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Arts and Entertainment

CD Review & LAist Interview: Cheb i Sabbah's "Devotion" + Release Party at Temple Bar on Saturday + LAist Interview

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Artist: Cheb i Sabbah
Album: Devotion
Label: Six Degrees Records
Release Date: 01/29/08

Listen to "Qalanderi":

Devotion CD Release Party @ The Temple Bar - Saturday, February 2nd

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The incomparable Cheb i Sabbah has produced Devotion, his seventh release for Six Degrees Records, once again inviting us to enjoy his updated presentation of the timeless music of central Asia. San Francisco-based Cheb i Sabbah traveled to India to record the vocals for several tracks with superstars of the genres he seeks to teach us about. Devotion features three distinct traditions of religious music representing Hinduism, Sikhism, and Sufi Islam.

All the songs are in the ethnic fusion/trance style that has been Cheb i Sabbah's calling card for the last 10 years or so and these are at least as beautiful as songs from what are considered his "classic" albums, Shri Durga and Krishna Lila. There are tripped-out kirtans and gurbanis, a trance-inducing version of "Kinna Sohna", a tune written by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and "Qalanderi" (listen above) a qawwali sung by Riffat Sultana who will be performing with him at the Devotion record release party on Friday. One of my favorite tracks is the incredibly dubbed out "Haun Vaari Haun Varaney", a 10+ minute devotional recitation whose text that Cheb i Sabbah leaves unadulterated out of respect for its religious origins and meanings.

What amazes one about Cheb i Sabbah is his longevity in music: as a DJ, manager, impresario, and producer, he's been providing musical connections for over 40 years. You can find him on YouTube, throwing down tunes in a record store, and transforming it into another place on another continent; he just returned from doing several gigs at the Sundance Film Festival, and he'll be touring all over the world performing sets up to six and more hours long with his dancers, drummers, and fellow performers - he knows how to create inspirational environments. Where does he get this energy?

It was incredible to talk to someone who is so grounded and centered, who could patiently explain his sources for inspiration to an ignorant person like myself. Cheb i Sabbah regards himself as a conduit for music - not someone who is a universal "creator" of what we end up hearing. He is a talented custodian that takes the sounds and themes and nudges them in our direction. The end result is that we don't end up with ego-driven music stamped with the voice and personality of one mere human. Cheb i Sabbah's goal is to behave according to the Vedic spirituality that he practices - it's no wonder that some consider his shows to be a kind of religious experience.

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Listen to audio interview with Cheb i Sabbah:

LAist: Regarding your presence and longevity in music, what is your inspiration and philosophy to stay so engaged? Is it religious-based, is it something you actively practice?

Cheb i Sabbah: It's something more than philosophy - it is something that we call the Vedic way of life which comes from the Vedas which is pre-Hindu and pre-everything. It seems that Vedic culture has been proven so far, even archaeologically, that it has influenced every great civilization from the Middle East and Near East [and beyond]. When you talk about European languages, there must be a good reason why they are called Indo-European languages - it seems that these languages come from Sanskrit. Hinduism is a misnomer.. there really isn't a Hinduism in India, there is a Vedic culture and everything springs from there, it is the inspiration. It includes everything from astronomy to astrology to martial arts to the five elements and this went to China and Japan and Europe and continued to go on from there. So the inspiration is from Vedic culture.

LAist: How do you maintain the energy and continue to be so prolific? 7 releases in 8 years in this current phase of your career is impressive.

Cheb i Sabbah: As I've said more than once, (late great jazz trumpeter) Don Cherry was one of my mentors, having met him when I was in The Living Theater, and then ending up actually performing with him, and he was the first one to really conceive that a DJ could be a part of a band so I used to perform with him live as a DJ and I ended up also being his manager. He always said that music is a gift given to you and that's why you have to share it. But it's only a gift given to you - you're not doing much, you're doing something that already exists, but you are just putting you're own interpretation on it, you are modifying it with your own two cents, you are the conduit for this blessing that has been given to you.

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LAist: What will the record release party be like? Will it be like your 1002 Nights events that you create regularly?

Cheb i Sabbah: Yes, I usually have a DJ opener and live performers. This weekend I will have Riffat Sultana, daughter of the great classical Pakistani singer, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, one of the two famous Ali Brothers. So basically she will open the show with an hour and a half of qawwali in a trio, with tablas, and acoustic guitar. After that I come on with tablas, dhols, dancers, and Riffat does three or four songs with me because she's featured on the album [and then we'll see what happens.]

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It was a privilege to speak with Cheb i Sabbah. I hope you have a chance to listen to his interview in full and have a chance to get your little paws on Devotion. After going to many Cheb i Sabbah shows over last several years, I highly recommend going to the record release party for Devotion at The Temple Bar this Saturday - it will be an inexpensive journey to another side of the planet, if not to another planet entirely.

Photo of Cheb i Sabbah's from his MySpace page