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.