1/  Esh 'Dani, Alash Mshit (Why Did I Follow Him?)                           8.07
  2/  Sadats (Saints of Marrakesh)                                             6.02
  3/  Toura Toura                                                              7.29
  4/  i - Alla Al 'Hbab (Blessed Be My Friends)                                9.57
      ii - Hajti Fi Gurini (Longing For My Lover)
  5/  Madh Assalhin (Praising of the Saints) 	                               8.11     
  6/  i - Alkher Illa Doffor (Peace Is Found Behind Words)                     8.38
      ii - Ad Izayanugass (What Will Happen Will Happen)
  7/  Im Ninalou (If the Doors Are Locked)                                     6.18
  8/  Jarat Fil Hub (Love's Chalice)                                           12.56

          Recorded and engineered in Marrakesh, Moracco at Marrakech Prod Recording 
            Studio by Wolfgang Funk
          Jemaa el Fna street sounds recorded by Matthieu Daude
          Track 6 recorded by Steve Shehan in 1997 in Djanet, Algeria and at Studio
            Des Fontenelles, France for SAFAR Productions et Editions
          ProTooled, Nuendoed, engineered, programmed by Gaurav Raina at Punditz
            Studios, New Delhi, India
          Added programmation on track 1 by Jayant Luthra
          Technical assistance by Gautam Kaul
          Bill Laswell, Karsh Kale and Richard Horowitz recorded at Orange Studio,
            New Jersey by Robert Musso, assisted by James Dellatacoma
          Added recordings at SF Soundworks engineered by Justin Lieberman, San
            Francisco, California
          Additional technical assistance by Bob "Bouba" Appel
          Produced by Cheb i Sabbah
          Mastered by Brian "Big Bass" Gardner at Bernie Grundman Mastering, Los
            Angeles, California
Cheb i Sabbah: sound sculptures; Bill Laswell: bass; (1) Cheba Zahouania: voice; Ouled Ben Aguida: chorus; Othmane Assi: oud; Gibril Bennani: violin; Brahim Elbelkani: Gnawa guimbri; B'Net Marrakech: voices, derbouka, bendirs, tabsel; Farid Hamidat: derbouka; Mokhtar "Kamy" Gaid: keyboards; (2) "Aziza" Malika Ait-Zouin: lead voice, oud; Halima Chamkhi, Fatima Bakkou and Fatimah Malih: voices, percussion; Brahim Elbelkani: Gnawa guimbri; (3) Brahim Elbelkani: Gnawa Guimbri, voice; Khadija Lilich, Atika Lilich and Zahira Elbelkani: chorus; Ismail Elbelkani and Mohamed Naim: qarqabas, handclaps; (4) Cheikhate Hafida Houane and Cheikhate Mina Houni: voices, taarija; Bouchaib Benchilih: violin, voice; Miloud El Hilali: oud, voice; Boujemaa Benchlih: derbouka, voice; Mostafa Houkaki: bendir, voice; (5) Lala Kaboura Ben Faraji: lead voice, tabla; Fatma Khalef, Tarjma Khadouj, Fatema Legrem and Zoubida Azzarkaouia: voices, bendirs, tryer; (6) Khadija Othmani: tinde drum, voice; Dassin Nori, Zhora Thameur and Malika Ali Chali: voices; Baly Othmani and Brahim Naimi: drums; (7) Michal Cohen: voices; (8) Nadia: voice; Gibril Bennani: voilin; Othmane Assi: oud, chorus; M'Hammed Kahkahni: derbouka, riq, chorus; Mustapha Ramadan: qanun; Richard Horowitz: nay (6,7), keyboards (6,7); Karsh Kale: keyboards (3), drums (5); Mercan Dede: nay (5); Rufus Cappadocia: cello (7); Bouchaib Abdelhadi (except 8): bendir, derbouka, tar, qarqabas, handclaps, added vocals (5); Gaurav Raina: keyboards (1,2,6,7,8).

          2005 - Six Degrees Records (USA), 650736 1111-2 (CD)


On Algerian-born DJ Cheb i Sabbah's latest CD, the avant-garde world music emissary mixes traditional North African and Moorish European music with modern percussion rhythms and jazz instrumentation to create a swirling hybrid that sounds simultaneously ancient and modern. The eight songs on La Kahena each feature different female vocalists and music from different regions. He named the disc after a legendary Algerian freedom fighter from the seventh century, who like Sabbah, was both Berber and Jewish. La Kahena fiercely commanded Berber armies against invading Arab warriors, but eventually gave up her life (literally her head, which was cut off and brought to Egypt as proof) for peace. The current political troubles in Algeria prevented Sabbah from returning to his homeland to record, so Sabbah went next door to Morocco (and other places across the globe) to tape the singers.

The vocalists include Algerian Rai diva Cheba Zahouania, the Aita group Ouled Ben Aguida, the Yemenite Michal Cohen, the ensemble B'net Marrakech (the Women of Marrakech) who usually perform in peoples homes at weddings and celebrations, Gharnati singer Nadia of Casablanca, the Sufi group Haddarates, male Gnawa vocalist Brahim Elbelkani leading his female relatives, and Tinde vocalist Khadija Othmani. Even if a person is, like myself, unfamiliar with the various musical traditions, the distinctive features of each style are easily differentiated. The disc's greatest strength lies in Sabbah's ability to make each track a separate entity while also part of a cohesive whole through shared rhythms.

This is not folk music, even though Sabbah used documentary-like methods to capture many of the singers' live performances. Sabbah takes the recordings and adds everything from Bill Laswell's jazz bass lines to techno drum machine beats to the cries of children to a host of other instruments and ambient effects to make something one can meditate, dance, and even pray to. Consider the hook laden "Sandya", whose call and response structure resembles a schoolyard chant. The song begins with the sound of a solo bass line played on an African lute (guimbri), then hand claps join in, quickly followed by metal clappers (krakebs), then a single voice of an older person, then an explosion of younger voices in reply. Soon a catchy rhythm emerges as the melodies repeat. Sabbah adds echoes, reverbs, and instrumentation that let the various layers play over each other to create a musical round. The result is hypnotic without being dull.

Haddarates' "Madh Assalhin" is perhaps the most somber piece. The five Sufi women only perform religious music. Their spiritual prayers do not use Western style harmonies, but rely on trance inducing rhythms to offer praise. Sabbah adds various audio effects to intensify the feeling of sacred devotion and make the music accessible to a broader audience.

Perhaps the most accessible tune to American and European listeners is Michal Cohen's "Im Ninalou," because the song primarily consists of a beautiful, lilting voice singing a melody over a dance beat. The minimal Eastern instrumentation contained within serves as an exotic touch, rather than a central component of the music. The Yemenite singer carefully articulates each syllable of the song, based on a poem by 16th century Jewish mystic Shalom Shabazi.

The Gharnati singer Nadia has a similar clear voice to Cohen's, but the Casablanca native's "Jarat Fil Hub" relies on Arabic instruments like the oud and qanun (zither) to create a background for her vocals. Nadia's 13-minute contribution finishes the disc on a philosphical note. The song is broken up into several parts. With about a minute left, the song stops, there is silence, and then a final minute of a capella singing that turns into speech and then ends. This coda suggests the importance of reflection before continuing onward, which is the implicit theme of the entire disc. Sabbah combines the traditional with the contemporary to make our connections to the past an important part of the present moment that we live in and move forward from.

7 out of 10

Steve Horowitz (courtesy of the Pop Matters website)


After championing a new breed of classically-bent Indian sound merged with delicately polished digitalism, Sabbah re-roots, literally, himself in a new context of North African folk music. His South Asian series ­ Shri Durga, Maha Maya and Krishna Lila ­ presented Western ears with a modernistic take on Hindustani and Carnatic traditions heard through 21st century ears. He kept the native temperament intact without flooding sitars, sarangis and devotional poetry with pulsing electronic rhythms; instead, unlike most involved in these hybrid forms, Sabbah merely refined the originals with minimalist production. The coating was no mere sheen, but a new way of looking at ancient material.

On his mixed-CD As Far As he began moving from India to Africa, working Malian singer Salif Keita (singing on a Trilok Gurtu track), Morocco/Berlin fusionists Gnawa Impulse and Bembeya Jazz vocalist Sekouba Bambino into his outernationalist approach. Now, completing the crossover, he returns to his Algerian homeland (and neighboring Morocco) with La Kahena, a record as nominally treated and stunningly gorgeous as the Indian predecessors. Recording an array of female vocalists from Arab, Jewish, Berber and European backgrounds over eight tracks, Sabbah has upped the ante on the future of African music.

The opening song, "Esh ODani, Alash Mshit" features raï vocalist Cheba Zahouania backed by lilting Arabic strings and a steady hi-hat/snare drum kick. After Algeria's long struggle for independence resulted in the freeing up of French colonial rule in 1962, raï became a soundtrack to the disenfranchised population. Originally rural folk music played on the gasba (desert rosewood flute) and guellal (small goblet drum), today's pop, rock and electronic updating by artists like Cheb Mami and Rachid Taha are a long distance from the disparate class it was birthed from. Singers crooned melhoun, an epic poetry form, and a movement of female vocalists (Cheikhas) began to surface, led by Relizane-born Cheika Remitti. Oran native Cheba Zahouania was born Halima Mazzi in 1959 and has mastered the meddahate style, which she displays here with enticing lyrical architecture. A far cry from her 1998 collaboration with Algerian superstar Khaled, "Together," "Esh ODani, Alash Mshit" is tinged with a degree of melancholy that seeps into every minute of La Kahena, making it a perfect leadoff.

From Algeria we journey west to Morocco where B'net Marrakech (The Women of Marrakech) draw from gnawa, raï and chaabi (urban pop) influences. A roots-oriented group singing in Arabic and Berber, "Sadats" may be their first digital excursion. While just breaking the electronic realm, B'net is well known for innovation (given the three disparate musical forms they fuse and singing on anything from love and anger to the Moroccan soccer team). Krakebs (metal clappers) and handclaps lead a midtempo, pouncing rhythm as the group ­ led by singer Malika Mahjoubi ­ bounce call-and-response vocals effortlessly over the boisterous low-end. Bass stays predominant as "Sandya" opens with a finely tuned guimbri (bass lute), handclaps, krakebs and, finally, gnawa vocalist Brahim Elbelkani. Soon after a high-charged drumbeat kicks in and plays off the trance-inducing melodies.

"Sandya" is the most pop-oriented cut, and before staying upbeat too long Sabbah returns to the dark for the two-part "Alla Al OHbab/Hajti Fi Gurini." Playing the style aïta, which translates to "cry" or "call out," we find a correlation in Ouled Ben Aguida with qawwali and bhajans. What exists in these three styles is an intense yearning to touch something beyond the human experience, and the voice is used as a transmitter in connecting to that unnamable source. La Kahena is, at foundation, a collection of devotional hymns, much like Krishna Lila before it. On Ouled's cut such deep beauty exists in the plaintive longing of the male/female vocal interplay it is hard not to be pulled into the swirling lute-decorated rhythms. As desperate a song as this is, it serves as mere introduction to "Madh Assalhin." Led by a grunting exhale, by the time the Moroccan Haddarates emerge you're already led into an intimate space. This is the nature of trance music: to lull one to a personal vortex where, upon confronting inner demons, they can face themselves clean of any obstruction. It takes a while to get to ­ gnawa ceremonies last from sunset to dawn ­ but in the space of eight minutes Sabbah and friends come as close as possible. Comprised of five women singing sacred songs to Mohammed, "Madh Assalhin" is proof positive that faith is laden with insolubility.

The two-part "Alkher Illa Doffor/Ad Izayanugass" splices the tinde vocals of Algerian native Khadija Othmani. A sparse number filled out with heady psychedelica, flutes, drums and chants, it ends another dark trilogy before Middle Eastern singer Michal Cohen provides the most inspired, dance-floor ready cut with "Im Ninalou." By this point one isn't sure which direction ­ or how many ­ Sabbah has planned. Unlike the treacherous waters thus far navigated, Cohen comes forth with a refreshing purity matched by the rolling percussive backbeat and tromping string sections. With this number we move from head to heart and find openness, suddenly exposed, as if all the vulnerable lashes converge into safety.

Sabbah would not trick us into believing we can stay comfortable. Just as Dante's journey explored the underworld and paradise equally, we need not suggest one lead to the another; rather, they form simultaneously. It then becomes a human duty to decipher and navigate how they see fit. La Kahena is an emotive album full of angry devils and caring mothers, the dark/light femininity men both crave and run from. It is a record of danger and beauty, capped with the 13-minute oud and qanun (zither) suite "Jarat Fil Hubj." Casablanca vocalist Nadia appears for a few minutes between the instrumentals and continues with the hopeful reverence Cohen offered.

Crafted by the dexterous hands of numerous recurring characters, La Kahena is the work of many guided by the One brilliant idea. Bill Laswell's signature bass lines cannot be missed, and Karsh Kale's sturdy tabla is evident. MIDIval PunditZ's Gaurav Raina returns to ProTool the record to the superior standard he set on Krishna Lila. Ney player/DJ Mercan Dede throws in a hand, as does cellist Rufus Cappadocia, composer Richard Horowitz and violinist Bouchaib Abdelhadi, filling out the landscape these women paint. In so many ways, that last observation wraps up both La Kahena and life itself: the dark drudgery of men decorated by the poetic feminine, both swirling, clashing and, in the end, making the most beautiful music imaginable. If Africa is truly the motherland of human culture, She's given birth once again.

Derek Beres (courtesy of the Ethno Techno website)


Let's make this clear from the get-go: La Kahena is not a "worldbeat" album. Algerian-born DJ Cheb i Sabbah may string together field recordings of North African folk and pop singers and supplement them with trance-inducing beats and loops, but the album certainly isn't a crossover effort or an attempt to make alien forms go down more smoothly for American listeners.

That's because Sabbah experiments on more than just a stylistic level. Instead of just blending the exotic and the familiar, he subtly tweaks his source material to evoke different moods and locales from the same vocal melody. In "Im Ninalou", for instance, Sabbah initially places chanteuse Michel Cohen among cloud wisps and bent light-rays, setting the scene for some ace dream pop. He then pulls her out of this lucid dream mode and into a sweaty dance club, with traditional and sampled percussion bumping and grinding and setting into a sexy groove like nubile singles on a Friday night. Elsewhere, "Hatji Fi Gurini" heats up a violin and oud-driven folk song with boisterous drum loops, bringing an already energetic table dance to a rolling boil.

La Kahena also proves Sabbah to be as proficient as he is creative. His textures sparkle like freshly-buffered floors but also embrace the human touch, while his inter- and intra-song segues remind listeners that he's in complete control, as much as the album may appear to be the vocalists' show. Few travelogues cast their author in such a favorable light.

Philip Buchanan (courtesy of the Splendidezine website)