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R.I.P. Cheb I Sabbah

The influential electronic music artist succumbed to stomach cancer earlier this month

Margot Bigg Nov 18, 2013
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Cheb I Sabbah Photo: Courtesy of Six Degrees Records

Cheb I Sabbah Photo: Courtesy of Six Degrees Records

Cheb I Sabbah, considered by many to be the godfather of global electronic dance music, passed away peacefully on November 6th 2013 in his San Francisco home. 

Born Serge El Beze in Constantine, Algeria in 1947 to a Berber-Jewish family of musicians, Chebi moved to Paris as a teenager and began his DJ career in the mid-1960s, spinning soul records at a local discotheque. He later relocated to the US and joined The Living Theatre, one of the oldest and most influential experimental theater companies in the country. While in New York, Chebi met jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, an early pioneer of what would later come to be known as “world music.” Cherry’s fondness for fusing sounds from Africa, India, and the Middle East with jazz was a major influence on Chebi, who would later incorporate traditional folk music from across the world with modern electronic beats, laying the foundation for what is now commonly referred to as world electronic music.

In the mid-1980s, after a brief stint back in France, Chebi returned to the States with his young family, this time settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the decades that would follow, he would become an important influence in the global dance music scene, not only in the US, but around the world.

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Chebi was diagnosed with stage IV stomach cancer in May 2011 and was told that he only had a month to live. Friends and fellow musicians quickly joined forces, collaborating on a benefit album, Samaya, which was sold to raise funds for his care. Soon, he was off to a small bath town in Germany, where he received months of specialized therapy that, coupled with Ayurvedic and allopathic treatments in India and the US, helped keep his illness at bay for another two years. During this period, he continued to perform, create music, and mentor fellow artists.  At the time of his passing, he was working on a new record, the aptly titled OptiMystic.

He left this world with his life partner of 38 years, Suzanne Thomas, by his side. He is survived by two children, Elijah Thomas-El Beze and Eva Thomas-El Beze, as well as three grandchildren. A public celebration of his life was held in San Francisco in late November, which included performances by his children and many of his closest friends and collaborators.

While Chebi will always be celebrated for his significant contributions to the development of world electronic music, those who were blessed with the opportunity to spend time with the maestro will remember him for much more. He had a magnanimous personality that was much like the music he left us: calming, yet intense.

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