The fusing of ancient Eastern mysticisms with the Western muscle of modern technology, while a noble concept, is one rarely accomplished to a satisfying artistic effect. For example bhangra, originating in the farms of the Punjab in the Indian subcontinent, marries its modern mutation of chirpy, bouncy melodies favored in Hindi films to the booty call of Miami bass. It's an intriguing blend, yet it too often falls flat in its one-dimensional concept and execution. The recent British-based "Asian underground," featuring artists such as the acclaimed drum and bass producer and tabla player Talvin Singh, also has heritage on the brain, but its body and soul remains wedded to the thrill of DJ culture, reducing the indigenous influences to a supporting (and ultimately aesthetically unfulfilling) role in the mix.
DJ Cheb i Sabbah is literally a product of disparate cultures and times. Born in Algeria, Sabbah first came to prominence in the Paris of the Sixties, combining turntablist mixing skills with a love of live theater. Now based in San Francisco, Sabbah continues his avant-garde thrusts (he has collaborated with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Don Cherry, Bill Laswell, and the late Timothy Leary, among others), perhaps a subconscious result of his nomadic life. On Shri Durga Sabbah's East/West melding remains rooted in the past with reverence to the music's faith-based (both Hindu and Muslim) origins. For added effect and authenticity, Sabbah surrounds himself with some of India's finest classical musicians, such as K. Sridhar and Ustad Sultan Khan. Based on traditional Indian ragas (the arching cadences of Indian stringed instruments and expressive voices), the tunes here explore both expansive movements and desolately droning blues, all tastefully accented by subtle touches of sample and loop-based delicacies. When the rhythms depart from primal rumblings into present-day grooves, the resulting dubbed-out mood washes over the listener like a pleasing, meditative slow burn.
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Like other raga-based works, Shri Durga can be a trying experience for the uninitiated listener, but in the subtleties lay its rewards. For a more immediate and accessible response, there is Maha Maya: Shri Durga Remixed, a collection that remodels Sabbah's approach via a host of remixers, including junglists State of Bengal, Indo-pop star Bally Sagoo, and the fittingly named Transglobal Underground. While they all offer updated versions of Sabbah's blasts from the past, they do not reveal any new insights into Shri Durga's ancient roots. Rather the remixes predominantly serve to showcase the sampler in question's ability to graft diverse elements while keeping the attention focused on the beat; there's little in the way of natural, intuitive cross-pollination. What emerges is an ultimately hollow cultural exchange. As a companion piece, Maha Maya offers a cautionary note to a global dance scene that embraces reinterpretations of the past in the guise of the present: The more you (re)mix, the more you dilute.