Don’t let the “DJ” tag in front of his name fool you; Cheb i Sabbah’s latest album Krishna Lila is not a DJ set, but rather Cheb’s attempt as a composer and ethnomusicologist to reconnect his forays into high-tech modern beat science with the traditional sounds that give his DJ work its unique feel. Krishna Lila is an original album of Indian devotional music, a series of bhajans sung in various languages and performed in various traditional styles, all in praise of Krishna, who is, to grossly oversimplify one of the oldest and most complex religions on earth, the Hindu god of love.
How do I know all this? I read the press release. As a typical quasi-hippie/club-kid admirer of Cheb’s brand of world beat, I know as much about this hardcore traditionalist stuff as, say, a Maori tribesman knows about the Amish. I just figured I should ‘fess up my level ignorance before I plunge ahead with my bull-in-a-china-shop attempt to review it.
The big headline on Krishna Lila is that it’s very traditional, a word I just thought I’d throw in again in case I haven’t mentioned it enough times already. Though there are hints of modern rhythms and instrumentation throughout the album, most of it sounds at first shine like it could have been recorded a hundred years ago, or a thousand, assuming they’d had recording equipment back then. The vocals are all in obscure dialects like Kannada and Marathi, and sung in that ghostly, arpeggiated style unique to Indian music. Lead instruments are things like violin, harmonium, and a sitar-like instrument called a vina, with supporting beats and drones provided by stuff you’ve probably never heard of — manjiras, sarods, mridangam. No longer is Cheb i Sabbah, an Algerian who now lives in San Francisco, merely co-opting the sounds of an ancient culture to make what you’re dancing to sound cooler — here those sounds take center stage, and it’s the more modern, Western touches that are there just for texture.
For my money, it’s the tracks that give the Western instruments the most breathing room that are the album’s most interesting. Provided by jazz bassist Bill Laswell and Asian Massive wunderkind Karsh Kale, here featured playing Western-style percussion, the extra rhythmic oomph on tracks like “Maname Diname”, “Rupe Tujhe Deva”, and especially the drum-and-bass-inflected “Raja Vedalu” give Cheb’s compositions an energy that lifts them out the dry formality that sometimes makes other parts of Krishna Lila sound like the soundtrack for a romantic dinner at the Punjab Curry House.
But maybe that’s just my ignorant, jaded Westerner ears dismissing that which I fail to understand. Certainly I haven’t really heard enough bansuri solos to really know if those featured here by Deepak Ram are any good or not. If I had to venture an idiot savant guess, however, I predict that fans and non-fans alike of Indian music will find album’s first three tracks the least interesting. Plodding affairs with lots of violin and vocal histrionics from Madras singer Baby Sreeram, they struck me as the Indian equivalent of dreary Anglo-Saxon church hymns like “And Did These Feet” — highly devotional, I’m sure, but so dull they’d probably be hard even to meditate to.
Fortunately, Cheb divides up his album up into segments according to each group of native musicians he worked with, so to get past Baby’s twitchy chanting, all you have to do is skip to track 4, where the much more pleasing Ravi Shankar-like vina solos of A.K. Devi take over, anchored by percussion from J. Vaidhyanathan and N. Ramachanran. It’s actually these two percussionists, more than anything, that revive the album — on the spare, hypnotic “Anjali”, their playing has a propulsive intricacy to it that must be heard to be believed. When they’re joined by Laswell and Kale on “Raja Vedalu”, melding a super-fast tattoo of Indian percussion with the jittery beats of drum-and-bass and some dubbed-out Vedic chants, damn if the effect isn’t almost transcendent. If only Cheb i Sabbah had made an entire album with these guys.
The musicians on Krishna Lila‘s final four tracks are no slouches, however, and their style of singing and playing will probably be more palatable to most Western ears, coming out of a northern or Hindustani tradition of Indian music that’s more informal and jam-oriented than the highly rhythmic but more rigidly classical style of the south (hey, not bad for an ignorant Western music critic, huh?). Unlike Baby Sreeram, vocalist Radhika Rajiv doesn’t hammer every half-tone in the rising and falling scales of her songs, letting her voice instead slide gracefully over the music’s intricate melodies in a style that at times is almost jazzy. The other musicians play looser, too, resulting in songs that breathe with an airiness and seductiveness that makes the absence of any strong dance beats irrelevant. And there’s some beautiful playing here — Pandit Ulhas Bapat’s santur (a type of zither) is almost impossibly gorgeous on “Tum Bin Shyam”, and Bill Laswell gives “Rupa Tujhe Deva” an infectiously groovy bassline that is his most indelible contribution to the album. Instrumentally, the album’s closing track “Govinda” is another standout — a sparse, meandering affair featuring only the violin and sarod of brothers K. Sridhar and K. Shivakumar, accompanied by Rafiuddin Sabri on tablas, it is by far the album’s best track that doesn’t rely on any Western instrumental touches, simply because the players involved are so incredibly good.
Ultimately, the extreme traditionalism of Krishna Lila may fail to please Cheb i Sabbah’s core audience, who are more used to his work as a DJ and producer who more freely mixes cultural influences and aggressive dance beats. But to my ear, the rhythmic restraint and live instrumentation on this album represent a positive step for the mercurial Mr. Sabbah, who’s technical skills as a DJ were never all that great to begin with. Working with live musicians has freed Cheb the composer from the limitations of Cheb the knob-twiddler, making for a musical experience that’s richer and more satisfying than any of his previous work. Yes, the arrangements are sometimes too timidly reverential for their own good — “Narajanma Bandage” and “Lagi Lagan”, in particular, could have done with a stronger rhythmic kick — but this is Cheb’s first time working in this format (1999’s Shri Durga, while similar in style, was composed almost entirely of samples), so a little tentativeness is to be expected. The inevitable remix CD should be more adventurous, but more importantly, Cheb’s next foray into original material should hopefully find that lowercase “dj” tag becoming even more irrelevant, as he grows more fully into his gifts as a composer and reinterpreter of the traditional music of other cultures.