The Parisian suburb of Bobigny is an unprepossessing district of drab modern architecture, delapidated 19th century apartment blocs and non-descript commercial and industrial premises stuck out at the end of a metro line. But back in 1986 it was scene of one of the most significant events in the recent cultural histories of both North Africa and France. For some years before, a small coterie of cultural congnoscenti, with particularly finely tuned antennae, had been picking up signals from Algeria about a wild new musical style called rai. Apparently this movement wasn’t particularly political or revolutionary in a 60s counter-cultural sense. But it was nonetheless radical. It used the plain language of the street to speak out on behalf of a whole generation of young Algerians who were fed up with the hypocrisy and corruption of their Arab socialist rulers, with the incessant moralising of fundamentalist imams and social leaders and with the general misery of atrocious housing, lack of jobs or opportunities, sexual frustration and the pervasive joylessness of life in 1980s Algeria.
Someone had the idea of organising a rai festival in the suburbs of Paris. All the A-List raimen and women were invited: Cheb Khaled, Cheb Sahraoui, Chaba Fadela, Chaba Zahouania…. But only one singer was deemed worthy to open the event. She was la mamie du rai, a living legend to whom all the younger singers owed their freedom of expression, their linguistic and moral rebelliousness, their sense of unchained hedonism, and a significant proportion of their repertoire too. She was Cheikha Remitti.
“I had the impression that I was being used,” Remitti explained two decades later to Le Monde. “I suffered, I even cried. They used me to launch the new rock-rai sound. I’m the mother of rai music, but I’m rooted in a tradition… Remitti is like the plam tree that provides dates for all and sundry. But all the young ones have evaporated, and I’m still here.”
Remitti is most emphatically still here, well past her eightieth birthday, sharp, defiant, halogenically lucid, still giving her audiences the proverbial cru-cut with her freight-train baritone holler and still raising the temperature with her shimmying shoulders and pulsating midriff. Moreover Remitti really does seem to have overtaken and outlived much of the younger generation that she originally spawned. Her brand new album ‘N’ta Goudami’, is creatively more ambitious and successful than 95% of the rai being recorded by singers one third her age. It seems like Remitti has trounced the rai youth at their own game.
Under direction from her long-time manager and producer, Nourredine Gafaiti, Remitti took the bold step of recording ‘N’ta Goudami’ at the Boussif studios in the western Algerian seaport of Oran, the city where rai music was born over a century ago. She also used a 100% Algerian crew of musicians and arrangers. Younger pop-rai stars have been in the habit of paying through the nose for top-flight studio time and trophy producers from France or the USA, in pursuit of off-the-peg musical credibility. Remitti likes to keep things 100% homegrown. Her penultimate album ‘Nouar’, which was produced by the talented and often overlooked Algerian Mohammed Maghni, is a modern rai masterpiece. Her creative juices are flowing as freely as ever.
To place the Remitti legend in its proper context, you have to take a trip back to a time when Algeria was still under French colonial rule, when 78rpm shellac was still the only format in town, and trains still ran on coal and sweat. Cheikha Remitti was born on 8th May 1923, in Tessala, a lost burg near the French garrison town of Sidi-bel-Abbès, deep in the countryside of western Algeria. She was christened Saadia, which simply means ‘happy’ or ‘joyful’. The name didn’t deliver on its promise, however, and Remitti lost both her parents at a very early age. In those remorseless days when the welfare state was still a socialist dream, a young female orphan had to learn the game of survival quickstyle, the hard way. “Misfortune was my teacher,” Remitti is fond of saying.
The young Saadia would sleep rough in local hamams (‘Arabic baths’) or shrines dedicated to local saints. She made her clothes from old mattresses, and her coffee from ground wheat germ mixed with syrup. By day she would earn a few francs working as a maid for French families, or helping out with the harvests. At the age of 15 she joined a troupe of traditional hamadja musicians, who devoted their lives loosely to some revered Sufi saint, and travelled the countryside entertaining the populace. In their company, Remitti felt something approaching familial warmth and security. She also learned how to sing, and dance.
“She used to dance like some kind of possessed spirit,” remembers an old-timer. Amongst her repertoire of crowd-pleasing tricks was the ability to balance a tray laden with brimful glasses of water, and shake her hips without spilling a drop. She would also dive under feet of galloping horses at fantazias, which were traditional displays of breakneck horsemanship mixed with gun practice. Audiences were so aroused by her antics that would shoot their rifles in appreciation, and came close to terminating the young Saadia before she had even begun to make her mark.
At the age of 20 Remitti moved to the moribund provincial town of Reliziane which sat in the middle of the vast hot plains of Oranie, surrounded by vineyards, wheatfields and water melon plantations. She was still singing and dancing herself to exhaustion at festivals, weddings and henna parties, and her reputation was beginning to grow amongst the rural poor of Algeria’s far west. But she was also beginning to compose her own songs with the encouragement of the renowned flautist Cheikh Mohammed Ould Ennems, who became Remitti’s protector, partner and champion. It was he who took her to Algiers to record her first radio broadcasts.
From an early age, Remitti had adopted the style known as folklore oranais or bedoui rurale which was championed by venerable old male singers like Cheikh Hamada, Cheikh Al Khaldi or Cheikh Madani. These folk troubadours would intone ancient epic poetry which spoke of the heroic deeds of yesteryear over a bed of pounding goblet drums, known as guellal, and the hot breath of rosewood desert flutes, known as gasba. Remitti kept the gasba and guellal but dispensed with arcane verses of the cheikhs. Instead she adopted a rich linguistic stew of local slang and rural patois, liberally sprinkled with metaphors and popular sayings. It was the language of the common man, and Remitti became its champion.
The late 1930s and early 1940s were a time of intense hardship in Algeria. The mediterranean was at war, famine was widespread and the western provinces were scourged by typhoid epidemics, immortalised by Albert Camus in his novel, ‘The Plague’. Remitti didn’t flinch from singing openly and directly about these contemporary miseries, and about the more personal traumas of alcoholic oblivion, lost love, emigration and carnal pleasure. Her music was like a clear and exhilaratingly sharp mirror, which reflected the daily grind of the poor. In that sense it was both revolutionary and delectable. To date Remitti has written over 200 songs on subjects as diverse as sex, alcohol, oblivion, nocturnal pleasure, the telephone, the TGV, virginity, enforced emigration, the carnal desires of workers at a chemical refinery, the offensive nature of forced marriages between older men and teenage brides, friendship, war…and the list goes on. “Songs canter through my head and I tie them to my memory,” she says. “I don’t need paper or pen.” Illiteracy has never posed her the slightest problem in pursuit of her art.
By the her late 20s, Remitti had become the queen of the cheikhate, (plural of ‘cheikha’) a new breed of popular female singer, who would tour the countryside with a retinue of dancers, musicians and berrah, or MC. In order to protect the reputation of their families and loved ones, the cheikhate would operate behind a soft-focus gauze of anonymity, adopting nicknames, decorating their cassette covers with Alpine scenes or stock library shots of young models and performing infront of their male audiences wearing a veil. They were martyrs to the hidden desires of the population. Dealing with the all-pervading moral hypocrisy of the nation required considerable courage, guile and self-belief.
It was sometime during the second world war that Saadia became Cheikha Remitti. One day, she was performing at one of the biggest Festivals in western Algeria, dedicated to the saint Sidi Abed. The sky burst open and the rain came down in sheets so Saadia and her retinue were invited to take shelter in a tented watering hole normally reserved for Europeans. She was recognised, fêted, and to show her gratitude she offered to buy a round for some of her admirers. The problem was that the bar woman was French, and Remitti has never spoken more than a few words in that language. So she just kept saying, “Remettez panaché, remettez, remettez!” (Another shandy, and another, and another). When spoken by a North African with a strong accent, ‘e’s tend to mutate into ‘i’s. And so the gathered crowd took up the refrain and started shouting, “It’s Rimitti! It’s the singer Rimitti!” “My name became Remitti because of alcohol,” she says, “it’s a great name.”
In 1952, Remitti recorded her first 78 for Pathé Marconi under the name Cheikha Remettez Reliziana. It was a roots rai standard called ‘Er-rai er-rai’. Two years later she recorded ‘Charag Gatta’, a barely veiled invitation aimed at young women to trade in their virginity for the pleasures of carnal love. “Tear, lacerate…Remitti will mend,” she sang. The song was a monstrous success, and Remitti’s fame was assured.
The bitter war between the moujaheddin of the FLN and France started the same year.
Remitti was unequivocal in her support for the rebels, but she also found it hard to refuse the growing number of invitations to sing on radio and TV. The colonial authorities knew only too well that Remitti was the most popular singer amongst the poorest of the poor. If they could only keep the mind of the masses focused on forbidden love, alcohol and oblivion, then they might dissuade them from thinking too much about rebellion and independence. To Remitti , the radio was just another gig, another way of making a living.
Nonetheless the FLN, high on hardline Nasserist Pan-Arabic socialism, denounced Remitti as a purveyor of hedonistic frippery and “folklore perverted by colonialsim”. When independence finally came in 1962, the new government did everything they could to silence the cheikhas, who continued to sing in the everyday language of the streets. Their high-minded strategy was to try and impose classical Arabic on the nation, a language which noone spoke, and hardly anyone understood. Remitti was banned from radio and TV. She continued to perform at weddings and feasts, and to release a few 45rpm singles and later cassettes. But in effect, her country abandoned her, officially at least.
From the 1970s onwards Remitti became increasingly popular amongst the growing number of Algerian immigrants in France, who led a nostalgic existence in their factories, worker’s hostels and high rise low rent housing, pining for home, stranded in a kind of mental ghetto with no hope of release. It became a habit to spend the month of Ramadan back home in Algeria, and the rest of the year living modestly in a hotel room in the Parisian immigrant quarter of Barbès, where she would perform regularly in North African bars. Remitti could command very good fees for wedding performances, but officially, in Algeria, she was still persona non grata. In 1971, after a rare concert appearance in Algiers, she was involved in a terrible car crash near Mostaganem, not far from Oran. She went into a coma that lasted several weeks. Three of her musicians died. The incident is the subject of the song ‘Daouni’ (JENNY PLEASE CHECK NAME) on ‘N’ta Goudami’.
Perhaps it was this close encounter with death, coupled with her increasing age that prompted Cheikha Remitti to go on the ‘hadj’ or pilgrimmage to Mecca in 1976. Since then the doyenne of hedonism has actually lived quite an ascetic life, devoid of cigarettes or alcohol, and sustained mostly by rice and water. This might go some way to explaining why Remitti is still singing, dancing and speaking her remarkable mind at the age of 82. The disappointment of the Bobigny Rai Festival, and the blatant way in which the new pop rai starts like Cheb Khaled or Chaba Fadela have plundered her repertoire without moderation or recognition, or even thanks, all weigh heavy on Remitti’s mind, but they haven’t managed to destroy her spirit.
In 1994, partial recognition by the self-proclaimed guardians of Algerian culture followed Remitti’s two triumphant performances at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. For Algerian audience members present, whose lives and hopes were being torn apart by the increasingly brutal civil war back home, Remitti’s appearance was a triumphant homecoming, a deeply moving exposé of Algeria’s true character, which is Mediterranean and not middle Eastern, a handsome mongrel mix of Berber, Christian, Jewish, Ottoman, Spanish, French, and Maltese influences with a corresponding language of infinite richness which has no better champion than Remitti herself.
Since then Remitti has been hailed in every continent, and fêted at festivals from Tokyo to Toronto. In 1994 she collaborated with Robert Fripp and Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers on the album ‘Sidi Mansour’, which nudged the creative boundaries of the rai genre out further than ever before. She has always avoided the spangly cabaret pop approach to rai so favoured by the younger generation. Even though she has adopted the bare bones of the rock format in her last two releases, the pure essence of the North African blues, whose active ingredients are powerful unpolished vocals, driving trance beats and the searing swirl of the gasba flute, remains the most crucial element in Remitti’s music.
Remitti is nothing less than the living surviving incarnation of Algeria’s long lost lust for life. Like some dauntless liberated aunt at a dysfunctional family feast, who sings, laughs, chides and surveys the psychological torture going on all around with her knowing eye, Remitti continues to remind her fellow Algerians that spiritual faith can coexist with a love of life and physical pleasure. No regrets. Live and let live. Let’s have another one Remitti…remettez, remettez!
Andy Morgan, c 2004
(Artist biog for Because, 2004).