A conversation with Cheb I Sabbah feels more like a chat with a musicologist/anthropologist/ historian than an interview with a world renowned DJ/producer. It's appropriate, given the long-standing traditions of mysticism, invasion and exodus chronicled by much of the music he helps produce. Algerian-born Sabbah has opened many Western listeners to Eastern and South Asian rhythms since joining the Six Degrees label in the late '90s. His fifth album in seven years, La Kahena, is a deeply rich fusion of his skill as an electronic producer with the trance-like musicianship of several artists he searched for, and found on a trip to Morocco.
"It was quite wonderful to be in Marrakesh for a full month," he says. "Some musicians I wanted; some musicians I met while I was there. It was all very different than, let's say, India, where you have classical musicians who are used to studios and play on all sorts of albums. On this one, some of the artists had never been in the studio. Some had, but for all of them it was very interesting to be part of this album."
Exploring the many elements of North African music, La Kahena takes a journey through Jewish, Arab and South Asian sounds, resulting in a full-bodied album that reflects the history of migration in Northern Africa, a task made easy by Sabbah's desire to help preserve and disseminate this music.
"It's good to, first of all, have reference points, and second it's good to open up and expose the music. Those people are known in Morocco, but outside it's a whole different story and they want to be exposed. Music is always about sharing. Yeah, they can share in Morocco but if their music can be shared outside of Morocco, they would be very happy. If I could of course the money isn't there I'd tour with all of them. Right now there are about 43 musicians; it would be more expensive than the Rolling Stones."
La Kahena is based around the legend of a North African Berber/Jewish woman who inspired an uprising against the Arab invaders in seventh century Algeria. It's meant to illustrate the contribution of women in the Arab world and led to Sabbah's desire to focus mainly on female singers from the region.
"I felt there are, more or less in the West, some misconceptions about Arab women. There are some Arab or Muslim countries that believe in only one way that women can exist, but that's not true for all Arab countries and not true for all Muslim women. I thought that would help to show that this is another part of what women have contributed and are contributing to music and to the man's world."
Faced with the task of respectfully modernising music from hundreds of years ago, La Kahena became a more complete album for Sabbah by allowing him to explore his own roots and push his own boundaries as an artist.
"If you take a piece that was written or composed in the 12th century, when you come to the 21th century there is a certain school that has to add changes to it or make it their own version.
I think what I'm doing and other producers like me are doing, we're adding that element only instead of adding extra notes or an extra violin, we're adding the electronic parts, because we are living an electronic life."