Cheikha Rimitti: Algeria’s High Priestess of Song

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Cheikha Rimitti helped put raï music on the map–a cool, groovy style that originated in the Algerian port city of Oran in the 1920s, a mix of Bedouin folk music, French, Spanish, African and Arabic music.  Yes, quite a mélange.  Just the kind I like.  Music mixes like this happen in port cities, because of all the cultural traffic and influences going in and out.  You only have to think of New Orleans for a U.S. comparison.  There, you have African, French, Spanish, Cuban, Haitian influences in its tangy musical gumbo.

Same thing in raï.  The word means “opinion”, and it started out as a Algerian rock and roll, eschewing traditions and other entrenched cultural mores.  And the genre was started if not enshrined by the late queen of raï, Cheikha Rimitti.  Women at weddings would go into a separate area and talk about men and other things they couldn’t speak of in mixed company.  And remember it was women who would ululate all night long, depriving the French soldiers of sleep during the Algerian war of independence in the late 50s and early 60s (Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece The Battle of Algiers is a must-see).

Rimitti is a paradigm of women’s independence struggle in Algeria.  She was born in Tessala, a small village in Western Algeria in 1923.  She started her singing career in the early 1940s  during World War II, singing songs about the the struggles of daily life, sex, love, alcohol, or should I just say sex, love and rock and roll.  These songs were not sung in polite society.  Rimitti sang them publicly and her fame spread quickly.  And even though she was illiterate, she wrote hundreds of songs which are famous today both in Algeria and in France as well.  She even recorded her cd Sidi Mansour with Robert Fripp and Flea of  Red Hot Chili Peppers fame.  Facing up to the oppression of women in Algeria–religious and societal–Rimitti was fearless.

Grand Performances, the wonderful organization bringing world music and so much more to California Plaza’s Water Court every summer, brought her there a few years ago. Like all concerts there, it was free.

She died in Paris in 2006 at the age of 83.  But her music lives on. Recently I heard and bought yet another cd of hers: N’la Goudami. Here are a couple of songs here from youtube.

Cheikha Rimitti you will always be great, and always remembered.  Thank you for being so bold, so cool, and bringing the world such pleasure.

Another clip with Malian Issa Bagayogo: