Cheikha Remitti, the Algerian woman often called the “Queen of Raï,” has died, according to a report from Algerian television. The apparent cause was a heart attack. Remitti was 83 and was in Paris at the time of her death.
Born Saadia Bediaf in 1923 in the small town of Relizane in western Algeria, she was an orphan whose first performing experience was as a teenage dancer: one of the shikhat, traditional female troupes that performed at various celebrations. She added singing to her repertoire, many of her songs telling of the plight of women and winning her an increasingly large audience.
She soon earned a new name. “Once I was going to sing at a Wa’da, a religious ceremony to celebrate the patron saint Sidi ’Abed, may God bless him,” she once recalled. “The Shioukh (masters of traditional raï music) Hammada and ’Abda were there, but rain spoiled the ceremony and we had to take refuge in a cantina. The mainly French customers recognized me and welcomed me warmly. I wanted to offer them a drink, but I didn’t speak French. I remembered a line from a popular song and sang it to the bartender, ‘Madame, remettez un panache!’ (‘Another shandy, barmaid, another!’). So the audience started shouting, ‘Remitti, the singer Remitti!’”
World War II took her to Oran, the birthplace of raï music. She quickly became something of an artistic renegade, her songs often extolling the virtues of sex and drinking and condemning the practice of young girls being married off to old men. She began recording in 1936 but one of her most scandalous recordings, made during the 1950s, was “Charrag, Gattaa,” in which she advised young women to lose their virginity as soon as possible.
The name Cheikha (“elder”) was given to her as she grew in fame. Although her music was always forward-looking, it also relied heavily on tradition, and by the 1980s, though she was still revered, her style was being supplanted by that of the younger raï singers such as Khaled and Cheb Mami.
Nonetheless, Remitti’s popularity persisted, and she gained an audience outside of Algeria. Her music continued to win new fans, and she courted the younger generation in the ’90s by cutting Sidi Mansour, an album that included members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Frank Zappa’s band and the Dead Kennedys, as well as guitar innovator Robert Fripp.