Six Degrees Records, 2002,
657036 1066-2
artist website, label website
Algerian dj Cheb i Sabbah's nom de disque combines native Rai sensibilities with the Persian mystic Hassan i Sabbah believed to own the world's largest private library. Rather cunningly, the name here does make the man. He's a club spinner who began in Paris in the 60s and became a mainstream clubhouse presence in San Francisco by the late 80s. His underground cult classic Shri Durga on the super-eclectic Bay Area label Six Degrees pointed at unorthodox finesse whereby he combined traditional sacred music with modernistic elements of Techno, Trance and House. It created a stunning hybrid that honored an ancient art's breathing spirit yet deeply enriched it with first-rate production values from an expertly assembled arsenal of remix tools.

It proved that spinning and remixing discs could be transformed into a highly dramatic art form every bit the equal of conservatory-trained musicianship.

There are other successful crossovers in this vein. I'm thinking Magic Touch with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Bally Sagoo; Voices of the Spheres with Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and his sons Sharafat and Shafqat; the off-kilter bent exploits of Ashwin Batish's Sitar Power projects; the RealWorld effort Real Sugar between Paban Das Baul and Sam Mills; the stunning self-titled debut Shafqat Ali Khan on the excellent WorldClass label.

Yet few are possessed of the potent aural triggers that so instantly catapult you deep into the very heart of anachronistic India herself. Seeing skinny riksha wallas defying apparent laws of physicality. Tasting the hand-pressed sugar cane juice with a squirt of lime. Smelling the stench of death and life commingling in the streets and jungles. Spotting red-painted deities carved into ancient trees surrounded by burning incense offerings. Suffering the noxious fumes of diesel trucks playing Russian Roulette on the highway of death littered with overturned tour buses. In short, somehow capturing the mindbending essence of this paradoxical continent so rich in spiritual tradition yet so hopelessly maladjusted to material reality.

Cheb i Sabbah's consummate skill of reinventing -- or reinvigorating -- an already highly evolved art form relies in due measure on working with authentic Indian master musicians. Like a well-aimed arrow, such real-time collaboration somehow penetrates straight into the mystery. The synth atmosphere, sound effects and subterranean bass lines simply add that extra dimension of depth, realism, excitement and contemporary appeal.

That's of special significance with devotional bhajans to which this album is dedicated. Most Westerners are culturally ill- prepared for heartfelt vocal communion with ancient deities that to the believers are as real and substantial as our finely polished cars are to us. Here, via already the smallest of sympathetic offering gestures, even the uninitiated listener will not only find him/herself drawn into this vibrant soundscape but, likely, emerge from the experience unwittingly touched at the core. Inexplicable perhaps if new to the scientific effects of Indian music on the nervous system, but experientially profound nonetheless.

And if you're thinking that anything to do with remixes equates lousy sonics, you're dead wrong, bubba. You're in the hands of a master orchestrator with a profound love for his subjects, be they tablas, sarod, violin, bansuri, santur, the human voice, tropical rain, drum machines, reverb settings or compression limiters. Think of it as a fully legalized psychotropic drug for audiophiles, administered in full view and suffered not as a distorted banshee trip into the underworld but imbibed as a weightless cruise through the higher heavens of Northern and Southern India's musical tradition. At least temporarily until the magic wears off by harsh reality, you'll morph into one of the country's countless holy Shree Babas yourself.

Two years in the making, Krishna Lila -- the Divine play of formlessness in form superimposed on erotic attraction -- is an unqualified masterpiece. Like its two predecessors in Sabbah's triple canon, it's destined to find a permanent, well-cared-for home in the music libraries of believers old and callused or freshly converted.