Inspiration Comes Like a Swarm of Bees

The Legendary Cheikha Remitti: the Empress of Raï
By Amel Tafsout

Despite her respectful age of 76 years and the fact that she is from an illiterate traditional society, Cheikha Remitti has become the unlikely icon of Algerian raï music.

While we were having breakfast at a London hotel, Cheikha Remitti told me her story:

When I was young and struggling to survive, I went to see a Shawwafa (clairvoyant), known for reading the future in wheat grains. She told me that I will be touring the world, being welcomed in many countries across the Mediterranean sea. I will become very famous. Afterwards I completely forgot her predictions. Only now I realize that she was right."

Cheikha Remitti struggled against the odds. She grew up as a homeless orphan girl in the Western town of Relizane. Having nowhere to stay, the young Saadia (which means "the happy one" or "the Blessed") had to sleep rough. If she was unable to sleep out in the open or in a local hammam (bath house), she found a place in the tombs of local marabouts (saints). Sometimes she was able to get hired by French families in exchange for a bed and some food. If she was really lucky she was given a few dourou coins, the equivalent of 20p. This harsh childhood taught her to survive. She says: " I really went through highs and deep lows in my life."

During World War II, the presence of French soldiers encouraged the rise of the cafe bars in Algeria, still a French colony. These also had an impact on the lives of musicians. Remitti led a wild life. She not only danced until early morning with a band of traditional touring musicians, she sang and played percussion, performing at social occasions such as weddings or at religious festivals such as Wa‘da. "We were always moving, and I always wanted to go on," she said. She recalls one day in particular:

Once I was going to sing at a Wa‘da, a religious ceremony to celebrate the patron saint Sidi ‘Abed, may God bless him. The Shioukh (masters of traditional raï music) Hammada and ‘Abda were there, but raïn 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!"

The nickname stuck and she carries it proudly with the title Cheikha. Later she became hadja after she went to Mecca on pilgrimage.

Eventually she married the band leader and took a break from dancing. "My husband was aware of my singing talents," she says. "When I became pregnant he advised me to give up dancing and start composing and singing."

Remitti’s earliest musical influences were the traditional female performers, the Meddahat (Singular: Meddaha) and the "Shikhat" (singular: Shikha). The former are singers and musicians who play violin and percussion. They perform for women only, and always start their singing with religious sacred songs, praïsing the prophet or a local saint. The Shikhat are women performers in Western Algeria and Morocco. They perform often for men and women, singing and dancing at various festivities, including weddings, births and circumcisions, as well as religious ceremonies.

The Shikhat are marginalized in respectable society because they overstep boundaries in performance by publicizing their intimate private lives. A troupe sometimes includes up to ten women. However, once these women become famous and begin recording, they start a solo career. These female singers and dancers, living secretive existences, adopt nicknames and don’t allow their picture on the front of their cassettes and album covers. Some Shikhat were very successful and their groups were asked to perform at weddings, or to record their music on audio tapes or on CDs, which were distributed in cassette shops.

Over Berber rhythms, the Shikhat sing in the language of the street about love, women’s lives, immigration and the struggle to survive poverty. It is a metaphorical language; in many cases the lyrics are ambiguous, which enable them to escape censorship. This is a particular technique of "women’s language," which allows for poetic audacities and daring gestures. The Wahrani dialect unique to the country around the great seaport of Oran, the first city where Remitti became famous, and later the birth place of raï music, or "Algerian blues," encouraged the singer’s raucous lyrics.

Remitti’s first improvised verses were inspired by the terrible epidemics throughout the country, such as the plague that was mentioned in Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague. She sang about the hardship of women’s lives and the repugnant attitude of old men towards their young brides: "Does the saliva of revolting old men have anything to do with clean saliva of young women?" She also introduced the theme of physical pleasure: "He scratched my back and I gave him my all." Her national hit in the fifties, "Chark, Gueta," was an attack on virginity, which shocked Algerian society.

For Algerians, the term raï means "opinion" or "advice," but it also embodies the concept of freedom of opinion. Raï music is based on improvisation. Like Ya Leyl in Egyptian music, the term raï became a kind of stopgap when the singer lost the inspiration in his or her poetry. Remitti owes her uncontested reputation as the greatest of the Shikhat to her prolific improvising talents. She smiles, "Inspiration comes to me at night, like a swarm of bees attacking my head."

She worked with the Shioukh (masters of traditional raï music), such as Hammada, Al Khaldi and Madina Buras. This form of music was particularly suited to Remitti’s style because of its use of the Qassida, pre-Islamic Bedouin poetry. In her performances, Remitti first introduces the story in words or a proverb and then sings it, accompanied by the band.

Sometimes Remitti has been mistaken for a male singer because of her deep voice that sounds like a saxophone. Soulful and strong, as it was in her youth, her voice pulsates the raw rhythmic trance of guellal drums and interweaves with the swirling barren wall of gasba, a rose wood desert flute.

In live performance, Cheikha Remitti has the power to transport Algerians who live abroad back to their roots. With facial expressions, shoulder movements and her famous dance steps, she gives free reign to her comedic talents. Famous for her hennaed hands, beautifully decorated with Berber tattoos, she uses them to introduce songs and play the bendir frame drum. In authentic Wahrani dress and jewelry, she looks like a mythical priestess.

Her first raï electric album, Sidi Mansur, went to number one in the European Top Ten for World Music in the early nineties. By this time, the modern stars of raï such as Khaled, Cheb Mami, Sahraoui and Fadela had taken the music out of the Algerian ghetto and put it on the world stage. Despite their gains, the pop raï scene is filled with rivalries. Remitti, too, is angry. "I’ve been robbed by the Cheb (young) generation. They stole ‘La Camelle’ and many of my songs."

Cheikha Remitti waited until 1986, the year of the big raï concert at Bobigny, a venue near Paris, to start performing on a large stage. Since then she has appeared all over the world. Commuting between Paris and Oran, she performs to an adoring audience who knows her as the "Empress of Raï."

Her new album, Nouar ("Blossom"), recorded recently in Algeria and France, will be released in the near future by Gafaiti Productions. Uniquely combining the traditional and the contemporary, Cheikha Remitti records her old repertoire–folk songs with her acoustic band, including gasba desert flutes and guellal drums–and also new tracks with her electric band.

Dance anthropologist and language lecturer Amel Tafsout is a performer of Maghreb Dance. Originally from Algeria, she now resides in London. She is currently writing her Ph.D. dissertation on North African Sufi brotherhoods and the use of dance as a healing form. She was honored to perform with Cheikha Remitti at her first London performance at The Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1998.

 

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