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Jewish DJ Captivates Arab Ears

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.

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