DJ Cheb i Sabbah has always taken his audiences on sonic journeys. His special gift has been his ability to combine authentic traditional music with contemporary electronic dance beats in a way that is both respectful and innovative. His albums Shri Durga and Krishna Leela worked this transformation on Indian classical and devotional music. For La Kahena, his most recent dance album, he traveled back to his native north Africa, and made studio recordings of the many music styles of Morocco and Algeria: the ecstatic sacred chanting of the elderly women known as Haddarates, the sub-Saharan rhythms of Brahim Elbelkani, the refined Andalusian-based chamber music Sabbah grew up with in his native city of Constantine. By letting these musicians perform in a pure traditional manner before he adds the contemporary musicians and “DJ Science,” he is able to welcome this music into the 21st century without pandering or compromises.
Now Sabbah has taken his collaborative instincts into a whole new territory, creating sonic landscapes for walkers instead of dancers. His co-creators on this project are a very diverse group. Soundwalk created a new art form by simulating the experience of walking through a neighborhood with somebody who has lived there for years. Their CDs include maps showing exactly where the tour begins, then a series of instructions tell how many steps and turns you should take before the narrator says, “Now you can see my favorite park bench/bagel shop/view of the bridge, …” All but one of the previous soundwalk CDs have been tours through neighborhoods in New York City, including Brooklyn, Wall Street, Little Italy, and Chinatown. But the most recent release is a tour of the sacred city of Varanasi, and was made in collaboration with Namarupa, a New York-based magazine dedicated to exploring the nuances of Indian spirituality. The editors of Namurapa and the producers of Soundwalk traveled to Varanasi, accompanied by Robert Svoboda, the first Westerner to receive an advanced degree in ayurvedic medicine. There they recorded sounds from every corner of the city, and interviewed such great scholars as Mahantji Veerabhadra Mishra, Rana Singh, and Ananda Krishna, as well as many boatmen and temple priests.
Two CDs were made from these recordings. One features Svoboda as the “local guide” in a format similar to the New York soundwalks. It begins with a warning, obviously written by lawyers, absolving soundwalk of any liability for whatever happens to you while wandering through this neighborhood while wearing a Walkman. This warning seems designed more for New York than Varanasi, but Svoboda adds an appropriate note when he finishes with “know that if it is your fate to die in Varanasi, you will be excellently positioned for your transition to the next world.” Another important difference is that instead of walking, this tour consists of a boat ride on the River Ganga. The sound of the oars provides a steady ostinato as we hear temple chants, bodies being burned, the slapping of clothes on rocks by the washermen, and the music, shouts, and conversations of the people and places we visit along the way. Svoboda tells us with apparent seriousness that we should immediately book a trip to Varanasi if we are listening to this CD anywhere else. But although my expense account with India Currents did not permit this, I can assure you that this CD does provide a memorable experience even in a Berkeley living room. The entire text of Svoboda’s narration is also included in a book of beautiful photographs by Mark Paul Petrick. These photographs do an admirable job of giving you a sense of what you would have seen if you had actually been there.
Cheb i Sabbah was given over a dozen hours of recorded sounds by his collaborators from Soundwalk and Namarupa, and from these he assembled a wordless walking tour of the ghats, which extend out into the river like piers. Sabbah knows the city’s uniquely sacred chaos from his own extensive travels in Varanasi, and artfully uses his skill with stereo imaging to place the listener right in the center of it. (Headphones are definitely recommended.) The sound of thunder and rain rush around your head at the beginning, then slowly disappear as you enter a temple. The temple is filled with the chanting of bhajans by people of all ages and backgrounds, accompanied by their own hand percussion. Then as the storm clears up, you go out onto the pier again, and hear people bathing in the river, the sound of temple bells, and the bleating of goats and sheep. Someone walks by with a radio, whose tiny speaker blares out Bollywood hits. A political demonstration marches past, with chanted call-and-response slogans led by an electric bullhorn. At many other points, one metaphorically sits at the feet of Indian wise men and listens to descriptions of the traditions and values that are the lifespring of the oldest living city on this planet. There is also lots of music, but it is woven into the fabric of a lived world, with all the interruptions and imperfections of daily Indian life. Yet these imperfections are captured so perfectly that, just as on Sabbah’s dance albums, it is impossible to discern what was captured live from what was created in the studio.
Cheb i Sabbah has also made another recent journey, short in distance but of considerable impact on his professional life. He has now shifted his weekly San Francisco residency to the Blue Cube, a larger and more elegant club which can better accommodate his growing popularity. The variety of DJs and performers featured at this new club were all to some degree inspired by him, so it is a fitting new home—in so far as one location could ever be home for this unceasing traveler.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.