If you were born in Algeria, of Jewish and Berber descent, and had a penchant for classical Indian raga, you might be as disinclined to align yourself with any one school of thought or music as genre-blending DJ Cheb i Sabbah is. Equally at home in Morocco, France, India, and San Francisco, he has been skillfully infusing traditional South Asian, Arabic, and North African melodies with modern electronic beats in the Lower Haight since 1990, first at Nickie's BBQ and now every Wednesday night at Underground SF. On June 16, Cheb i Sabbah celebrates the release of his sixth album with Six Degrees Records, La Ghriba, with 1002 Nights, his performance group of vocalists, percussionists, and dancers, and superstar Senegalese singer Baaba Maal.
SFBG You started DJing in Paris, how many years ago now?
DJ CiS It makes me look ancient, but 1963, 1964 is when I started. I was 17.
SFBG And have you DJed continuously for 40 years?
DJ CiS I've had three professional DJ incarnations. In 1963 that was the first one. Second one was 1980, also in Paris, and then the next one was about 16 years ago, here. In between I performed with the Living Theatre, then raised a family. Working at Rainbow Grocery, working at Amoeba Records ...
SFBG You worked at Rainbow?
DJ CiS Actually it's a funny story, because that's how I started spinning again. I worked at the one on 15th, before the big new one opened on Folsom. I would make tapes, and then whenever I went to work, if somebody liked my tape, they would play it. One day this guy comes up to me, his name is Bradley, and he says, "Man, this music is cool." I say, "Yeah, that's raï music from Algeria," and he says, "You know what, I have a little club in the Lower Haight called Nickie's, and if you want to come on a Tuesday Night and spin some music, I'll give you $40." At first I was, like, "I don't know about this, it's not like Paris," although within two weeks there was a line outside the door. Then [legendary jazz musician and sometime Sabbah collaborator] Don Cherry would come to Nickie's, and I would say to him, "I don't know if I'm going to stick with it," and he actually forced me to. He said, "No, you should stick with it. It's important."
SFBG So we have Don Cherry to thank.
DJ CiS From there I spent 10 years spinning at KPFA. Later on I became the world music buyer in Berkeley for Amoeba, and in those 14 years I put on close to 40 shows which I produced.
SFBG The 1002 Nights shows?
DJ CiS Yes, with Khaled. With Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It was a period where I did quite a few shows.
SFBG And you're going to be doing that again, the 1002 Nights?
DJ CiS Yeah, but this time I'm being hired more than actually putting on the show. The last show I did produce, which was actually a huge one, and very successful, was one I recently did with Khaled at the Berkeley Community Theatre, and there were 3,300 people there.
SFBG Do you decide in the club what kind of beats you're going to add, or do you decide in the studio?
DJ CiS I think the producing aspect is different than the dance floor one. However, the great thing about being a DJ is if you do a mix, you can try it out right away. You don't have to wait to find out if people like it or not. But it's really two different approaches, because also it's very subjective. Is Shri Durga [his first record on Six Degrees] a danceable album or not? Well, I don't know. I think it is. Maybe not every track, but not every minute of the day is there to dance. And it does have a focus on the tradition, you know. I'm not trying to do such a modern thing with just a little bit of the tradition. I'm doing the opposite. The tradition is first; second is bringing in what we call these days "global electronica," which is better than "world music."
SFBG You've referred to it as "outernational" music. How is that different from "international"?
DJ CiS It just goes ... out [gestures, hands apart].