Cheikha Rimitti was born in 1923 into poverty and was orphaned at an early age. She remained illiterate all her life but against all odds she rose to become one of Algeria’s best-loved musicians and took the music of raï to an international audience.
Born Saadia El Ghizania in Tessala, Western Algeria, Rimitti’s early life was one of hardship. Orphaned and homeless at a young age, she survived by doing menial jobs for French families and labouring on farms. At the age of 15 she joined a troupe of travelling musicians. She started as a dancer but moved on to singing. Rimitti soon began to write her own songs along themes generally deemed unacceptable for female singers, including sex, alcohol and war. Her songs contained distinctive slang which became a trademark of her music into later life.
I sang all the subjects back then. I sang about misery. I sang about love. I sang about the condition of women. I sang about ordinary life, concrete things. I sang the life I had seen, my own history. Cheikha Rimitti, 2001
Rimitti finds fame
During the Second World War, Rimitti’s fame grew and she made her first radio broadcasts from Algiers. She adopted the name Cheikha, which is the traditional address for an older female singer and also is used to refer to ‘outcast’ women. Rimitti is believed to have originated from the French word remettez (another) referring to her calls for more rounds of drinks or perhaps from calls for an encore.
In 1954 Rimitti released her second single, Charrag Gataa which resulted in her first brush with public controversy. The subject of the song questioned society’s focus on women’s virginity as a key virtue. Her clever way with words, designed to be ambiguous enough to avoid censorship, allowed her feisty, scurrilous lyrics to reach wide audiences.
1954 also saw the outbreak of the bloody 7-year Algerian War of Independence from French rule. In the early days of the war Rimitti continued to perform for the national broadcasters, although she supported independence. This displeased the nationalist forces as it was seen as collusion with the French. Neither the colonial powers, nor the conservative Muslim elements within the independence movement approved of Cheikha Rimitti. She relocated to Europe, performing mainly to Algerian exile communities in France.
A Brief History of Raï
Raï is often referred to as Algerian folk music, which is misleading if taken with the connotations of nostalgic tales. It is protest music of the poor and has a reputation for rebellious and salacious themes. The word raï means advice or opinion in Arabic and is said to have emerged in the 1920s. The development of the genre, however, started long before.
Centred around the port town of Oran on the western end of the Mediterranean coast of Algeria, raï reflects the cosmopolitan make up of the region. Spanish flamenco, French Cabaret, Jewish and Bedouin influences are all there. Most importantly the rejection of Arab Classical music in favour of bawdy, popular tunes distinguishes raï from other styles of North African music.
The anti-establishment nature of the music has garnered many opponents over the years, from the independence fighters who believed it a symptom of colonial influence on culture, to the religious conservatives who objected to ‘indecent’ content. Although the music establishment in Algeria attempted at times to bring raï into the mainstream, it will always be the music associated with defiance. The music of the marginalised.
With independence in 1962 came a conservative Islamic government who quickly banned Rimitti’s music from radio and television broadcast. Her career waned during the 1960s and 70s, although she remained popular amongst the working class in Algeria.
In 1971 Rimitti briefly returned to tour Algeria and was involved in a serious car accident which resulted in the death of three of her musicians and serious injury to herself. This led to something of a religious home-coming. She went on hadj and made the decision to quit drinking and smoking. Her music, however retained its raw sound and themes.
Later Life & Legacy of Cheikha Rimitti
The 1980s saw a dramatic revival in interest in raï music by a younger generation of Algerian musicians, including Khaled and Rachid Taha. In turn international musicians rediscovered Rimitti’s music. In 1994 she collaborated with English guitarist Robert Fripp (King Crimson) and American bassist, Flea (Red Hot Chilli Peppers) first on the album, Sidi Mansour, followed by a follow-up album, Cheikha, in 1996.
Cheikha Rimitti died suddenly from a heart attack in Paris in 2006 at the age of 83, just two days after she had performed to a sold-out concert in Paris. She left behind only nine CDs but released over 400 cassettes during her 60 year career.
Remember to listen to Caravanserai where you can listen to the music of Cheikha Rimitti and many many more.
Cheikha Rimitti Obituary – The Guardian
Cheikha Rimitti Interview 2001 – Afropop Worldwide
Cheikha Rimitti, 83, Rebel of Algerian Music, Is Dead – New York Times
Cheikha Rimitti, chanteuse algérienne – Le Monde
Rai music in Oran and the Kasbah of Algiers – BBC Radio 3