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Wednesday, June 26, 2002

HIGH NOTES

DJ Cheb-i-Sabbah: 'Krishna Lila'


The "Asian Underground" wave of neo-Indian sounds has, for the most part, rarely betrayed much knowledge of its roots. With the exceptions of Talvin Singh and Karsh Kale, much of this music has been little more than drum 'n' bass with an ethnic spin, all hopelessly out-of-tune tabla samples and rigidly repetitive loops. The electronica always seemed to stomp all over the rasa, essential emotional/spiritual pull at the core of true Indian music.

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Enter DJ Cheb-i-Sabbah with his second album, "Krishna Lila." He takes almost the opposite approach, allowing a large cast of North and South Indian musicians to engage in some liquid, ecstatic solos, while only insinuating a groove into the mix. Besides the purely Indian elements, the only hints at modernity are Bill Laswell's bass, Kale's tabla-sympatico drums, and some dabs of echo and delay.

The Indian rhythms are mixed loud, clear and steady, as if aimed at the dance floor. Indeed, the only thing separating a track like "Anjali" -- a supple vina solo over galloping dual percussion on ghatam (musical pot) and mridanga (double-headed drum) -- from purely traditional Indian music is the emphasis on the rhythm, which custom usually relegates further back in the mix. A track like "Lagi Lagam" also begins in pure Hindustani style, with a graceful bhajan (devotional song) vocal by Radhika Rajiv and a pensive sarod solo by K. Sridhar. It's only when Laswell's bass enters, underpinning the finger cymbals and tabla, that somehow, organically, a deep dub vibe arises.

One track later, though, and we're listening to a scintillating santoor (60-string instrument) meditation by Pandit Ulhas Bapat, accompanied by Yogesh Samsi on tabla. Which gives rise to the question, where is DJ Cheb, the invisible man, in all this? Despite all the hype about "DJ science," there are no signs of any involvement by the mixer beyond inviting the musicians to contribute a track to his album. Unlike, say, Adrian Sherwood, DJ Cheb does very little in altering, expanding or playing with the elements beyond the straight-up live performances. "Produced by DJ Cheb-i-Sabbah" is what it says on the back of the album, and that's a fair assessment: "Krishna Lila" is not an album of his music so much as an album he instigated.

But let's be glad he did: This is music of great beauty and spiritual intensity. Indian music, with its 60-minute explorations of a single raga and rhythmic flights into advanced mathematics, can often prove too subtle for the neophyte. DJ Cheb's album takes all the best elements of the trad sounds -- inspired melodic invention, an irresistibly evocative sense of mood and lightning-quick percussion -- and distills it down into supremely focused and memorable six-to-10-minute caresses of sound.



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