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The Transglobal Underground Sound

[whitespace] DJ Cheb
East Meets West: San Francisco DJ Cheb i Sabbah marries dance music to devotional ragas.

Electronic music's new internationalism

By Michelle Goldberg

IN ELECTRONIC MUSIC, as in food, films and nearly every other product of our alternately authenticity-craving and authenticity-annihilating global culture, the whole world is up for grabs. Held together by an aesthetic that prizes rhythm over words, techno has branched way beyond its disco, hip-hop and synth-pop roots into the musical traditions of just about every country that Lonely Planet publishes a guidebook for.

Laid over an earthshaking bass or trancelike skittering drums, Indian classical music is now as au courant as scratching, and musics from Albania, Kenya, India and Morocco all thump together on the same records. The best examples of this internationalist underground present an exuberantly, reverently optimistic sonic dream of the world as a musical bazaar, overflowing with exotic melodies, grooves and multifarious lyrical pathos.

Just in the last couple of months, we have been treated to Badmarsh and Shri's Dancing Drums, San Francisco DJ Cheb i Sabbah's Shri Durga and Banco de Gaia's The Magical Sounds of Banco de Gaia. Six Degrees, a San Francisco label devoted largely to promoting such world-beat hybrids, has recently released Traveler 99: A Planetful of Grooves, an electronic album that includes French, Indian, South African, Celtic and Brazilian music, as well as a track from Wally Brill, who incorporates 78-rpm recordings of Jewish liturgical singers from the '20s, '30s and '40s into his dubby compositions.

At its best, this music can offer jaded Western ears something genuinely new, something that's exotic without being exotica and something that gives electronic music an emotional depth often lacking in club sounds.

Sabbah's Shri Durga is especially reverent. As much an Indian classical record as an electronic one, it is full of prayerful ragas and lugubrious sitars snaking over big plosive percussion. The chanting and tablas never feel like gimmicks slapped over a 4/4 house beat to lend some Eastern accent--instead, the Indian music is central, with the hip-hop bass, samples and fades creating a subtle background for the vocal drama.

Much of the reason the Eastern and Western elements on Shri Durga sound so integrated is that Sabbah actually spent time in India working with renowned singers and sitar and tabla players. "Everyone's appropriating everything these days," he says, "but there's something sacred about music, and I've never felt that sampling a little sitar would be enough, especially if you can actually work with the person playing the sitar."

A Jewish Algerian who got his start spinning soul music in Paris nightclubs in the '60s, Sabbah is largely disenchanted with contemporary dance music--in fact, he hates synthesizers. "Synthetically, you can reproduce everything," he says. "It seems like you can also reproduce life. In India, they call it call it 'rasa,' the mood that you develop when you play your raga. When you sample something, you'll never get that--you'll never get the musician developing the mood because of the season or the time of day or one of the nine dramatic emotions."

SABBAH'S COMMENTS point to some of the most contentious issues for people making this kind of music, issues of musical purity and respect for traditions versus the cut-and-paste style of both electronic music and of the end-of-the-century world in general. The irony of this music is that it can represent a pomo cosmopolitan smorgasbord where everything from every culture is up for grabs and a longing to escape from exactly that kind of international homogenization.

"A lot of Western music has forgotten its folk roots. There's a loss of that organic element," says Shri of Badmarsh and Shri. "There's a new, deeply organic sound coming from India, and people are trying it out."

Much like Talvin Singh's OK, Badmarsh and Shri's Dancing Drums is a stunning combination of Indian music and drum 'n' bass, the tablas and flutes swirling lightly in a sparkling atmosphere of quicksilver percussion and funk melodies. It's much more of a club record than Shri Durga, much freer in deconstructing the Indian elements and wildly mixing the sounds together. Dancing Drums is both playful and haunting; if someone made a version of Blade Runner that fetishized India instead of Japan, Dancing Drums would be the music echoing in the film's dark streets.

A native of Bombay, Shri had studied Indian classical music since he was 4. As a teenager, though, he rejected it in favor of heavy metal and jazz. "I was in my searching mode, and Indian classical music didn't seem to offer anything to me," he says. "It was too rigid, and at that time you don't want rules. I discovered hard rock and went through what I call my 100-instrument phase--I played everything from trombone and sax to guitar--at the end of which I settled down to playing bass and flute, and I got a jazz trio together in Bombay."

Soon after, he went to London, where he first heard drum 'n' bass on a pirate radio station. He related to it as a tabla player, he says. Oddly, it was this quintessentially English music that led him back to his Indian roots. He released a solo album, Drum the Bass, before teaming up with the London-born Indian b-boy Badmarsh.

"I'm not trying to put Indian classical music over Western music," he says. "I hear them as the same thing. It's like, at home I never speak a word of English--I speak Kannada and Tamil--but when I'm speaking to you I'm not translating from my mother tongue to English, and when I speak at home I'm not translating from English. That's how I see Western music, as just another form of expression. I'm doing Western music with an Indian accent or Indian music with a Western accent."

Of course, this kind of thing has been going on for a while. Talvin Singh released the Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground compilation in 1997, and groups and performers like Loop Guru, Transglobal Underground and Banco de Gaia have been using Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian samples in their tracks for years.

Goa trance, developed at huge parties on the southern coast of India, added a hippyish Eastern flavor to rave culture. Beyond that, Western dilettantes in search of Eastern wisdom have always looked for spiritual solace in the traditional musics of far less affluent countries--the dread Enigma and their mournfully chanting monks have become the soundtrack to the crystal-hawking bookstores that litter our gullible nation.

BANDS LIKE ENIGMA and Deep Forest represent the unfortunate side of this new electronic global harmony, exemplifying the danger that the entire non-Western world could be reduced to a novelty ripe for devolution into New Age aural wallpaper. All things Indian are already being used to give Western pop a foreign kick.

"On one side, for people like me trying to bring Indian music into Western music for a more international sound, sure, I can see that other people like Madonna or Kula Shakur would want to do it too," Shri admits. "That's only positive, only spreading the word. They don't know how to speak the word too well, but they're spreading it. On the negative side, it's like when I speak English, my grammar is correct. I don't speak with a very stupid accent, because I respect what's going on here. Sometimes when I hear such music I think, 'I hope you respect the culture you're trying to dig into.' When I hear tablas that are completely out of tune with the track just because someone didn't think to ask how to tune them, I get really annoyed. Man, come on, don't just dump tablas on top of your track because it's the flavor of the month."

Banco de Gaia, a.k.a. Toby Marks, is an earnest leftist who is disheartened by the inevitable co-opting of traditional musics. "There is a mind-set within corporate culture that everything is to be used up and discarded," he says. "You plunder Gregorian music, and once it's been become a cliché, you get Indian classical music and then African drumming. Sadly, I think cultures are treated as gimmicks."

At the same time, in a world as fluid as ours, no one can really claim proprietary rights to sounds. Marks works in a way that's almost wholly the opposite of Sabbah's organic methods. The London-born house and trance musician is unabashed about mixing and matching recorded samples from around the world--doing so, he says, reflects the world of anyone who grew up in the city or, indeed, anyone who even listens to the radio.

"I grew up in London in the '70s, and reggae and ska were starting to get played, and then in the '70s Middle Eastern people moved into London, bringing tapes and sounds of their cultures," Marks recalls. "I was exposed to all different kinds of music by walking down the street or ... hearing what was playing at strange shops. I was also really into late-'60s psychedelic. A lot of those people were getting really into Indian music. Then I starting traveling a bit, hearing a lot of Algerian music in Paris. It's no big deal in a way to be drawing on all these different influences, since I've been exposed to all these different cultures and sounds. There's a cultural shift going on in the West; we now have such easy access to the rest of the world either physically through travel or through the media, so the global village is a very real thing these days."

Marks points out that the real issue with sampling ethnic music has less to do with PC issues of purity, respect and authenticity and more to do with, simply, money. "Some people look at the Third World as a cheap source of material. If you sample Jimi Hendrix you get sued, but if you sample some violin player from the heart of China you get it for free."

At least that's the issue for those whose culture is being borrowed. There's also something a little frightening for those of us in the affluent West--when the whole world's music melts together, isn't the world bled of some of its mystery, doesn't travel lose some of the joy of discovery?

"In Bombay, people are dancing to the same stuff as in New York," Shri says. "It's really weird--in the West everyone's grabbing onto Indian culture, and in India people are becoming more and more Western. House music or techno music is all you'll hear in a club in India. What's becoming international folk music is techno. It's very unfortunate, because when people tell me, 'Man I want to go to Bombay and check out clubs and the scene,' I tell them the only difference you're going to find is a lot more brown-skinned people. There are the same drinks--people dress the same, behave the same [and] the music's the same."

Something's lost in such a world, surely, but there's also something kind of optimistic about the idea of an "international folk music." "We're actually living in a time when the concept of us all being brothers and sisters doesn't seem quite so strange," Marks says. Adds Shri, "As the world gets smaller, it's also getting bigger in a sense. Maybe you understand another culture through the music; there's optimism in that, and optimism of any sort in this day is a good thing, because we need a lot of it to get through our own bloody life."

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From the May 13-19, 1999 issue of Metro.

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