This has to be one of the more difficult blog posts I’ve had to write. My appreciation and respect for the life and music of Cheb I Sabbah is profound. Born Haim Serge El Baz and affectionately known as Chebiji, he was one of the original DJ/producers whose Algerian, French and Jewish cultural heritage led him to create a unique blend of electronica and North African/Arabic/Asian influenced music: What he would repudiate as being “world beat” and would ultimately become known as Global Electronica. His long standing run at the SF dance club Nicki’s, in the lower Haight, left an indelible mark on so many of us here in the SF Bay Area. His relationship with Six Degrees Records led to seven meticulously produced releases and a global following for his music. I too am of French/Jewish descent and having a mother who was a Belly Dancer and a percussionist and was deeply inspired by Middle Eastern music, Cheb’s music found a special place in my heart.
I had the great fortune to have Chebiji stop by Pyramind with his son, Elijah aka Opium, in early September of 2013. He’d been waging a long battle with stomach cancer, which on November 6th would ultimately claim his life. That day in September he spent two hours talking about his career. From his youth as a DJ in the discotheques of Paris where he would spin the hot soul music of the times (and gradually introduce the ground breaking music of Jimi Hendrix) to his travels with the politically charged and technically innovative Living Theatre with whom he toured as an actor and who eventually brought him to San Francisco for the summer of love in 1968.
Cheb would ultimately return to DJ’ing in the 80’s. I particularly like his story about making mixtapes for Rainbow collective (a cooperative grocery in The Mission district where he worked for a time) and being heard there by the promoter who would ultimately bring him to Nicky’s. His record collection and exposure to world-influenced electronic music grew from his trips back to Paris and as a world music buyer for several record stores including Amoeba. He laments the demise of purchased music and speaks poignantly to a students question about the importance (or lack thereof) of being signed to a label in today’s music climate and talks about the ever-increasing difficulties of recouping his recording budgets of 50-60K that required him to travel to distant lands and pay many musicians and collaborators.
In part 3 Cheb speaks to his production process and how each album is created with a specific theme in mind. From the process of recording the live musicians in less than optimum conditions to bringing the tracks into Logic and building beats with Karsh Kale, recording Bass lines with Bill Laswel, working with “genius engineer” Gaurav Raina from The MIdIval Pundits and mastering with Big Bass Brian from Bernie Grundman’s.
His true spirit comes through when asked about what music serves in today’s world. He references one of his mentors Don Cherry (The Jazz Trumpeter whom he managed) who would point to the need for community and the role of music to bring us together and the negative impact of money. “Music is the weapon, Music is the one thing that brings people together.” He ends with his view on how to save the world in two weeks and how he would do it were he to be elected president. Finally we get a sneak peak of some his newest works in progress, a track from his newest record and another called Ahimsa from his son Opium’s record that Cheb produced and recorded much of at Pyramind.
Cheb’s long standing association with DJ/Producer Jef Stott was part of the evolution of Global Electronica into Global Bass. It was particularly evident to me when I was mixing Jef’s last album Arcana (also on Six Degrees Records). Artist’s like Jef, The Midival Pundits and many others are evolving the tradition of a sound that we now take for granted. After hearing Cheb talk I can truly say I found a whole new level of respect for the man and his deep commitment to both his process of producing and to the music itself.