The World

Since Victorian times, India has drawn seekers and spiritually minded westerners.

Those pilgrims are now often seen as cliches.

Still they come.

In the world of music especially, western artists often go to India to learn with pandits or masters.

Others go for inspiration.

Cheb i Sabbah is one of them.

But he’s hardly a newcomer to India and its riches.

The World’s Marco Werman has today’s Global Hit.


“Devotion” is the title of the new CD by Algerian-born Cheb i Sabbah.

It’s not Indian music in the strict classical sense.

Sabbah pulls together the sounds and rhythms of many faiths and sects of the Indian subcontinent.

That mirrors Cheb i Sabbah’s own travels to India, captivated not by one thing, but by many people, and their music.

That started in 1970, on his first trip there.

Sabbah: Although I was a dj and playing soul music in clubs in Paris, our ears were open to every possible classical, folk, at that time we used to call ethnic music – in Europe – we used to call it extra-European music, which was anything that wasn’t from Europe. And at the same time, being the sixties, everybody was kind of looking for answers, and for something exciting and new, and what was interesting is that when we went to India, the middle class as we know it now did not exist. So the people who we ended up hanging out with was what we call the “babas.” You know naked or half-naked wanderers of India. And we didn’t need to speak the language, they didn’t need to speak English, they didn’t need to speak Hindi. But those were the cool people, and they thought were cool too because we were so different than kind of like straight tourists.

The thumping bass reminds you that Cheb i Sabbah’s alter-ego as a DJ is never far in the background.

On “Devotion” he incarnates himself more as a conductor, fluidly directing a traffic of singers and instrumentalists.

And they represent Muslims, Sufis, Hindus, and sub-groups of those faiths.

Cheb i Sabbah says it was fairly easy to communicate his vision to the artists who recorded with him at the Ravi Shankar Cultural Center in Delhi.

Sabbah: You don’t have to explain much, ready, you say, “OK, this is an album about bakhti, devotion, offering. And so everybody is right on it, and so that was the thread really with all the musicians and of course it didn’t matter what religion they belonged to because in the end devotion is universal.

If there’s one thing that you could point to that got Cheb i Sabbah more connected to the universality of the musicians he was working with, it is this.

Last year he joined the devotional pack of humanity in the Hindu pilgrimage known as the Kumbh Mela in the northern Indian city of Allahabad.

Again, Cheb i Sabbah hung out with the babas.

But he also had millions of other people surrounding him as well.

Sabbah: 80 million people showing up with one goal in mind: to bathe in the Ganges and get rid of all your sins. It takes a little bit of courage to actually bathe in the Ganga at that time of day. Cause actually at six o’clock in the morning, the Ganga is really cold man.. It’s winter in, this was in Allahabad. But everybody does it. You know. Just go in and out three times.

The expansive title track of Cheb i Sabbah’s “Devotion” is also the final track on the CD.

It’s a sonic parting shot that he recorded while in the city of Varanasi.

Sabbah says this is what you hear along the walkways of Varanasi along the Ganges: people going in and out of temples, talking, sitting down and meditating.

It’s humanity he says.

For The World, I’m Marco Werman.

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