World Clique 

DJ Cheb I Sabbah brings globalization to Berkeley.

"Like the Dalai Lama says, 'We're all interconnected,'" notes Cheb I Sabbah, who knows a thing or two about interconnectedness. For the past four decades, the DJ and producer has been a cultural ambassador of global groove, connecting people of various ethnicities and backgrounds on the dancefloor; as countless Bay Area residents can attest, his club sets are often as educational as they are entertaining. Well regarded both locally and internationally for his recorded work -- La Kahena is the latest of his five albums -- he has managed to strike a balance between modern technology and ancient tradition. And while world music's popularity continues to expand both in terms of live instrumentation and club-oriented DJ material, Sabbah can claim some credit for that growth. "I feel I am the conduit for presenting this type of music," he says.

In the '60s, while residing in Paris, Sabbah became a DJ more or less accidentally, at a time when there was no world-music genre to speak of -- the closest thing was field recordings made by ethnomusicologists, grounded in academia and thus far removed from the cutting edge of pop culture. Sabbah started making beats on now-rudimentary technology (he currently uses ProTools and other state-of-the-art equipment) during a '70s stint with the Living Theater -- it was there that he became friends with jazzman Don Cherry, who pushed him to develop his unique, worldly DJ style. For the past fifteen years, Cheb has done just that during a weekly gig at Nickie's BBQ in San Francisco, bringing international renown to a Haight Street hole-in-the-wall. And even though the time has finally come for him to move on to a new residency (Thursdays at SF's Blue Cube), Sabbah has accomplished his original mission of deifying and publicizing world music, and then some.

Two years ago, Sabbah had the honor of being the first DJ ever to play at the Stern Grove Festival, when he opened for the Afro-Celt Sound System. Last year, he was selected to participate in a panel discussion with eleven other tastemaking DJs in a Seattle symposium sponsored by Microsoft. The trend-setting role Sabbah has played is also evident locally: Since he began his weekly gigs, world-music DJ nights have become increasingly common in SF's club scene, often featuring live instrumental or vocal accompaniment. The music's audience, he notes excitedly, just keeps growing and growing -- the DJ recently presided over a party called "Worldly" held at 1015 Folsom that drew an astonishing 1,600 paid attendees. (For comparison's sake, that's about 500 more people than the capacity of the Fillmore.)

Never one to rest on his laurels, Sabbah continues to push forward into new directions. At the same time "progressive trance" music began to emerge as a popular electronic genre, Sabbah explored trance's South Asian, Arabic, and Indian origins on the albums Shri Durga, MahaMaya, and Krishna Lila, connecting Sufism with sampling, bhangra with big beats. "My approach is always to preserve and to put in the forefront the tradition," he explains, even while adapting that tradition into a context accessible to Western listeners.

"Today's trance music does work, because it's based on repetition," he says. What he calls "global electronica" has evolved in part because contemporary dance music producers have run out of ideas, and have returned to the original, exotic-sounding source material for inspiration. "There's really nothing left but so-called world music," he speculates. "The latest thing for hip-hop is really Arabic stuff, beats and samples. They've really gone through everything else."

Sabbah himself has gone through a fair amount of Hindi and Arabian music in previous releases, so it made sense for him to return to his own North African roots for La Kahena (subtitled Les Voix du Maghreb, or "The Voices of the Maghreb"), the bulk of which was recorded in Marrakech, Morocco. The album touches on sacred music from the gnaoua, Sufi, and Jewish traditions, as well as the rai of Sabbah's native Algeria. Its eclectic guests include traditional Moroccan women's vocal ensemble Haddarates, gimbri (lute) specialist Brahim Ebelkani, qarqaba (castanet) master Bouchaib Abdelhadi, Algerian diva Cheba Zahouania, Israeli vocalist Michal Cohen, and Tabla Beat Scientists Karsh Kale and Bill Laswell (who plays ambient basslines throughout).

Interestingly, Sabbah notes that several of the Maghreb musicians featured on La Kahena reside in the East Bay, which has emerged as a center for live shows by world music acts, just as SF has become a home for the club-oriented global DJ scene. The two faces of the genre will merge Saturday and Sunday at the second annual Berkeley World Music Weekend, where Sabbah will count yet another coup by being the first DJ ever to perform live at the original Amoeba Music store on Telegraph Avenue.

In addition to Sabbah, 24 other performers will be featured at the celebration, which takes place at bookstores, street intersections, restaurants, cafes, parks, and bars in and around the Telegraph Avenue area. The performances cover a blistering array of musical genres: Cuban, Latin, and South American rhythms; Balkan, Celtic, and Jewish folk; Jamaican reggae and Dominican reggaeton; acoustic Americana; Middle-Eastern and Hindi melodies; even funk and rock. In short, just about every type of music under the sun.

It's just the type of event you'd expect to find Cheb I Sabbah in the thick of, and although the World Music Weekend is just starting out, Sabbah has high hopes that the still-fledgling yet ambitious festival can grow in stature -- possibly even to the level of a Stern Grove. And while it's likely to take some time for the Berkeley festival to even come close to the Grove's storied 68 years of history, it's off to a good start. If the current trend toward rhythmic globalization continues, don't be surprised to see world music taking on an even more prominent role in our region's already multicultural fabric in years to come. After all, progression is a tradition here. As Sabbah concludes, "The Bay Area has always been musically a place where people try things and innovate things."


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