Cheikha Rimitti

Singer known as the 'mother of rai'
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Cheikha Rimitti, singer: born Tessala, Algeria 8 May 1923; (two sons, one daughter); died Paris 15 May 2006.

Cheikha Rimitti was one of the most important figures in Algerian rai music, and considered one of the greatest of all the cheikhas (the female singers of western Algeria, whose earthy vocal styles provided snapshots of everyday life around the sea-port of Oran), so it is fitting that she recorded her last album, N'ta Goudami ("Face Me", 2006), at the Boussif studios in Oran, the birthplace of rai music.

Rimitti's life was one of triumph over adversity. She grew up an orphan in the western Algerian town of Relizane, her parents having died when she was very young. Nicknamed Saâdia ("happy one" or "the blessed") she spent her formative years sleeping rough and would often seek shelter in the tombs of local marabouts (saints). She said later of her early hand-to-mouth existence that it taught her how to survive.

During her teens she roamed the Algerian countryside with a troupe of Hamadcha musicians, mostly performing quasi-religious trance dances. She became known as a seductive dancer, famed for her ability to balance trays of glasses on her head whilst gamely shaking her hips. She went on to perform in all-women groups called meddahates who sang devotional songs praising the prophet or local saint, and also (more daringly) with the shikhat, who performed for men and women at festivals, weddings, births and circumcisions.

The latter were frowned upon in respectable Algerian society because performances would often hint at private intimacies. Troupes would consist of up to 10 women, both singers and dancers, who would lead secretive existences, adopting nicknames and refraining from showing their faces on album and tape covers.

Her stage name came about by chance during a religious festival called a wa'ada near a shrine dedicated to Sidi Abed, the patron saint of the Sidi region. Rain had disrupted the ceremony and she and her fellow musicians took refuge in a canteen. She was recognised by the (mainly) French customers who suggested she buy them all a round of drinks.

What happened next is a little hazy. According to some accounts she asked for a panache (a shandy), and then kept saying "remettez panache madame, remettez, remettez", until the words formed into a song that she sang to her audience's delight. Another version is that this was in fact a line to a popular song: "Madame, remettez un panache!" ("Another shandy, barmaid, another!") But either way, the aud- ience misinterpreted "remettez" for "rimitti" and began singing "Rimitti, it's the singer Rimitti!" "I became Rimitti thanks to alcohol," she stated proudly in many interviews.

Not only did 1954 see the start of the bloody Algerian war of independence, it also spawned one of her most controversial hits "Charrag Gatta" ("Tear, lacerate") which was a thinly veiled encouragement to young women to lose their virginity. Although shocking to some, it reflected the shikhat's streetwise philosophy; their ambiguous references often managing to avoid the censorship knife.

Often fastened on to earthy Berber rhythms, utilising the rasping gasba (rosewood flute) and pummelling guellal drums, Rimitti's down and dirty lyrics ("he scratched my back so I gave him my all") and razor-sharp wordplay provided inspiration for many up and coming rai artists such as Cheb Khaled and Rachid Taha - whose tough rural vocal style mirrored Rimitti's own manly rasp.

Her popularity waned in the Sixties and Seventies, although she managed to keep hold of a grass-roots fan base, becoming a jobbing performer at weddings, and various other celebrations. A life-changing experience occurred during the Sixties when she was involved in a horrendous car crash driving back from a concert in Algiers. Three of her musicians died and she was put into a coma. The experience manifested itself in lyrical form on the track "Daouni" ("They Took Me") on her last, and (some consider) best album. In 1976, after a pilgrimage to Mecca, she gave up alcohol, cigarettes, and other sins of the flesh, and earned the respected title of hadja.

She had to wait until 1986 for her big international break when she was invited to perform at a prestigious rai concert in the French city of Bobigny. Official acceptance finally occurred in 1994 when she performed at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. The wait must have seemed like an eternity, especially as young rai artists such as Khaled, Cheb Mami, Sahraoui, and Fadela had since managed to propel rai out of the ghetto and on to the world stage. "I've been robbed by the Cheb [young] generation," she said in a recent interview, believing many of her songs to have been pinched by the younger singers.

However, her first electric rai album, Sidi Mansour (1994), recorded with Robert Fripp and Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) saw her embrace the modern world with a vengeance, and finally gave her music the credibility she craved. The year 2000 saw the release of one of her finest albums, Nouar ("Flowers") - a perfect blend of rai's rural origins and clever, minimal electronica.

Her last album N'ta Goudami looked the most likely to garner her genuine commercial success at home and abroad, and a string of summer dates had beckoned for "la mamie du rai" ("the mother of rai"). She had been due to appear in London at a Late Night Prom with Radio Tarifa on 4 August.

Phil Meadley