Durga, Krishna Lila and Devotion. His stubbornness was epic. Right after New York City banned smoking in clubs and bars in 2003, he twice stopped the music at the Knitting Factory to complain about this Big Brother-style legislation. He later told me that cigarettes were necessary for his DJ performance, as important as the music itself. That habit, along with a lack of health insurance, would be his undoing.

Yet as much as he railed against ideas and patterns, politicians and pedants, he was equally warm and loving. He ended every phone conversation with Namaste and never failed to hug everyone in the room. Practiced patience combined with humorous cynicism formed his sagacious stature. He would freely speak his mind without attempting to dominate yours. And his soul, that was pure music.

As he told me in 2002 about the DJ experience,

It’s therapy; it’s trance. I’m also trying to experience the same thing. It’s not me putting on music for someone else. It’s me and the dance floor. Both of us, we try to achieve that ‘other’ state, and sometimes it does not happen. But when the magic is there you know it. Everybody feels it. You can’t explain what it is, but you know it’s there because everybody’s feeling it.

What I loved most about Chebi was his pragmatic mysticism. He spent a lifetime exploring the spirit of music without becoming entangled in the trappings of new age lingo. During a car ride from D.C. to New York he condensed his life philosophy by quoting the title of Alan Watts’ journal: Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown. When a few years later I asked him about his yoga practice, given that his music slithered so easily into studios around the planet, he smiled and said, ‘I don’t do all the postures and everything that you do, nothing like that. But I have my practice every morning, this thing that I do,’ and left it at that.

Chebi was part of a contingent of artists on Six Degrees Records, alongside Karsh Kale, Midival Punditz and Vishal Vaid, that helped push the classical traditions of India into the modern era. He never sacrificed the melodic structure of a raga to fit into a beat, nor would he carelessly effect an instrument or vocal to make it sound ‘hip.’ He was a master at what many of us admire and strive for: balancing between an ancient world with formalities and guidelines while reminding us that all worlds are meant to evolve.

And so we have an amazing catalog of music that will continue to inspire futurists for generations, as well as those many personal memories that have been expressed all over social media in the four days since his passing. Very few people can claim they produced music exactly how they heard it in their heads, and somehow, Chebi made this exalted skill seem easy.

I’ll always cherish this particular quote from one of our first interviews. It’s the only way I could think of paying tribute to a man who created so much beauty in a world that can be so heavy and challenging at times. Chebi’s own habits and patterns may not have been easy to understand, but the man himself was easy to love.

If you look at the yoga of sound, that’s what it is, we try to find that perfect note or that perfect sound that drops all the worries and hang-ups and all of this and that into that state where we get a little taste. It doesn’t stay because you have to cultivate it. But you try to get a little taste of what could be pure sound. It takes practice. You could take years practicing one raga and then you hit that right note. Well when you hit that right note, you’ll know it and the listener will know it because the listener will also hit that right note. It’s not just you that hits the right note and you’re so great and blah blah. No, the point is that the listener also gets it when the right note is hit. That’s what makes you be aware that there is something divine about music; there is something that crosses the border and is universal. But I think it’s more that perfect note. The whole idea behind qawwali is to get that note or that sense it is divine and yeah, we are all united and are all children of God, no matter where we’re from, what we speak, all of that, because it transcends. If the universe was created with sound, then it’s all there. We have to go to the source: what is that sound.

Image: Cheb w/Karsh Kale by Derek Beres


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