exclusive interview with Cheb i Sabbah

interview by dimmSummer
date: 10.1.02
painfully transcribed by dimm
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: This is the interview with Cheb i Sabbah. We are in NYC, the music capital of the world where Chebi is finishing up the Asian Massive Tour... Let's talk about your new cd, Krishna Lila: it's not overly remixed, the recording is so clean. It feels like you let the music speak for itself. Was that the idea from the onset of the project, to have a 'hand's off' approach so-to-speak?

CHEB i: Yeah, Hello... Greetings.
I think so, I didn't want to overcharge the production and wanted more to introduce bhajans on one hand and karnatic music, and that's why there are tracks with no production in the sense of anything modern: there's no bass, there's no beats. So there are short tracks like that to show what the musician does without the producer. That's what they do everyday. Then the producer comes in and with the modern part that I added I still wanted the tradition to speak for itself... from underneath and around it, bring the modern element in but not kill it or over do it.

Which I think for Shri Durga was the same - in the sense that when Sultan Khan plays sarangi he's playing the alaap, the singers are singing the raag, when anybody plays anything as it is, I'm coming from underneath, on top and around without being too intrusive.

ET: I guess before Shri Durga there were artists sampling Indian classical music and laying beats over it. Being a DJ yourself how do you feel about that and then entering the scene and saying, 'we're going to record the actual artists performing the raags live?' When did that idea first enter your mind?

sridhar on sarodCHEB i: Well, spinning and sampling on the fly, that's fine, that's the art of spinning. However, when it comes to classical music from India or Persia or Algeria or anywhere, the point is to bring that kind of artistry, or how you call in rasa into the recording. And there's no way you can do that with sampling. The other thing is that I do listen to a lot of classical music. So I'm not going into a store and looking for some tabla, some violin and then go home and put it into any kind of software to make a track.. I mean, that's ok too, but my initial idea was to bring all those Ustads and Pundits and singers into the forefront of the music scene. They are also living in a modern world, they do want to be involved with modern elements, but the kind of musicians I've been working with don't want too much of that either. In other words, if you recorded them and then chopped it up and threw it over some techno or trance, I know they wouldn't like that. They're not those kind of musicians. I mean there is room for everyone to do everything, but with these kind of musicians there is not [room for that]. Whereas in this format, everyone's happy. And the main point is to introduce those kinds of classical musicians to the general audience that might not necessarily know to go about discovering that sound. I think if you like something within the song and you look at the credits and see that it's Sridhar playing sarod, then you can go further and look for Sridhar on sarod without the producer... but the artistry is in what they are doing, first and foremost. Me... is definitely second.

ET: I have to admit my cousins who are all classically trained don't particularity like the music that I'm pushing. They like one or two tracks, but are always looking at it from a classical standpoint. But when I played your album, they loved it. They actually tried stealing it from me. They couldn't belive the clarity of the vision and sound, but the question they always ask me is 'Who is this Cheb i Sabbah? Is he a musician? What did he do?'

CHEB i: Well, as the producer you go in the studio, you have some idea or vision of what you want ( in this case it was bhajans - North and South). So you record the record the bhajans with everybody in different rooms as opposed to classical musicians who record together in the same room. But for this kind of thing everybody's separate with headphones, which is a little different. The mridangam is in one room the ghatam is in another, the violin is here, the singer there... all in different rooms recording different tracks. So that's step number one. Discuss what you want: three bhajans, a little bit of drumming here, a solo here, if you feel like it, if you want to.

Once that is done the next part of production is to construct the beats with the computer. That is the modern part. Also during the recording you have to be an arranger and on the computer be an editor. And when that is done you have to overdub everyone else, such as Karsh Kale on drums, Bill Laswell on bass, which I do at the end. But it's not the end: once those overdubs are done, I may not be happy with it and add extra vocals, change the tablas. Once all that is done I mix it on two tracks and it's 'a mix.' That mix I take into another software program and I add other samples and ambiance, the things that go in and out. When I do that, I have the two tracks with everyone there: the bass, drums, mridangam, vocals, and on top of that the intros, outros, things that go in and out, that I do on a sixteen track machine. When that is done, there is one last step which is very important these days and that is the mastering. With this kind of record you have to compromise because it is not a 12" record that is strictly for clubs which sounds one way. But at home no one has that kind of setup, so I try to master it so it sounds good on the dance floor but it also sounds good at home on any kind of stereo. Which means people have big systems, some have little ones, some have discmans... all those things are taken into consideration to produce a sound that sounds good in all those kinds of environments. Sonically speaking. So that kind of mastering to me is important, takes a while... I'm working with one producer in LA who now knows what I want... but this time around I surprised him because he had heard sarangi, sarod, sitar, but he had never heard a veena. So to EQ a veena is a challenge for him, and this guy's with a very famous studio that masters every big-time platinum record that comes out. But I bring them something more challenging and more interesting

ET: Speaking of the veena, a Karnatic instrument, your decision to give the karnatic system of classical Indian music a great deal of prominence in the record was obviously a conscious one while other efforts always focus on North Indian... is that why you chose to focus more of the tracks on South Indian, or was there something else going on?

CHEB i: Well, it all comes from the South, originally. I think the ragas in their pure, original form are from the South. The North is given more importance everywhere because of Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha and Ali Akbar Khan, George Harrison... When they came to America, they always presented Hindustani [North Indian]. You could say that Hindustani is more melodious in a sense. You can hear the Muslim-Persian influence, whereas in the South [Karnatic] you don't hear it, it is as it is with no external influences. Therefore, the idea was to present both sides of India. And some people say, 'well, why don't you put the North first and the South second?' I say, 'why not have the South first and the North second?' Although we recorded the South second, it appears first on the cd. But yeah, the idea was to present another very important part of Indian music.

Most people can't hear the difference between a sarangi and a violin. They are both stringed instruments, but come on! And even the drumming - actually, karnatic drumming is very appropriate for drum and bass. You know, it's just like, "BOOM BOOM BOOM." It really fits nicely. It's more angular, more powerful... and you can see where in Hindustani the touch is very Arabic-Muslim-Persian, it has small delicate things. But when they play in the South, it's LOUD. And it's also street music, temple music. The Tavil Nagashwaram has to be loud so everyone can hear it.

ET: Being South Indian, those tracks are my favourite, but even some of my North Indian friends say it does stand out perhaps more than the second half of the album because we hadn't heard that before and it was refreshing.... But how long were you in India, and you yourself being a Jew from an Arab country, why focus three CDs on India?

CHEB i: Well, there's a little Asian Massive Inside Joke™ on that: we were in DC and I played some bhangra and everyone went crazy dancing, so when people ask me where I'm from I say I'm a born again Punjabi.... India, I first went there in 1970, altogether I've been there five, six times. For this album, Krishna Lila, I spent one month between Bombay and Madras. Then I went to Delhi to engineer the album with Gaurav Raina from the Punditz, so altogether you could say two months in India. And then of course America more time. So it's a slow process, it's not something you work on everyday. But for me it takes about two years to make an album... On this album there are twenty one musicians which takes time to record...

As far as why three albums on India... well, I was very fortunate to have met and worked with Ustad Salmat Ali Khan. And because I came from a classical Algerian music background with uncles that were masters of oud, vocals and violin, (and when you listen to classical North African music it's very close to classical North Indian music in structure and discipline), it was a short step between Algerian and Hindustani classical music. And because it was when I met those Ustads and Punditz, it was like, 'Why not?' In a way, because I don't have a country that I can say I can go and live there, France and America was were I spent a long time, but at the same time India sort of adopted me. It's not home, but it feels like home. I've traveled a lot, and India is one of those few places that feels like home.

ET: How do you feel about the Bollywood Machine™ and the music that comes out of there?

CHEB i: Some of it's quite beautiful. I try to check every movie soundtrack that comes out... Some of it's really beautiful - obviously there is a formula there, but it works. A.R. Raman has a formula down that I think is quite beautiful. But there's also a lot of schlock out there.

ET: Would you ever consider doing anything for a Bollywood movie, bringing your sound to them?

CHEB i: Sure, why not? But it would also depend on what the movie's about. If the movie's trying to say something or means something, yeah, why not?

ET: Let's talk about your next effort: you're going to be focusing on North Africa, the classical music there, but from a woman's point of view. Have you already started gathering materials for that, or are you just taking a break after this album and tour?

CHEB i: No, I've already started. I did one session with a famous woman Rai vocalist. The plan is to, yes, have women singing from, so far: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, maybe Mauritania... I just met this Turkish hiphop singer called Sultana. She wants me to produce her next album.. so I thought maybe we can go a little further than North Africa, but it will be all women.

ET: ....what does the "I" stand for in your name?

CHEB i: 'of'
'Young of the Morning' [Cheb i Sabbah]
It's a performing name because in Algeria when Rai music became popular there was a sense of anonymity. So everyone that was a man was Cheb and women were Cheba.

ET: Well, that's very nice, I didn't expect such an eloquent answer-

CHEB i: Well, I have another... I was born with a religious Hebrew name, and then officially for the state a French first name, and then an Arabic last name which means the falcon...

ET: So, are we privy to this entire name?

CHEB i: Well, you could say, 'Haim Serge El Baz...' [laughing] So it's another take: when people ask me, 'are you Cheb i Sabbah, I say, 'Sometimes...'

ET: Well, when i first met Fabian and Karsh in Philly they spelled his name "Karsh Craig..." then September Eleventh right after, and I remember meeting Fabian again and discussing how Arabic music in a year (which is NOW) will become more popular, people will want to look into this "unknown" culture and rediscover it. I think you are helping us to rediscover the music and culture...

CHEB i: And it's also because of its age, it all those years to develop into such a rich variety of music... same with Arabic music. For example on 'Kese Kese,' Shafkhat wrote it for an Afghani woman, so I thought to myself, I have to get at least one other Afghani musician. So where do I get one? Well, there's this one guy, Aziz Herawi, very famous sitar player in Afghanistan. So I decide I have to find him somehow.

Then one night I was DJing at midnight at Nicky's in San Fran, and a friend of mine introduces me to these three guys: Mohammed, Ahmed and Mohammed. They were all totally hip-hopped out: baseball cap, sagging [baggy] pants... So I was like cool, Salaam Haleikoum and all that. At first I thought they were from Arab land, but they said, 'No, no, we're from Afghanistan but live in Fremont.' So I said, 'well you're very fortunate because there's this great classical sitar player by the name of Aziz Herawi. They say, 'We know, he's our father.' I said, 'wow, I'm working on this one song that I want him to play on it.' They say, 'No problem.' That's how I recorded Aziz Herawi from Afghanistan.

ET: So it was serendipitous in a way-

CHEB i: How did it happen, why... ? Another funny story was I a friend called and asked if I knew this Turkish singer Sultana who's really big in Turkey. I say yeah, I play some of her tracks, and he says she wants to meet me. But I say, 'how's that going to happen?' He says, 'She lives in the Mission District of San Fran.' So there's that Turkish thing, along with Master Musicians of Jajouka who want me to produce their next album... but I don't know if they will happen because the money's really tight. I would like to, but there is no record label you could go to and say, 'look we need eighty thousand dollars to make this record and obviously no one's going to get rich.' For that kind of music today, it's a risk for a label.. but eighty thousand is nothing compared to what's spent for other kinds of music.

ET: You couldn't just gather all the data, as we were talking about before, that people want to hear this music and go to the label with that? They could be known for exposing it, who knows what's going to happen a year from now, look at where this music is today compared to last year...

CHEB i: You could say that, but the record label doesn't see it that way. Unless you sell 70,000 copies of one album, you're nowhere. And's that's nothing compared to the people who go platinum in one week. But for this kind of music, 70,000 copies is a lot of product.

ET: Yeah... now is Krishna Lila released in India?

CHEB i: It's about to be released on Times Music. The first release will be Krishna Lila and the of course the Punditz, being from India, it makes sense. But those things are slow, and again, nobody has the money to do these types of things. So I had to make Krishna Lila for a lot less...

ET: So at that point it's a passion then.

CHEB i: Yes, but if I wasn't spinning, I wouldn't' be eating. Here's the thing: you don't make money from selling records... it's like a jazz musician: you make records, you don't make money, you play, then you get paid. If you sold enough records, then you could spend more time composing.. but obviously there's worse things than spinning.

ET: Besides the two remixes that KK did for you, can we expect a remix album, or is it the idea to leave well enough alone?

CHEB i: The remix album is a good idea, but the way things are these days... the label doesn't have the money the way it had enough money for Maha Maya to pay every remixer. There are people who'll do a remix for free, but for those who don't, the money's not there...

ET: Undoubtedly there's a lot of talent in India, there's so much going on there, musically. Where do you see Indian music going in the 21st Century, with facets such as Bollywood, the PunditZ and people such as yourself who aren't necessarily Indian but are contributing to something new... do you think that Indian music is on a cusp of new age of music?

CHEB i: Yeah I think so, but at the same time we're living in very uncertain times, and that's something that didn't exist five-ten years ago. Things back then weren't perfect, but pretty much you made a plan to do something in six months or a year and see it's completion... but these days you cant think like that. At least I cant. I feel that because of the times we are living in you can plan whatever you want but there's no guarantee of what's going to happen. So personally, I always have that present in the scope of music (or anything else). Indian music, like Arabic music, since September Eleventh, has never sold more. On one hand there's this whole thing going on, but on the other, they're asking, 'what do these people play, listen to...' I think in that way something has opened up for Indian and Arabic music. Now, what it will turn out to be, how modern or not, who's going to take it to what level, we don't know. We just ride the wave and see where it goes. But let's say that it doesn't go anywhere and people get bored with it, we'll still have the tradition. And that's what, to me, is important. If you only had the modern element, I don't know if that would age that well. But you listen to a classical recording done fifty years ago or yesterday, if the rasa is there, it's there. At least we'll still have that. And that's why I think my concept of bringing classical musicians into the project is to maybe inspire people to learn an instrument seriously. It's harder, granted, to spend thirty years doing that kind of work... but when you hear it, you're transported. And that's the difference between that and a sample.

There's instant food you can mix in water, put in the microwave and that has one taste. Then there's something you might cook for two hours... So I think you can do something with a fast sample, boom it's ready and then you can practice thirty years and play that raag. When you know how to play that piece, it's pleasing for you and also pleasing for the listeners. Everybody's happy.

Fade into Narajanma Bandage