Queen of the Rai
by Linda Grondahl
On May l5
in Paris, Sheikka Rimitti died at the age of
83. She was born in
l923 in Tessala (a village near Sidi Bel Abbes ) in Western Algeria.
She was the most well-know and clearly the oldest still performing
female rai artist. Although most Americans are not aware of her,
they may know the rai music through Khaled,
Mami, Rachid Taha, and Nasro.
Khaled's latest CD includes one song with Santanta
(who appeared half-away through Khaled's
concert in Sigmund Stern Grove in San Francisco last July 2005).
Mami has collaborated with Sting and performed
at the Grammy Awards a few years ago. Taha is a
favorite among rockers and has performed at Bimbo's and
other venues in San Francisco. Nasro recorded his
first international CD Departures through Miles
Copeland's (we all know him) label Mondomedia.
"opinion" in Arabic. To Algerians it also evokes the
idea of freedom of opinion and advice. Modern rai evolved through
the experiences of the Algerian musicians who were living in France
based on the older rai traditions that formed in the coastal urban
seaport of Oran. Unlike most of the music that we are familiar
with from the Middle East that are usually unrequited love songs
or patriotic love of country songs, the rai songs are about drinking,
suicide, suffering, colonialism, poverty, exile, homesickness,
corruption and the passion and pain of actual love making. The
paradox of this music is that when Algerians hear these songs
they sing along and dance and laugh and seem to be happy just
to hear the songs. I'll never forget the first time I went to
a Rai concert in Berkeley starring Cheb Nasro.
Some young guys were smiling, laughing and dancing in the aisles
and making slice movements on their wrists. I asked my husband
what did that mean. He said, oh the song is about killing themselves
because life is so hard. That was when I knew I wasn't in Egypt
Rimitti was an orphan and had a very difficult life.
She was a popular wedding and nightclub singer in Algeria by the
l940's. The French gave her the name "remettez" which
means put it back or slang for give me another drink-something
that she was always saying. Sheikka is an honorary title that
was given to her later. (Other rai singers have the terms Cheb
and Chebba meaning young guy or gal-Khaled was known as Cheb Khaled
until he decided he was a little too old to be called young boy.)
Remitti made her first recording in l952 and her last was just
released this May. (She had been scheduled to perform at a big
concert in Paris two weeks after her death). After Algerian independence
in l962 the government banned her songs from radio and television
In l976 she made a pilgrimage to Mecca and consequently gave up
drinking and smoking at the age of 53. She did however continue
to sing of the hard life. She emigrated to Paris in l978 but started
visiting Algeria frequently after the new government rescinded
the ban on her music.
musicians "borrowed" or has she said "pinched"
songs heavily from her repertoire. (she composed hundreds of songs).
She continued to sing and perform through out the 80's but it
wasn't until l994 when she was invited to perform at he Institue
de Monde Arabe in Paris that the world music scene "discovered"
her. Around that time she recorded Sidi Mansour with
Frank Zappa's horn section and Robert
Fripp from King Crimson and the bassist from
the Red hot Chili Peppers. She also includes the traditional
Algerian instruments, the gasba (wooden flute) and the darbouka
(hand drum) which she plays with exceptional skill.
July l4, 2002 she performed at Stanford University Amphitheater.
I was so lucky to get to see her. At the age of 81 she sang, danced,
and played the darbouka for over an hour. When her show was over
it was announced that the next group had not arrived yet, so she
continued on for another 30 minutes until the Tuva singers
arrived (their plane had been late). Remitti has a deep, raspy
voice that covers a wide range of notes and emotion and makes
the audience understand what she is singing about even though
it's in another language. She sings and dances of love, friendship,
mourning, war, drinking, emigration and rebellion. I was also
lucky to be able to go backstage and meet her personally because
our friend Nasro was her last minute replacement keyboardist because
the one who was supposed to come couldn't get a visa. (This was
a persistant problem for artists from all over the world after
9/11). I received the traditional three kisses on the cheeks.
A humorous side
note to the Remitti story is that while my husband and I were visiting
a very famous dancer in New York City (name withheld to protect
the innocent/guilty), she wanted to play a CD for us to see if we
knew what the singer's name was. She had gotten it from a friend
and it had no photos or description of any kind. She said, I love
this man, his voice is so romantic, so soulful. I know he is singing
of love. I've been listening to him everynight since I got the CD.
Well, we had to break the news to her, that she was in love with
an 80 year old woman!!! Still, not believing me I had to send her
a CD with her cover photo and pictures of Khal and
me at the Remitti concert at Stanford.
I have discovered
that a great many of the popular male singers in Algeria sing
in a higher range and that many of the popular woman singers are
in the lower range. Two other female Algerian singers, Naima
Ababssa and Zahuania ( I attended both
of their concerts in San Francisco) had the lower singing range.
On Warda's CD (originally from Algeria, she often
uses the name Al Jaizeera , thus her name Rose of Algeria) that
was released a few years ago, she sings in her usual Egyptian
dialect. But on two songs she sings in Algerian dialect. Her voice
drops and she has added the gasba an darbouka to the band.
quite a bit of information on the Net about Remitti, Khaled, Rai
music, Andalusian music and Algeria. I have purchased, but not
yet read, the book The Social Significance of Rai, Men and
Popular Music in Algeria, by Marc Schade-Poulsen written
in l999. Aramco Magazine had a lenthly article
on Rai a few years ago.
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5-29-06 Traveling to Tizi
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