Got those north African blues

Cheikha Remitti may be 76 years old, but her passion for Algerian Rai music is undiminished. Andy Morgan looks back at her colourful life and previews her first ever live performance in this country

It is hard to imagine the reaction of polite Algerian society in 1954 to the release of a single called "Charras Gatta". The subject of the song is female virginity: the song's title means roughly "Tear, Lacerate" and the singer/composer of this naked piece of sexual incitement is none other than Algeria's answer to Mae West.

The wild side is where Cheikha Remitti, the grandmother of Algerian Rai music has spent most of her bitter-sweet existence. This 76-year-old mother of 10 was already a school-of-hard-knocks graduate when she recorded her first 78 for Pathe in 1936. Her orphaned childhood in the western Algerian town of Relizane not only taught her how to survive, but to do it with style and panache, sleeping rough in hammams (local Arabic bath-houses) and the tombs of local marabouts, singing with groups of itinerant female musicians called medahatos, or dancing past exhaustion through until dawn at all-night wa'adi, the local marriage or saint-day toasts.

Remitti's earliest musical influence were the cheikhas, the women singers of western Algeria who sang and improvised their raunchy lyrical snapshots of daily low-life in a thick, highly flavoured dialect unique to the country around the great sea-port of Oran, a city notorious for its cosmopolitan free-thinking free-speaking vitality. It was in the hedonistic bustle of Oran's sea-front cafes, bars and bordellos that Rai music, the "blues" of North Africa was born. Like their venerable and comparatively squeaky clean male counterparts the cheikhs, (a term of respect like "sir"), the cheikhas sung over a pounding mixture of berber rhythms and swirling rural melodies. Unlike the cheikhs, the cheikhas did not mince their words with pretty classical poetry. They used the language of the street to sing about love, alcohol, prostitution and the life of "le petit people", the "small people".

Before the 1980s when the modern stars of Rai such as Khaled, Mami, Sahraoui and Fadela forced the music out of its Arabic ghettos and on to the world stage, "folk" Rai was sung almost exclusively by women for male audiences. The Chelkhas lived a secretive existence, adopting nicknames and never allowing their image to be portrayed on the front of a record or cassette, moving about the sub-strata of Algerian society with their berrah, or male MC-cum-minder. The young Saadia ("The Blessed" or "Happy One"), as she was then known, earned her nickname in a bar-tent at the annual festival of Sidi Abed. Insisting on buying a round for her French fans, she overcame her dire lack of French by humming the refrain of a popular song "Remettez panache madame, remettez!" ("Another shandy barmaid. Another!"), and she was baptised Cheikha Remitti Reliziana.

Remitti owes her uncontested position as the greatest of the Chelkhates to her prolific song-writing and improvising talents. Inspiration comes to her at night and, in her words, "like a swarm of bees attacking my head". She sings about the pleasures of booze ("Some people adore God. I adore beer"), 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?"), the pleasures of sex ("He scratched my back and I gave him my all"), about cars, telephones, the TGV and the homesick agonies of the emigrant. Only those ears tuned in to the cheeky and comical patois of Oranie can appreciate her razor sharp talent for satirical improvisation. All this verbal wizardry is belted out in a voice that could grate the hide off a rhinoceros, a deep soulful rasp that pulsates to the raw rhythmic trance of the metallic guellal drums and interweaves with the swirling barren wall of the gasba, a rosewood desert flute. On stage, Remitti flirts outrageously with her audience, distilling intense sexual power with the rhythmic hike of her eyebrows, the glint of her gold teeth vying with the wicked sparkle in her eyes.

Recognition has been painfully slow in coming. Her name has been reviled for decades both by the Islamic fundamentalist and the Marxist revolutionary factions of the Algerian establishment, both of whom considered Rai to be colonialist plot designed to gnaw through the nation's moral core. Official acceptance had to wait until 1994 when she performed at the temple of all things culturally acceptable in the Arabic music world, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Later that year her collaboration with Robert Fripp and Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers on the album Sidi Mansour proved that her mojo doesn't only work on her fellow Arabs, but a much wider ranges of cultures and ages.

If Rai is the blues of north Africa, then Remitti is the Bessie Smith of the genre. Unlike Bessie, Remitti, has survived to tell her tale.

Cheikha Remitti will perform for the first time ever in the UK tonight at the QEH, London, as part of 'Women in Tradition', which runs to 30 Nov (Box office: 0171-960 4242)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Written protest: Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, has sent an open letter to the Culture Secretary
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
footballDoes Hodgson's England team have an identity yet?
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

    £32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

    Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss