Cheb i Sabbah :: La Kahena
[six degrees]   review from derek  

After championing a new breed of classically-bent Indian sound merged with delicately polished digitalism, Sabbah re-roots, literally, himself in a new context of North African folk music. His South Asian series - Shri Durga, Maha Maya and Krishna Lila - presented Western ears with a modernistic take on Hindustani and Carnatic traditions heard through 21st century ears. He kept the native temperament intact without flooding sitars, sarangis and devotional poetry with pulsing electronic rhythms; instead, unlike most involved in these hybrid forms, Sabbah merely refined the originals with minimalist production. The coating was no mere sheen, but a new way of looking at ancient material.

On his mixed-CD As Far As he began moving from India to Africa, working Malian singer Salif Keita (singing on a Trilok Gurtu track), Morocco/Berlin fusionists Gnawa Impulse and Bembeya Jazz vocalist Sekouba Bambino into his outernationalist approach. Now, completing the crossover, he returns to his Algerian homeland (and neighboring Morocco) with La Kahena, a record as nominally treated and stunningly gorgeous as the Indian predecessors. Recording an array of female vocalists from Arab, Jewish, Berber and European backgrounds over eight tracks, Sabbah has upped the ante on the future of African music.

The opening song, "Esh ODani, Alash Mshit" features raï vocalist Cheba Zahouania backed by lilting Arabic strings and a steady hi-hat/snare drum kick. After Algeria's long struggle for independence resulted in the freeing up of French colonial rule in 1962, raï became a soundtrack to the disenfranchised population. Originally rural folk music played on the gasba (desert rosewood flute) and guellal (small goblet drum), today's pop, rock and electronic updating by artists like Cheb Mami and Rachid Taha are a long distance from the disparate class it was birthed from. Singers crooned melhoun, an epic poetry form, and a movement of female vocalists (Cheikhas) began to surface, led by Relizane-born Cheika Remitti. Oran native Cheba Zahouania was born Halima Mazzi in 1959 and has mastered the meddahate style, which she displays here with enticing lyrical architecture. A far cry from her 1998 collaboration with Algerian superstar Khaled, "Together," "Esh ODani, Alash Mshit" is tinged with a degree of melancholy that seeps into every minute of La Kahena, making it a perfect leadoff.

From Algeria we journey west to Morocco where B'net Marrakech (The Women of Marrakech) draw from gnawa, raï and chaabi (urban pop) influences. A roots-oriented group singing in Arabic and Berber, "Sadats" may be their first digital excursion. While just breaking the electronic realm, B'net is well known for innovation (given the three disparate musical forms they fuse and singing on anything from love and anger to the Moroccan soccer team). Krakebs (metal clappers) and handclaps lead a midtempo, pouncing rhythm as the group - led by singer Malika Mahjoubi - bounce call-and-response vocals effortlessly over the boisterous low-end. Bass stays predominant as "Sandya" opens with a finely tuned guimbri (bass lute), handclaps, krakebs and, finally, gnawa vocalist Brahim Elbelkani. Soon after a high-charged drumbeat kicks in and plays off the trance-inducing melodies.

"Sandya" is the most pop-oriented cut, and before staying upbeat too long Sabbah returns to the dark for the two-part "Alla Al OHbab/Hajti Fi Gurini." Playing the style aïta, which translates to "cry" or "call out," we find a correlation in Ouled Ben Aguida with qawwali and bhajans. What exists in these three styles is an intense yearning to touch something beyond the human experience, and the voice is used as a transmitter in connecting to that unnamable source. La Kahena is, at foundation, a collection of devotional hymns, much like Krishna Lila before it. On Ouled's cut such deep beauty exists in the plaintive longing of the male/female vocal interplay it is hard not to be pulled into the swirling lute-decorated rhythms. As desperate a song as this is, it serves as mere introduction to "Madh Assalhin." Led by a grunting exhale, by the time the Moroccan Haddarates emerge you're already led into an intimate space. This is the nature of trance music: to lull one to a personal vortex where, upon confronting inner demons, they can face themselves clean of any obstruction. It takes a while to get to - gnawa ceremonies last from sunset to dawn - but in the space of eight minutes Sabbah and friends come as close as possible. Comprised of five women singing sacred songs to Mohammed, "Madh Assalhin" is proof positive that faith is laden with insolubility.

The two-part "Alkher Illa Doffor/Ad Izayanugass" splices the tinde vocals of Algerian native Khadija Othmani. A sparse number filled out with heady psychedelica, flutes, drums and chants, it ends another dark trilogy before Middle Eastern singer Michal Cohen provides the most inspired, dance-floor ready cut with "Im Ninalou." By this point one isn't sure which direction - or how many - Sabbah has planned. Unlike the treacherous waters thus far navigated, Cohen comes forth with a refreshing purity matched by the rolling percussive backbeat and tromping string sections. With this number we move from head to heart and find openness, suddenly exposed, as if all the vulnerable lashes converge into safety.

Sabbah would not trick us into believing we can stay comfortable. Just as Dante's journey explored the underworld and paradise equally, we need not suggest one lead to the another; rather, they form simultaneously. It then becomes a human duty to decipher and navigate how they see fit. La Kahena is an emotive album full of angry devils and caring mothers, the dark/light femininity men both crave and run from. It is a record of danger and beauty, capped with the 13-minute oud and qanun (zither) suite "Jarat Fil Hubj." Casablanca vocalist Nadia appears for a few minutes between the instrumentals and continues with the hopeful reverence Cohen offered.

Crafted by the dexterous hands of numerous recurring characters, La Kahena is the work of many guided by the One brilliant idea. Bill Laswell's signature bass lines cannot be missed, and Karsh Kale's sturdy tabla is evident. MIDIval PunditZ's Gaurav Raina returns to ProTool the record to the superior standard he set on Krishna Lila. Ney player/DJ Mercan Dede throws in a hand, as does cellist Rufus Cappadocia, composer Richard Horowitz and violinist Bouchaib Abdelhadi, filling out the landscape these women paint. In so many ways, that last observation wraps up both La Kahena and life itself: the dark drudgery of men decorated by the poetic feminine, both swirling, clashing and, in the end, making the most beautiful music imaginable. If Africa is truly the motherland of human culture, She's given birth once again.

ethnotechno rating: 5 out of 5
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  1. esh 'dani, alash mshit [why did i follow him?]
  2. sadats [saints of marrakesh] (pick)
  3. toura toura (pick)
  4. i - alla al 'hbab [blessed be my friends] ii - hajti fi gurini [longing for my lover]
  5. madh assalhin [praising of the saints]
  6. i - alkher illa doffor [peace is found behind wounds] ii - ad izayanugass [what will happen will happen]
  7. im ninalou [if the doors are locked] (pick)
  8. jarat fil hhub [love's chalice]