Obituary: Reinette l'Oranaise

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The Independent Culture
REINETTE L'ORANAISE played a pivotal role both in the preservation of an important historic body of North African music and poetry, the Arab- Andalus repertoire, created by the expelled Jewish inhabitants of Spain, and in introducing it to a European audience.

She was born Sultana Daoud in 1918 in Tiaret, a hill town with strong Bedouin culture in western Algeria and lost her sight as a result of smallpox aged two. Until her early teens she studied at a school for the blind in Algiers, before her mother, realising the child had a promising voice, decided to encourage her to take up music. She studied with the celebrated musician Saoud Medioni, "Saoud l'Oranais", an expert in Arab-Andalus music who operated a music cafe in the Jewish quarter of the port of Oran.

Medioni became Daoud's patron and mentor, and gave her her nickname, Reinette l'Oranaise: "Queenie from Oran". She devoted herself to his tutelage: "My master was very strict," she recalled later. "I never bothered about the audience, I just wanted to please him."

L'Oranaise learnt lute, mandolin and the small derbouka hand drum, and a huge repertoire of songs, including Bedouin folklore, the chanted Arabic texts of the Muslim sheikhs, rai, the ancestor of the style currently transformed into chart-topping pop music in France, and above all, the long, complex Arab- Andalus sung poems, some dating back to the 12th century.

By memorising much of this unwritten material through constant repetition and endless diction practise - the archaic literary language was strictly the domain of rabbis, imams and scholars - l'Oranaise preserved a body of work which would otherwise have died with its last performers.

In 1938, Medioni moved to Paris, where he opened a music cafe in the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre. L'Oranaise briefly joined him, but he encouraged her to return to make her name in Algeria. Shortly after she did, Medioni was arrested by the Nazis and died in a concentration camp.

In Algiers in the 1940s, Reinette l'Oranaise achieved national success, joining the fashionable female orchestra of Meriem Fekkai and broadcasting twice weekly on Radio Algiers. She acquired an accompanist, the pianist Mustapha Skandrani, who would be associated with her for the rest of her life.

Algerian independence in 1961 put an end to this phase of her career. Siding with those who would have had Algeria remain French, Reinette became a pied-noir, exiled in Paris, where her musical activity was restricted to parties and restaurant performances within the north African Jewish community of the Marais and Belleville.

In 1985 Reinette l'Oranaise's performances came to the attention of a coterie of Paris journalists who were beginning to write on the music of France's huge north African community, and an article on her in the paper Liberation led to considerable media and public interest. In 1986 I met her backstage after a concert at the Cafe de la Danse near Bastille, sipping champagne, dressed in pink sequins and accepting the adulation of young visitors a quarter of her age with slight confusion and extreme modesty.

In 1987 she performed at the Purcell Room, in London, accompanied as usual by the elegant Satie-like piano of Skandrani. During her concert the Algerian ambassador to the UK, sitting in the front row of the audience, respectfully requested a famous item of the Arab-Andalus canon, which she immediately performed. She died restored to fame in her own country and its ambassador abroad.

Philip Sweeney

Sultana Daoud (Reinette L'Oranaise), singer: born Tiaret, Algeria 1918; married 1955 Georges Layani; died Paris 17 November 1998.