Midnight Album Spotlight: Cheb i Sabbah – Shri Durga

Who is Cheb i Sabbah? Cheb i Sabbah was born in Algeria into a Berber Jewish community there. He moved in Paris in the 60’s then relocated to San Francisco, where he still lives. His mission is to take traditional Indian music and to make it truly modern.

One of the things I love about Cheb i Sabbah (pronounced “Chebby Saw-ba”) is that he is philosophical and wise, yet really lighthearted and playful. He lights up onstage and the musicians who guest with him seem to catch this during the show. The music is light and dark as well. Casting shadows. Flashing.

I discovered this record when it came out in 2000. I’ve always had a thing for Indian culture and music. The richness and color of India and the complexity and simplicity of its art seem unmatched to me in the world. I’ve always been fascinated with cultures like this (India, Cuba, Caribbean places) where people have little money but seem to smile so easily. In places like this the music has so much story.

Rather than being daunted by the strict teachings of Indian music, Cheb i Sabbah steps out and embraces so many sounds on this record. My favorite track is “Gazelle Memories” where Cheb i blends a Western soul singer, an Indian raga singer, sitar, trip-hop beats and watery sound effects. I can’t find a sample of that song for you but here is a similar mix by Cheb i and a performance that features a tattooed belly dancer. The urbanized dancer is a perfect metaphor for this music.

I’ve been a fan of Cheb i Sabbah for 8 years now. And this record, I’m guessing, will remain my favorite of his. This year I was asked to host KEXP’s morning show that runs in New York City, called Wake Up. Kevin Cole hosts most weekday mornings and I do Tuesday mornings. Wake Up runs every weekday from 6-9am on WNYE 91.5FM in the Big Apple. It’s a beautiful coincidence that Cheb i Sabbah is also DJing for KEXP on the same station, WNYE in NYC (91.5 FM). He hosts Mo’ Glo every 2nd Thursday at midnight on WNYE. So we are co-workers now (sort of, well, it’s enough to make me happy).

You can stream his NYC show (or mine) from here. Watch the time difference!!

Meanwhile, I’ll be spinning three tracks from Shri Durga this Friday night at Midnight on the one-and-only KEXP. My show Nite Life starts at 9pm. See you there!

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