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
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
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
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
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
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.