Frontline World

FRANCE: Play it Again, Maurice, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Play it Again, Maurice"

Selected by dj Cheb i Sabbah

In the Mix

Historical and cultural context

North African music, France and Algeria




have Turntable, Will Travel

dj Cheb i Sabbah

dj Cheb i Sabbah (photo: Six Degrees Records)

The same Judeo-Arabic Andalusian music that inspired Maurice El Medioni more than half a century ago is still enchanting younger generations of North African Jewish musicians. One of these is dj Cheb i Sabbah, born to a working-class Jewish-Algerian family in Constantine, Algeria, in 1947. He moved to Paris as a teenager, where he became a DJ. Currently he lives and works as a DJ and world music producer in San Francisco. FRONTLINE/World associate producer Sheraz Sadiq interviewed him in May of 2003. Take a journey with this pilgrim of the musical spirit -- and learn more about the roots of his eclectic mix.

You go by "dj Cheb i Sabbah." What does your name mean?

"Cheb" basically means young, having an opinion and good looking. "Sabbah" means morning. "Cheb i Sabbah" literally means young of the morning.

That's the name that I took when I started spinning about 14 years ago. I had been a DJ before, but there have been three DJ incarnations so far. So the third and latest incarnation, I took on that name.

dj Cheb i Sabbah jams in Paris

dj Cheb i Sabbah jams in Paris, 1968
Can you tell me how you got into DJing?

When I started, [in Paris] in the mid-1960s, that was the beginning of discotheque in France.

At that time it wasn't really DJing, it was a job. You worked six nights a week and sometimes one or two afternoons for under-age [clubs] The format was strictly soul music, 7 inches.

I left high school when I was 15. I started to work, but I didn't last long. I was rebelling against I guess everything, and I didn't want to do what my parents had always done and I didn't want to study either.

So at the age of 17 I was a DJ living in a hotel room in Paris.

Sabbah performs with the Living Theatre

dj Cheb i Sabbah performs with the Living Theatre in Bordeaux, France, 1975
[At the end of the 1960s] I moved to New York with the Living Theatre. I met [jazz musician] Don Cherry in the early 1970s, that was a whole other influence on me.

The main thing was [Cherry's] approach to study and incorporate music from other places. He would go to Bombay and learn vocals and tabla from Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, or he would go to Turkey and learn percussion. We listened to Indian ragas, we listened to music from Mali. It was this huge palette of music from so many places.

What is it about DJing that continues to appeal to you?

There's a give an take between you and the audience. It's half and half. That's something that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan taught me: If you only have good musicians and no good listeners, we are useless.

Sabbah surveys his turntables

dj Cheb i Sabbah surveys his turntables as he spins at a San Francisco nightclub, 2003. (photo: Leighton Woodhouse)
What's the worst habit of DJs from your perspective?

I think chain smoking.

Which you're guilty of.

It's part of the ritual. I'm not actually smoking them -- it's part of the hands and the buttons and the CD or the vinyl and the cigarette -- it kind of all goes together.

I was wondering if there are any other DJs like you who are using elements of the Judeo-Arabic-Andalusian tradition in their music today.

Not that I know. Not specifically Judeo-Arabic. If you approach Andalusian musicians that are very, very classical, they might go, are you crazy? You're going to put a bass line or whatever on top of this? No way.

So talk a bit about the tradition.

The music that we heard from very young [in the Jewish community in Constantine, Algeria] it was always a live group of musicians, for me Cheikh Raymond because he was very close to the family.

Who was Cheikh Raymond?

He was the flame or the torch of the Constantine School of Andalusian Music in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s.

So he was Jewish himself?

Yes. He was the head of that city because each city had its own school of music. Just like India, it doesn't matter if you're Hindu or Muslim, you learn from a Muslim Ustad, or if you're Muslim you can learn from a Hindu Pandit. Music doesn't make those distinctions. So there was Cheikh Raymond, playing oud and vocal, and then Cheikh Sylvain, who was also Jewish, playing violin, and the rest of the orchestra was all Muslim. That kind of music was always there for celebrations: birth, marriage, bar mitzvah.

When it comes to music, there's always that common ground -- and that seems to be what music is able to do. It doesn't resolve all the problems and conflicts, but within music you always find a common ground, and that was true in North Africa. Even to this day there are recordings made by Jewish people that are maintaining their tradition -- and when you look at the orchestra, they're all Muslims.

Sabbah on a family outing, 1954

dj Cheb i Sabbah, in his pre-DJ days, is pictured here on a family outing in Constantine, Algeria, 1954
What is your earliest musical memory in Algeria?

It was the Andalusian music that was played at weddings and births. It would start around noon and go on until late, late that night, and the music was a big part of those kinds of celebrations.

Whenever there is music like that, women start dancing and they've never gone to a class and learned belly dance, they just know how to dance. The women have the dancing part, the men have the musical part, and it's always present for a joyful celebration.

What are the ingredients of Andalusian music?

Andalusian music was more like a court music and definitely for the upper classes. It wasn't the popular music. The Arabic word in Algeria is "malouf" -- people don't say "Andalusian" music, they say "malouf." The music is poetry, it's highly, highly refined. I think the best example is really like Indian raga music. It's a serious, classical music.

What happened is, singers from the Judeo-Arabic tradition took elements from Andalusian music and made it more popular with songs and words that most of the time depicted lost love or waiting love or, in some cases, Hebrew religious text.

A North African musician

A North African musician plays for a crowd in Marseilles, France, 2003
At that time, everybody lived together, worked together and created together, so you couldn't say one is Jewish, one is Muslim. All those people were living in Spain. It was the same kind of people with different religions working out this classical music. They already had the oud, they already had their own percussions. ... But the violin and, later on, banjo came into a lot of North African music. There were times when they would take a Western instrument and make it work for what they were doing.

The only thing that would be different would be the lyrics. The lyrics would be in Arabic or Hebrew. Now of course the Muslim wouldn't sing anything in Hebrew, but the Jews were able to sing both. And the other difference would be that Arabic lyrics would be profane, whereas Hebrew lyrics would be sacred because they would be taken directly from the scriptures, in this case the Bible. Because Hebrew was never spoken as a language. Hebrew was always and only used for worship.

I think historically if we talk about the classical music from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, the Jews maintain the classical tradition called malouf, and Jews and Muslims played together in the same orchestras. The Jews maintained the tradition after it came from Spain into North Africa proper, at the time of the Inquisition.

What was the first music in France that made an impression on you?

Sabbah peforms at Nova Park nightclub in Paris

A young dj Cheb i Sabbah peforms at Nova Park nightclub in Paris, 1980
What started me musically was like French rock and roll. There's no way to escape that. You're young and you start listening to rock and roll and then blues and then jazz, and then you become a DJ and meanwhile your father, on afternoons when he wasn't at work, he would sit down with very strong coffee, smoking Gitanes and listening to Cheikh Raymond.

To you, that's like, well, that's Dad listening to his music; and you being a teenager, well, you're listening to other kinds of stuff. But then you eventually go back to it. Eventually. Because me -- I think because in my ears I had so much of that Andalusian music, when I was 17 I started to listen to classical raga music from India,

So it wasn't like it took me 20 years to go back to my roots or something. Because when I started to listen to classical Indian music, Pakistani, Persian music, all that stuff, it was a very short distance from what I grew up with. When you listen to Persian music or Hindustani music, you hear all the Arab Muslim influences.

Maurice El Medioni and other Algerian musicians

Maurice El Medioni, on piano, performs with other Algerian musicians in their native country, circa 1950. (photo: Maurice El Medioni)
And what about raï music?

At first raï music was mainly sung by women, "cheikhats." The cheikhats were the women that started to sing raï songs, which usually had something to do with Muslim prohibitions, meaning alcohol and love. Not that love is a Muslim prohibition, but sexual activity without marriage is.

Raï started in the city known as Oran, in Algeria [where Maurice El Medioni was born] and this still today is the capital of raï music. Alcohol wasn't allowed by Islam, but Algeria, having had the French colonization, had bars and clubs. Oran, being a seaport, had all those influences from the Mediterranean. So from there grew this raï movement: Raï music took mostly folk influences and traditions from the Sahara, from Berber tribes, from rock and roll, Spanish elements like flamenco. From that point of view, raï music really has nothing to do with Andalusian classical music. Probably classical musicians would look at raï music as really low.

San Francisco nightclub Nickie's BBQ

San Francisco nightclub Nickie's BBQ is a mecca for dj Cheb i Sabbah fans every Tuesday night. (photo: Leighton Woodhouse)
It sounds as if music has always been a sanctuary for you because it helps dissolve ethnic, religious and cultural divisions. There's that universality to it.

Young people always resort to music as something they can relate to, because all the other stuff takes a few more years to understand. At first, the only thing you have is music. Because it speaks to you. You can speak it, it speaks to you and you leave the other stuff for later.

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For more information about dj Cheb i Sabbah, and information about his upcoming release on Six Degrees Records, visit