January 31, 2008
Making music the Algerian Jewish way
Q&A with DJ Cheb i Sabbah
DJ Cheb i Sabbah & Belly Dancer, Frédérique In the four decades of his accomplished career, global electronica DJ Cheb i Sabbah -- a Berber Jew from Algeria now living in California -- has specialized in crossing barriers among nationalities and working with artists of all religions and ethnicities. His latest album, "Devotion," released Jan. 29, features spiritual music from Pakistan and neighboring countries performed by musicians from Southeast Asia. As tensions and violence continue to mount in Pakistan, this album provides a mystical soundtrack for transcendence, reminding listeners that human spirit is one thread connecting us all. On the occasion of his Los Angeles album release party on Feb. 2 at Temple Bar in Santa Monica, The Jewish Journal caught up with this boundary-defying musician.
The Jewish Journal: How does this new album fit in with your other albums?
Cheb i Sabbah: Each album I make has a very specific theme. For "Shri Durga" (1999), it was Indian classical music; for "Krishna Lila" (2002), it was Indian devotional music; for "La Kahena" (2005), it was a tribute to my Algerian roots, with music from throughout the Maghreb; and for this new album, it's devotional music from throughout the Asian subcontinent -- India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal.
JJ: What do you mean by devotional music?
CS: For this last album, for example, the music embodies the more mystical aspects of the three main religions of India -- Hinduism, Sikhism and Sufism. My approach is more esoteric and mystical than religious, because religion brings the problems I don't want to deal with. If you get two religions in one room, you might end up with two nuclear wars. But if you get two mystical traditions in one room, you might end up agreeing on the one universal truth.
JJ: What do you see as the difference between religion and mysticism?
CS:For Judaism, kabbalah is the mystical application. For Hinduism, it's tantra. For Islam, it's Sufism -- which includes beautiful music and lyrics that speak of the separation and longing of the individual and the Divine. Organized religion is fine for people who feel they belong to it, but some of us feel we belong more to the mystical path than the religious path.
JJ: Do you think that mystical path is what enables you to cross over different nationalities, ethnicities and faiths?
CS: I think it's more because I've been blessed with the ability to share music. Music is music. People can feel it, hear it and dance to it, no matter who they are.
JJ: Most of your music has a heavy Indian influence. Why?
CS: I was exposed to Indian music in the 1960s, while living in Paris. The French were really into ethnomusicology, so I always heard music from around the world. I'd grown up with North African Andalusian music, which is based on times of day, seasons, longing, separation, sadness, joy, all of that. Classical Indian music is the same thing, so it wasn't a big leap.
JJ: How did you grow up with Andalusian music?
CS: It was developed in Spain by the Jews, Berbers and Arabs, and after the Spanish Inquisition, it traveled throughout the Arab world. In Algeria, the whole tradition of Andalusian music was largely maintained by the Jews, and it just so happened that my mother's cousin was married to one of the master musicians. So I grew up right in the middle of that.
JJ: How long has your family lived in Algeria?
CS: We trace back 2,600 years -- to the Babylonian conquest of ancient Israel. Following that exile, Jewish refugees migrated throughout the region, many settling in North Africa. At the time, the Berbers of North Africa were pagan, but many were influenced by the Jewish idea of monotheism and converted. Since that time, there were numerous invasions throughout North Africa -- including that of the Bedouin Muslims. The Berbers fought the Bedouins but lost, so many converted to Islam. My family is among those who stayed Jewish.
JJ: What was it like for Jews in Algeria?
CS: It's a long story. Under Muslim rule, sometimes it was good for the Jews, sometimes it was just OK, and sometimes it was bad, depending who was ruling.
JJ: Why did the Jews leave after Algerian independence?
CS: French colonial rule was very confusing. Up to that point, Jews had to live in the mella, the Jewish ghetto, which reeked of poverty. When France colonized Algeria, French Jewish leadership took steps to improve the lives of Jews -- granting all Jews automatic French citizenship and bringing schools and hospitals into the mella. The Jews didn't know what to expect when Algeria went back to Arab Muslim rule, and in 1962, the assassination of one of the Andalusian Jewish music masters left the community feeling it was time to flee. My family was among many that immigrated to France -- a natural choice, since we already had French citizenship.
JJ: Did you feel at home in France?
CS: From the French point of view, a Jew from North Africa is a Jew from North Africa. That person is never going to be looked at as the equal of the French person who was born in Paris. It's hard for me to really feel like I'm French. What is French about me?
JJ: Do you feel at home in San Francisco?
CS: No. That is one symptom of displacement. Once you've been displaced long enough, nowhere is home -- not even where you were born. If you look at it from an Indian point of view, in a way it's good, because you can't be attached to anything -- even your country, your roots and your culture. I feel it's good to practice nonattachment, because in the end, when you go, you can't take anything; so why be attached?
The KCRW "Devotion" CD release party will be held Feb. 2 at Temple Bar, 1026 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 393-6611 Doors open at 9 p.m. $15.
For more information, visit http://www.chebisabbah.com or templebarlive.com.