Turning the Tables

music DJChebFor the better part of two decades, Cheb i Sabbah has been experimenting with cultural mixing of the most literal kind. The world-renowned DJ looms over his turntables like a weaver at the spinning wheel, interlacing modern electronica with traditional Arabic, African and Asian music. But it seems that Sabbah’s DJ gig is just one part of his plan to bring the voices of various cultures into harmony with one another.

“I want to be the president of the world for just two weeks,” the Algeria-born musician jokes. “OK? It’s a two-week mandate.” He explains that the first items on his agenda are to abolish the money system and to put the present leaders of the world in a vegetarian gulag “to reeducate them about what it is that’s important in life.” He also envisions a 24-hour worldwide general strike to “fix all the violence, poverty and disease.”

Sabbah, a San Francisco resident, has personal reasons for wanting to eradicate disease: He was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer in May 2011. Major intravenous doses of vitamins help minimize the side effects of his chemotherapy, as does the technique of hyperthermia, in which the patient’s body temperature is raised above 42 degrees centigrade during chemo sessions.

Due to a lack of health insurance, Sabbah is forced to pay for his treatments by way of funds from his benefit album, Samaya, and gigs such as his Don Quixote’s performance Friday (a pre-party for mid-July’s Mystic Garden Gathering in southern Oregon). “When I go somewhere and they ask me if I’m allergic to anything, I say, ‘Yeah. I’m allergic to capitalism!’” the DJ chuckles. He contrasts America’s healthcare system with that of China, where medical practitioners profit from patients’ wellness rather than from their illness. “But those are the people dealing with the five elements, not the people dealing with the billion-dollar industry that’s putting out all this stuff.”

More than a year after doctors told him he had just four weeks to live, Sabbah is not only still standing, but also still braiding electronica with world music. The fact that he’s never caught any flack from purists for the latter pursuit can probably be chalked up to his tasteful use of electronic elements and to the authenticity of his instrumentation: Rather than using samples of instruments like sitar, ektara, oud and sintir, he travels to such regions as India, Pakistan and Morocco to bottle the sounds at the source. The DJ lightheartedly states that he’s recorded musicians who had never heard of a click track. “I’ve had groups of women singing for me in Morocco, and they had never put on headphones in their life,” he says. “They were very sweet—they were just laughing and laughing.”

Sabbah’s infatuation with the music of many different cultures comes in part from his friendship with the late Don Cherry, a jazz cornet player who incorporated Middle Eastern, traditional African and Indian influences into his music. “Don used to say, ‘When you’re a musician, it’s a blessing. It’s a gift that is given to you, and that’s why you have to share it,’” the DJ recalls. He adds that what he’s really sharing is Shakti, a Hindu term meaning “sacred force” or “feminine power.” “Hitler had a lot of Shakti,” he notes. “He definitely misused it, but you could tell: The guy was short and not so good-looking, but he had so much Shakti that he did what he did. So, we’ve all been given some Shakti, and me, I’ve been given this amount of Shakti to share the music.”

That, and to rule the planet for two weeks. Or, to say it with a little more Shakti: Today, world music; tomorrow, the world.

Cheb i Sabbah performs at 8 p.m. Friday, July 6 at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy 9, Felton. Tickets are $15/adv, $20/door. Call 603-2294. To learn more about Sabbah or to donate, visit

Contributor at Good Times |

Damon Orion is a Santa Cruz-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in such publications as Revolver, Spirituality & Health, High Times, Dark Beauty and Austin Monthly. He served as Good Times’ music and events editor from 2003 to 2007. In 2011, his article Hitting the Spot won a California Newspaper Association Award for Best Writing. An overview of his work can be found here.     

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