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.
Can you tell me how you got into DJing?
dj Cheb i Sabbah jams in Paris, 1968
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
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
[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.
dj Cheb i Sabbah performs with the Living Theatre in Bordeaux, France, 1975
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
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
What's the worst habit of DJs from your perspective?
dj Cheb i Sabbah surveys his turntables as he spins at a San Francisco nightclub, 2003. (photo: Leighton Woodhouse)
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,
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.
What is your earliest musical memory in Algeria?
dj Cheb i Sabbah, in his pre-DJ days, is pictured here on a family outing in Constantine, Algeria, 1954
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
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.
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
A North African musician plays for a crowd in Marseilles, France, 2003
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
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.
A young dj Cheb i Sabbah peforms at Nova Park nightclub in Paris, 1980
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.
And what about raï music?
Maurice El Medioni, on piano, performs with other Algerian musicians in their native country, circa 1950. (photo: Maurice El Medioni)
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.
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.
San Francisco nightclub Nickie's BBQ is a mecca for dj Cheb i Sabbah fans every Tuesday night. (photo: Leighton Woodhouse)
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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Music - Selected by dj Cheb i Sabah"
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and information about his upcoming release on Six Degrees Records,