Cheb i Sabbah

SPIRITUAL STARTCheb i Sabbah returns to India to artfully recast traditional religious songs

Credit: Shay Peretz

San Francisco — based DJ and world-music producer Cheb i Sabbah began bridging cultures through music and dance back in 1964, when he spun American soul tunes in a Paris club at age 17. Born in Constantine, Algeria, Sabbah was deeply influenced by the music of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Since 1990, Sabbah has melded the traditional sounds of those regions with modern beats, effects and breaks while performing in clubs and at festivals throughout the world.

India's religious music has long inspired Sabbah's work, and Devotion (Six Degrees, 2008) is Sabbah's prayerful tribute to the devotional music of Hinduism, Sikhism and Sufi Islam. “There is a form of music in India known as kirtan, which is based on call-and-response,” he says. “I tried to represent the three major faiths of India in a devotional context.” Sabbah produced Devotion entirely in New Delhi and tapped Gaurav Raina of the Midival Punditz — also on the Six Degrees label — to engineer the album; Raina had engineered Sabbah's Krishna Lila (2002) and La Kahena (2005).

Sabbah began by recording a cross-section of renowned Indian musicians at New Delhi's Ravi Shankar Cultural Center. According to Raina, “The RSCC has a very basic setup: [Apple] Logic Pro 7, Digi 002, Mackie 1604 and Neumann and Shure mics. They have a very large recording room, with three booths. We could record a singer, rhythm section and two melodic instruments all at one time. Since Cheb i wanted all the tracks to sound authentic, I had to get them to perform the track sitting in separate booths and singing together. The songs were recorded without click tracks in many situations, as the musicians were not used to that concept.”

To reshape the live tracks electronically, Sabbah and Raina retreated to Raina's personal studio and used his Mac G5 running Logic Pro 7 and Reason 3. The first order of business involved editing the percussion parts, which were rife with recurring tempo fluctuations, and locking them into steady 4/4 grooves. “We would identify loops every 16 or 24 bars and then make sure the loop fell on the ‘one’ and that it was clean,” Raina explains. “This was done visually many times. Indian percussions are generally on a 30- to 40-percent swing, so I prefer to quantize all the percussion.”

“Once you have that, you go through your sample library or beats and choose the one that will work,” Sabbah says. “It could be drum 'n' bass, trance, techno, house, hip-hop.” Raina added subtle synth lines and pads with his Clavia Nord Lead 3 synth and programmed drum grooves in Logic using his Akai MPD16 USB/MIDI pad controller.

Logic ultimately helped Raina to marshal the songs' disparate tempos. “Logic 7's beat-mapping feature was exactly what I needed,” he says. “All the live rhythm tracks were then used to map out the main tempo map of the song. Whenever the song sped up, the loops [and] played electronic parts did, too. However, I had to use all the loops as REX files or [as] played through the sampler drum kits.”

Raina sculpted some eerily cool yet subtle effects and textures with plug-ins. For “Qalanderi,” Raina created a haunting, warped vocal effect by sending Riffat Sultana's voice through a plug-in chain comprising Waves Truverb set to a high decay value, Logic Tape Delay with 45-percent feedback and Logic Tremolo for fast panning. He also blended a stringed instrument, the saarangi, with a swirling vocal effect: “I loaded it with reverb and brought in the vocal effect from the front of the track. I passed them both through a common bus and applied another reverb and compressor.”

Devotion closes with the title track, a compelling and meditative collage of the sounds of Varanasi, the City of Light. “Those sounds were recorded by Soundwalk, three people in New York that have done a series of CDs,” Sabbah says. “It's basically like walking on the ghats of Varanasi — those steps that go down into the river. On the sides of those steps, you have all those temples and different faiths. It's just incredible — a kind of symphony. That kind of collage is a very personal thing. I put the headphones on and just move things around until I'm happy with the way it sounds. I always deal with strictly headphones. It's the only way to be really right there in the mix. And maybe it's a DJ kind of an approach — I don't know. All I have is my ears. I know what I want to hear.”