Cheb i Sabbah :: Devotion
To understand faith in India, you must get to the roots. The word bhakti, translated as "devotion," is comprised of a devout sect of yogis. The word comes from the seed syllable bhaj, which means "to share" or "to participate in." The bhaktas participate in numerous rituals and observances to or share with their divine effigies: shravana, listening to divine names; smarana, remembrance; and sakhya, friendship with the transcendent, are but a few of these internal catalysts. Most popular is kirtana, singing praises as the ultimate means to participate with the godheads. This is the vehicle Cheb i Sabbah travels with on his latest recording.
To be specific, this is not a kirtan album, as the genre is known in the West, popularized by the likes of Krishna Das and Jai Uttal. Rather it pulls from three Indian traditions-Hinduism, Sufism and Sikhism. Like his previous albums that united the Hindustani and Carnatic classical forms, as well as the various bhajans that appear all over southern Asia, with Devotion Sabbah shows that while the ineffable may have many names, the passion behind the music is the same. That is to say that while the divine assumes many forms, the essence remains intact. This is revealed in the Bhagavad Gita, when Krishna reminds the warrior Arjuna that, "As a man abandons worn-out clothes and acquires new ones, so when the body is worn out a new one is acquired by the Self, who lives within."
Devotion, like the record of this name, is concerned with participating in the Self. What should also be expressed, as has been with all of Sabbah's work, is the necessity of evolution in these art forms. Hence while these eight songs are based on traditional, indigenous songs and ideas, he has made the presentation of the music completely unique. While many versions of "Jai Bhavani," a tribute to the dark goddess Durga, are presented with light sitars and upbeat melodies, Sabbah keeps true to this mischievous wife of Shiva. Led by the gorgeous vocals of Anup Jalota, Sabbah's lean toward a pensive Bansuri and sitar, as well as an accomplished used of percussion, creates a driving edge rarely found in this style.
In fact, what is true of "Jai Bhavani" is what separates all of Sabbah's work in Indian music: Turn up the bass and drums, keep the melodic aspects (flutes, strings) woven within the texture of rhythm, and cap it off with some of the most beautiful vocals around. Hence the hypnotic rhythm created both by the drums and Rana Singh's voice on "Koi Bole Ram Ram." What Sabbah has done in his forty-four year career in turntablism is understand how to bridge numerous things, generations and cultures topping that list. Taking Singh's lyrics about the essence underlying divine names, he moves it from a ritual gathering to a dance floor (another form of ritual gathering, really). Music that was important for one culture's mythology becomes relevant to the world.
No better example than this is "Kinna Sonha." Penned by the great qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, this song has been remixed numerously. The results have sounded flat and dated-upbeat certainly, though without the integrity of the heartfelt original. With the help of vocalist Master Saleem, Devotion's take is altogether different than anything of the Nusrat catalog, much less any Sufi music. Heartfelt might not be as appropriate as heartbreaking. The same can be said for another qawwal, Riffat Sultana, a longtime Sabbah collaborator who has amassed an impressive resume of her own. "Qalanderi" is the album's clear dancefloor cut, and her vocal contribution is astounding.
Like label mate Gaudi recently found with his remix album of Nusrat, Dub Qawwali, reggae is as devotional as any music form. So the accentuated stabs on the epic ten-minute "Haun Vaari Haun Varaney," an emotional bass-heavy voyage led by Harnam Singh. The album remains melodic for the remainder, ending with another Sabbah staple: street sounds. On the closing title track, Sabbah takes what sounds like a hallucinogenic walk through the captivating streets of Varanasi. Numerous forms of prayer emerge among bells and silence.
Throughout his nine-year career on Six Degrees, Sabbah has redefined the way we experience the folk music of India, Pakistan, Morocco and Algeria. He has brought it up to date for a technologically-inclined, digitally-consumed Western audience without sacrificing an iota of integrity. That is, he has made the very notion of devotion sonically relevant to people who would have otherwise never happened to experience the rich traditions of these cultures. As the title aptly suggests, every one of these sixty-two minutes is filled with devotion. Regardless of the form you may or may not subscribe to, the essence is right here.