[5 February 2008]
This is no half-assed India/Arabia/electronica fusion, because all three parts are done right, and they’re put together in weird, interesting ways. Cheb i Sabbah’s life story makes him part Algerian, part Indian and part San Franciscan; thus the intuition in the altered mind behind this music, which was recorded in New Delhi.
Only a serious Indian music enthusiast would fully understand what’s going on here, with all of the instruments and styles used. The strings sound like ouds, the drums like they’re from North Africa. But for most of us, those specifics will not matter. Cheb i Sabbah has an excellent grip on electronic production, textures and grooves, which makes the experience more user-friendly.
Sabbah has chosen to embrace all of India, including three religions and a variety of styles. The qawwali (Sufi devotional) music resonates strongest, perhaps because it’s oriented heavily toward trance, thus best suited for that kind of electronic production. Sabbah takes the latter to extremes on the introduction to the fourth track, “Qalanderi”, where a spooky, echoey, almost ambient passage leads right into an uncomplicated club groove with vocal and string highlights. Oddly enough, that’s followed by a reggae-fied song by an obscure Sikh singer, complete with one-drop beats. The juxtaposition works.
Even when the music is Hindu or Sikh, it’s hard to yank all the strands of qawwali (or at least its core devotional spirit) free. The same can be said of the rhythmic aspect, which is not dominated by the tablas, and thus is usually squeezed into a pretty square box, which works better for occasional Arabic rhythm patterns.
The most prominent relative of this kind of music is bhangra, a bottled-up and shaken Punjabi club mix, which has become something of a minor hit in the West because it’s so damn groovy. But bhangra music is usually geared up for heavy-duty dance jams, and Devotion is about the quest for enlightenment and ecstasy (which I suppose can also be accomplished by dancing, at least among whirling dervishes). Second cousins, maybe.
As the record closes with the title track, you’ll note a dramatic change in sound. Cheb i Sabbah carefully assembled a collage of ambient noise to foreground his own psychedelic flow. It’s eight minutes of spoken word, song, bells, and other assorted “field” recordings tucked into a lush, flowing drone. The literal meaning of the words may be lost on most of us, as may the cultural context (e.g. call to prayer). But in a sense that just adds an extra layer of mystery on top of an already mystic experience, which alone is enough, at least for me.
With the exception of that oddball track, the other seven are all basically songs, each delivered by a different vocalist, identified on the back cover. The vocals dominate the melody, at least outside occasional instrumental interludes, and the production varies to suit the setting, be it intelligent electronica, oddball funk, ambient trance, handclapping tribal grooves, the aforementioned one-drop reggae or four-square techno. The Indian aspect of the record is obviously much more than just the icing on the cake. Oddly enough, this is all coming from a Berber Jew. Go figure.