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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)