Jewish DJ Captivates Arab Ears

Music

By Loolwa Khazzoom

Published January 19, 2007, issue of January 19, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

For many people, the idea of a Jewish DJ being named a featured artist at venues like the Arab Film Festival or the Arab American National Museum would be a head-scratcher. For global electronica DJ Cheb i Sabbah, however, it’s standard fare.

In the four decades of his accomplished career, Sabbah — born Haim Sérge El Baaz — has specialized in crossing barriers between nationalities and working with artists of all religions and ethnicities. His most recent album, a sophisticated dance compilation titled “La Ghriba,” was recorded in Morocco and Algeria and features musicians from a spectrum of religious backgrounds.

Sabbah is open about being a Jew, and he claims to have no concerns about what his audience thinks of his identity. To him, what matters is simply that people of all backgrounds come together through music. And Judy Piazza, public programming manager at Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich., could not agree more. When she booked Sabbah for a performance this past fall, she said she knew he was Algerian but did not know he was a Jew — a detail that, now that she knows, she says she finds irrelevant.

“It wasn’t something we were conscious of — bringing a Jewish artist into the museum — but we wouldn’t not bring a Jewish artist into the museum,” she said. “We invite all people to be together, as performing arts, music and dance are ways for all of us to heal and learn about each other.

“Cheb is an award-winning artist who we thought would be really fantastic,” she added. “Most of our performing artists are not necessarily focused on electronica, so we found this a new and a great addition.”

While the museum leaders do not particularly care about Sabbah’s background, others see it as a bonus for multicultural representation.

“Partnering with Cheb i Sabbah is us showing the diversity of culture in all its color,” said Bashir Anastas, executive director of the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco, where Sabbah was the featured performer at the festival’s after-party last September. “That includes diversity of religion and diversity of tradition. We show this in all our artists that we choose to showcase.”

Sabbah — who was born in Algeria, raised partly there and partly in France, and now resides in California — seems like a walking embodiment of diversity. It was an accident, however, that he began expressing this cultural mix through music.

“As a teenager, I didn’t like France, and I didn’t like school,” Sabbah recalled in an interview with the Forward. “There were hairdressers on one side of my family, so at 15, I started to work at the L’Oreal salon in Paris, where I received training to get my license. My friends and I would work during the day, then party all night and come back to work the next morning.”

One of these friends was a local DJ. “One night he couldn’t spin,” Sabbah recounted. “He said, ‘You’ve got to replace me.’ I’d seen how he did it, since I partied with him.” So Sabbah agreed, and almost literally became an overnight sensation. “Without looking for it, or paying any dues, I was suddenly playing the five major clubs of Paris,” he recalled.

In 1970, Sabbah left DJing behind to pursue life as an actor with New York’s Living Theatre, where he met the woman who would become his partner and the mother of his two children. The couple moved to San Francisco in the 1980s and founded Tribal Warning Theatre, for which Sabbah recorded the soundtracks. His full-on return to music, however, came once again by accident.

Sabbah was working at a local organic market when one day a man came in and asked about the music playing in the store — an Algerian music recording that Sabbah had mixed at home. “We talked, and I told him I was a DJ in Paris,” Sabbah recalled. “He told me about Nikki’s in the Haight — it was his nightclub. He said, ‘If you want, you can come on a Tuesday night and spin.’ So I went. There were maybe 30 to 40 people the first time, then a few weeks later there was a line outside to get into the club.”

Nearly two decades later, Sabbah is a leading DJ in global electronica music, loved by dance club enthusiasts the world over. He has just returned from India, where he recorded his newest album — yet again featuring musicians from a spectrum of religious and ethnic identities. “Within music,” Sabbah concluded, “you always find a common ground.”

Loolwa Khazzoom freelances for periodicals including Rolling Stone, The Washington Post and Self.






Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.