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World Music Legends

Cheikha Remitti

By Chris Nickson
Published October 9, 2005

Rai

If Algerian raï has a mother, her name is Cheikha Remitti. Now in her 80s (and still performing) she’s been a part of the music since it took on its colors, a guiding and frequently outrageous force who’s helped shape raï into what it is today.

            Born Saadia (“the blessed”) in 1923 in the western Algerian town of Relizane, she was orphaned at a young age, leaving her to fend for herself, sleeping rough, or finding whatever menial work she could, working for families of the country’s French colonial masters. By the time she was a teenager she’d become one of the shikhat, the traditional female troupes that performed at various celebrations. Accepted but scandalous, they sang metaphorically of the struggles and plight of women.

            Music and musicians gave her a community, and also her 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 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!’”

            During World War II she gravitated to Oran, the birthplace of raï, living there during the plague that provided the inspiration for Albert Camus’s classic novel. Now performing with a band, she married the leader, and began her real career.

            In shocking fashion, her lyrics described the repugnance of young women married to old men (a common practice), and took great sensuous joy in sex (“He scratched my back and I gave him my all”). Remitti began recording in the 1950s, one of her first pieces being “Charrag, Gattaa,” where she advised young women to lose their virginity as soon as possible. For the times, and the place—a country with harsh laws and views on the stature of women in society—it was very daring and rebellious, Madonna, but real, angry, and extended to the nth degree. Even though her words could get her killed, she continued writing and singing in her deep, guttural, almost masculine voice.

  &nbs

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Sources Of The Raï (Institut du Monde Arabe)

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Sidi Mansour (Absolute)