Zeb: Alien with Extraordinary Abilities
Zeb leans into his makeshift musical cockpit, body taut, muttering to himself, while his right hand guides the mouse and his left works a large synthesizer. On-screen, he’s manipulating a squiggle that stands for a blast of horns he ripped from a CD of Balkan music by something called the Sandy Lopicic Orkestar. A friend brought it over last week. "I don’t like squares, I like round. Sharpness is my worst enemy," Zeb proclaims over his shoulder, though his dark eyes never leave the monitor. "I like fretless instruments because they slide, they’re organic. I hate frets. I hate being confined."
Confined musically, he means. Zeb seems perfectly happy tucked into this tiny homegrown studio under his loft bed in a $500-a-month Bergen Street share, where he landed last year after gentrified rents finally drove him out of the Lower East Side. A sheet over the window keeps out the late afternoon light, making the boxy room feel even smaller. Zeb—not his real name, just the one everybody knows—perches at the edge of a folding chair, wiry and intense under a scraggly beard and tight black curls. Audio equipment looms all around him, piled deep on the desk and the floor and some beat-up shelves.
Zeb presses PLAY somewhere and suddenly his rambling makes sense. The hokey Balkan trumpets become a catchy hook that anchors a funky, driving dance number backed by Arabian flutes, Sufi chanting, and live drums, all laid out over a Jamaican dub beat. It’s impossible to tell what’s "real" and what’s software. The Sufi chants come from the stack of obscure vinyl on the floor: Moroccan monks recorded in South Africa by someone called Kajar the Magician. Zeb paid a couple of dollars for the LP in a thrift store. "Anyone can sample from an album that was a hit last month," he says. "To take something from the garbage and turn it into music people will get into—that’s what I like."
Zeb’s music is better known than he is. On a wintry day at the Lotus Club on the Lower East Side, Zeb scours the net from a laptop. He’s trying to locate a review he liked, one that, for once, got his mixed-up musical résumé right. He has released so many songs under different aliases—Zeb, the Pleb, the Spy from Cairo, Marzebian (with his friend Mariano)—that even he loses track. "It’s not an ego thing, it’s just to pay the rent," he says. "I keep bombarding the air with music, you know. And what works is something that you never expect. Maybe it’s something you fucking hate."
Soon Zeb’s distracted, searching for any new compilations that have "borrowed" one of his songs. Back in Brooklyn he’s got a list of a dozen or so releases he found online that he’s never seen a dime for, everything from obscure dance mixes by basement labels to episode 80 of Sex and the City, which played a song from his first album. Then again, he probably shouldn’t complain—most of his own music lifts from other artists without permission, another reason he’s so fond of obscure records by forgotten labels.
Zeb came to Lotus today to meet Sasha Crnobrnja, a.k.a. Cosmic Rocker, his friend and longtime collaborator. Zeb and Sasha first met in 1995 at a coffee shop a few blocks from here. Weeks later, in a nearby basement, they gave the party that would grow into Organic Grooves, a freeform music and dance collective that’s legendary in "global beat" circles. They should be getting on a plane tomorrow to play gigs in London and Amsterdam and to hit up European labels that owe them money. But Sasha’s going alone, because Zeb can’t leave the U.S.; he’d never get back in.
Zeb, an Italian citizen, has been living here illegally since his first visa expired in 1994. Being one of the first artists to blend Middle Eastern instruments into contemporary electronic music, Zeb applied for a rare visa as an "Alien with Extraordinary Abilities." He was approved in just a few months, surprising even his own lawyer. Then September 11 happened. "The background check is so much more thorough now. [INS] won’t do anything till they get clearance from the FBI," his attorney says. Zeb’s been in legal limbo ever since, unable to leave the country while he waits for his papers.
Meanwhile, his music finally started to gain traction—overseas. He’s had to stay home while Organic Grooves played festivals in Brazil, Japan, and all over Europe. "I would have been playing in front of people who actually know the music, who even have the records," Zeb says, his dark eyes adding an exclamation point. "Instead I play here in some bar where nobody knows my name."
Being grounded can prove fatal in an electronic music scene that’s global by nature. Zeb’s own albums sell better in Italy, Austria, and Germany than they do in the States. "In Europe this music has a wider audience right now," says Fabrizio Carrer, U.S. manager of Irma Records, the label that has released Zeb’s solo work. "It would have been great for his career if he could have [toured Europe] a few years ago. He missed some opportunities, with the music moving so fast."
The idea that brought Zeb together with Sasha back in 1995 was to improvise with live instruments over a DJ’s samples and beats. The mixture fuses musical traditions, not just technology—earthy Afro-Caribbean rhythms backing horns and guitars find common ground with ethereal electronic sequences or hard-edged techno. That collaboration became Organic Grooves, a shifting cast of musicians, producers, and DJs who jammed in Manhattan clubs every Friday for nearly a decade, spawning four CDs and many imitators.
In his own work Zeb has widened the gene pool, drawing Indian and Middle Eastern themes into his downbeat, "chillout" electronica. Of course, plenty of producers strip-mine ethnic traditions to make dance mixes; what sets Zeb apart is his careful musicianship. He plays the sitar, the oud, and almost every kind of guitar. He’ll talk as long as you let him about the microtonal intricacies of Arabic music. Lately he’s obsessed with the oud—he takes lessons every week, and just spent $1,200 he couldn’t really afford to have one made by master builder Najib Shaheen.
"Zeb’s actually creating songs with a deeper layer of structure, compared to the couple-hundred compilations cluttering record stores with Middle Eastern or Indian or African loops," says Tomas Palermo, editor of San Francisco’s XLR8R, a leading electronic music monthly. "Even Thievery Corporation uses fairly mundane, simple loops of live musicians and recorded samples, whereas what Zeb’s getting at is more akin to improvisational jazz, [but] within a dance music context." Even the more critical takes—some reviewers find Zeb’s music a little too careful and too polished—begin by praising his technique, his unique talent for blending different musical styles into seamless new compositions.
Still, Zeb’s few commercial victories have been musical accidents, tracks he gave away that wound up somewhere more lucrative. "Sufism," the song that landed Zeb on the best-selling Buddha Bar series, started out as a "musical donation" to his friend DJ Nickodemus. "Zeb’s happy to contribute music wherever he can. He’s always up for a barter, he’s like oozing with music," Nickodemus says. "And he’s a teacher. Anybody who wants to get involved in producing, they go to Zeb. He’s the one who will help you learn the software and make your first track."
For now, the musical accidents seem to be working out for Zeb. Just last year, he recorded a tribute to the Senegalese group Touré Kunda and gave it to Turntables on the Hudson, Nickodemus’ label. Zeb had never bothered to ask for permission to do the remake, but Touré Kunda heard it, loved it, and released the rights. That allowed the track to be picked up for a compilation by Putumayo, a major world music outlet, and now it’s also going to be on the soundtrack to a film about Senegal. That should add up to a few months’ rent.