Night Crawler

A group of women dressed in filmy scarves form a loose circle around a whirling, genielike beauty clad in a flowing garment of forest-green silk and glinting gold jewelry. They click their tongues and trill in appreciation as the dervish picks up speed, gyrating and writhing in perfect synchronicity with the swelling tide of live Gnawa trance music. Two pale young men with shorn heads and goatees press close to the dancers, raise their arms, and undulate to the blood-boiling rhythms.

Although a scheduling mishap at 1015 Folsom left the club double-booked last Thursday night, Cheb i Sabbah's "Night in the Soudan" draws a strong, happy crowd of 500 at substitute venue the Soundfactory.

Despite a school of life-size dolphin figurines swimming around the main room's disco balls, an arid peacefulness permeates, images of sand-swept landscapes flickering across four large video screens behind the stage. Hassan Hakmoun, a singer of Moroccan and Gnawa trance music famed for his work with Peter Gabriel and Don Cherry, steps majestically onstage accompanied by Brahim Fribgane, Hamid Drake, and Adam Rudolf, all multi-instrumental masters of percussion. Hakmoun, his long dreadlocks mingling with the silver embroidery on his midnight-blue robe, bends over his sintir, a gut-stringed, skin-faced lute. A wash of primal beats and lush vocalizations intoxicates the beaming crowd.

"I was exhausted when I got here, completely drained," says Tahlia, a 27-year-old dressed in Turkish garb. "I'm beginning to feel much better." She rejoins the dancing throngs.

"Yes, the music will heal," Hakmoun remarks with a princely smile, the drumming soon reaching fever pitch. Meanwhile, a bearded man in suede pants removes a small wind instrument from the folds of his jacket and begins playing softly; a couple dressed in gold dance together, eyes closed, fingertips lightly touching; and the dervish and her entourage contort as if possessed.

As Hakmoun leaves the stage amid thunderous applause, promoter/DJ Cheb i Sabbah fills the room with the international mix of Arabian, African, and Asian music also heard at Nickie's on Tuesday nights and, more recently, at "Medina" on Sundays at 1015 Folsom. Although some people disperse for some much-needed hydration, the majority remain on the floor to dance and trance.

"When I was back home," explains a 26-year-old British man, "I was into the rave scene. Gradually, that evolved into jungle and trance, which incorporates tribal samples but is still synth-driven. The first time I heard Sabbah, I thought, Gaww! This is the real thing. Raving is all about rhythms and beats and how good they can make you feel. These cultures have been tapped into that for centuries."

Upstairs, the diverse crowd -- which includes a 48-year-old professor from Venezuela, a 23-year-old cafe worker with tattoos on her head, and a sari-clad grandmother of three -- mingles in the "Sahara Market." Stalls offer a variety of wares and services like divination, henna hand-painting, Middle Eastern dishes and mint tea prepared by Aziz, and clothing and artifacts from African Outlet.

"Cheb always creates a very nice vibe," says Ian DeSilva, with a quick friendliness that seems inherent to Sabbah's friends and fans. Originally from Trinidad, DeSilva has worked as host and greeter at Sabbah's events for nearly five years. "He's able to make an environment where everyone feels welcome," he says.

"I think he's really courageous," adds Robert Ellis, manager of local hip-hop act the Coup, "to put on shows like this and pull it off in a city almost completely controlled by Bill Graham [Presents]. It's a pretty hip little thing, don't you think?"

And how. Exquisite music, beautiful people, polite staff, and healing spirits -- what more do you need?

By Silke Tudor

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