Rimitti, Cheikha (1923–2006)

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Rimitti, Cheikha

Algerian singer and performer Cheikha Rimitti (also known as Cheikha Remettez Reliziana), whose career spanned eight decades, is best known for pioneering a form of popular music known as raï (also spelled ray or ra'i). Rimitti's music was enormously popular in her native Algeria and France, with lyrics marked by frank and explicit expressions of feminine sexuality and desire. With the emergence of an independent Algeria in 1962 came denouncement and censorship of Rimitti's songs, forcing her to relocate to France where she continued to record and perform attaining a worldwide audience that continued to grow until her death in 2006.


Rimitti was born Saïda Belief on 8 May 1923 in the city of Tessala in the western part of French-controlled Algeria. Rimitti was orphaned at an early age and spent the rest of her childhood in poverty, later declaring that misfortune was her teacher. At the age of thirteen, Rimitti began earning money performing bawdy fertility songs at weddings, which demanded a multifaceted performance requiring her to dance and sing. It was during this time that Rimitti created her stage name, which, according to legend, developed from her mispronunciation of the French term remotes (again) as it related to her generosity in buying rounds of drinks for her fans. In essence, Rimitti made a career by performing traditional wedding songs in the cabarets of Algeria, and later, France.

During the 1940s, Rimitti began composing her own words for songs that were sung on Algerian radio stations. Although she was illiterate, Rimitti's lyrics featured clever wordplay, as well as expressions of anxiety and fear in regard to the political situation in Algeria. Rimitti made her first record in 1952 and attained her first hit with the song "Charrag Gataa," a song that resulted in widespread denunciations for its lyrical content. In addition to sexually charged lyrics, Rimitti's ruminations on Algerian politics drew increased irritation from the colonial government.


Rimitti's music was banned from the airwaves following Algeria's independence in 1962 and the concurrent rise of an Islamic government. Despite the ban, Rimitti was able to perform at private functions and weddings, and her music was spread via a semiunder-ground system of cassette trading. The 1970s found Rimitti undergoing major life changes, when in 1971 she was involved in a near-fatal car accident that left her in a coma for a short time. In 1976 Rimitti went on the hajj (Islamic pilgrimage) to Mecca, which compelled her to quit drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. In 1978 Rimitti left Algeria and moved her home to France, where she continued to perform, gaining notoriety among the Arab expatriate community. With the 1980s came a period in which raï would attain a wider audience as such musicians as Cheb Khaled and Rachis Tara would incorporate electronic beats and synthesizer melodies with traditional instrumentation to create pop raï, thus cementing Rimitti's legacy as the mother of raï.

Worldwide Fame

In 1994 Rimitti changed her sound with the recording and release of Sidi Mansour, an album in which vocals recorded in France were mixed with instrumentals recorded in the United Kingdom and Los Angeles. The album featured Rimitti's abandonment of the instrumentation of traditional raï in favor of that heard in pop raï. Notably, the album featured brass musicians known for recording with American rock avant-gardism Frank Zappar and the jazz-funk fusion bass of Flea of the American rock band the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Additionally, Briton Robert Fripp, most famous for his work with the rock band King Crimson, produced the album. Rimitti claimed that the album was exploitative in nature because she never met any of the musicians featured on the album. Nonetheless, the album was significant for Rimitti because it fulfilled a desire to distance herself from the traditional raï scene that featured artists that she felt were improperly profiting from her sound. Because of this new direction and the popularity of the featured players, Sidi Mansour was immensely popular, thus introducing raï to thousands of new listeners worldwide.


Name: Cheikha Rimitti (Cheikha Remettez Reliziana)

Birth: 1923, Tessala, Algeria

Death: 2006, Paris, France

Family: Four children

Nationality: Algerian

Education: No formal education


  • 1938: Joins troupe of musicians known as the Hamadochis
  • 1940s: Begins performing using the stage name Cheikha Rimitti
  • 1952: Signs a record deal with the Pathe Marconi label; releases the single "Er-Raï, Er-Raï"
  • 1954: Denounced by Algerian officials following the release of the album Charrag Gataa, an album rife with themes of sexual libertinism
  • 1971: Seriously injured in a car accident in Algeria
  • 1976: Conducts a pilgrimage to Mecca and vows to abandon alcohol and tobacco
  • 1978: Migrates to France amid growing censorship by the Algerian government
  • 1994: Releases Sidi Mansour, a pop raï album produced by Robert Fripp and featured Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass guitar
  • 2001: Performs in concert in the United States for the first time at Central Park in New York City
  • 2005: Returns to Algeria to write and record her final album titled N'ta Goudami
  • 2006: Suffers a fatal heart attack two days after a performance in Paris, France

Rimitti recorded a few more albums in the wake of the successes and international renown of Sidi Mansour. One such album was titled Aux Sources du Raï, which was an anthology of Rimitti's works including rerecordings of some of her most famous songs. The album was released in 2000 for the French Institut du Monde label and was well received by critics worldwide. In 2001 Rimitti satisfied a lifelong desire to perform in the United States as a show of gratitude for the goodwill and happiness brought by the American military to Algeria during World War II Rimit-ti's Central Park concert lasted nearly two hours before an enthusiastic and grateful New York audience.

A Return to Algeria

Although she had visited her homeland in the years following her exile, Rimitti had neither performed nor recorded in Algeria since 1978. In 2001 Rimitti expressed a longing to return to her native Algeria, a nation for which she had many concerns, stating, "I pray to God that the country finds peace and tranquility." Rimitti fulfilled her dream in 2005 when she wrote and recorded her final album released the following year, N'ta Goudami. The album would be her last original recording, as she suffered a fatal heart attack on 15 May 2006, two days after a performance in Paris, France.


The Essence of Raï

Similar to many forms of cultural expression, raï is reflective of both the history of those who perform it as well the environment in which they live. In this sense, raï is the music of the Algeria. The Arabic term rai can be taken to mean either opinion or way of seeing. Raï developed as a musical expression that combined the trans-Mediterranean sounds of northern Africa with those of the Berber-Algerian countryside. Early forms of raï were performed in wedding rituals, serving the function of promoting fertility. Aurally, raï incorporated melodies and song structure that mirrored those of the Grawa-Sufi in western Africa, as well as Spanish flamenco music. In its essence, the musicianship of raï was largely a synthesis of sounds and instrumentation that could be heard throughout the Mediterranean world.

The uniqueness of raï can be found in the lyrics and their thematic expressions. The poetics of raï draw heavily from malhun, traditional Algerian folk poetry. Similar to malhun, raï is unconventional in its use of language and rebellious in its subject matter. Raï eventually displaced malhun poetry, causing some to lament the popularization of what was deemed an unrefined form of artistic expression.


Cheb Khaled (1960–) is often viewed as raï's first superstar, earning him the title the king of raï. Born on 29 Feburary 1960 in Sidi-El-Houri, in the Oran region of Algeria, Khaled was influenced both by traditional raï and such Western musicians as James Brown and the Beatles. As he began his recording career in the early 1980s, Khaled worked with producer Rachid Baba Ahmed who introduced synthesizers and electronic beats to Khaled's traditionalist singing. The term pop raï was coined to describe the nexus between traditional and modern music. As Rimitti did, Khaled faced censorship by the Algerian government and moved to Paris in 1986. While in France Khaled continued to record incorporating elements of jazz, hip-hop, and reggae into his recordings, further blurring the definition of raï at the same time he was bringing greater notoriety to Algerian music. Khaled continues to record in France, and is one of the genre's most popular and influential artists.


Central to the makeup, and indeed popularity, of raï is the synergistic nature of a music that incorporates myriad Mediterranean musical styles supporting lyrics addressing issues both contemporary and timeless. Raï developed in the Berber countryside in colonial Algeria and was transcultural from the very beginning, containing themes found in Spanish, French, Arabic, and Berber music. Moreover, raï was notable for lyrics sung in Orani, a dialect of Arabic that incorporates words and inflections from French, Spanish, and Berber. Many of the early raï singers were female, singing in a masculine vocal register that blurred the sexual identity of the singer. Traditional raï instrumentation is composed of four elements: the singer, a gasaba (reed flute), a rbaba (a single-stringed instrument played with a bow), and a drum, either a gellal or a derbouka. Lyrically, raï songs often contained poetry expressing themes of thirst-both sexual and literal—and movement, both reflective of life in the Maghreb.

Lyrics filled with sexuality were inherited from the wedding music custom, and it was from this tradition that Rimitti would construct a poetry that was filled with self-expressions of lust and desire. Nevertheless, sexual desire is but one of the myriad themes articulated in raï. The following Rimitti lyric embodies the complex and multifaceted rebelliousness of the music she helped popularize. She sang: "People adore God, I adore beer." The first portion is in direct contrast to the growing Islamism of Algeria where theology was becoming the most widely expressed form of philosophical expression. The second part of the lyric is more nuanced, for the use of the first person singular, I, was considered taboo for singers of the region, and was downright scandalous for a woman. Additionally, that a woman adores beer stands in defiance of Islamic practice and also expresses the importance of liquid as a means of fulfilling a thirst that to desert dwellers may be more urgent than spiritual thirst. It was these lyrics that drew the ire of the Algerian government that ultimately banned Rimitti's music.

Rimitti's importance lay in the fact that she was able to take a localized, if not secretive, form of music and transform it into a nationwide phenomenon. In its earliest manifestations, raï was performed in private wedding ceremonies as an expression of love and fertility. It was deemed too risque to be performed outside of these ceremonies. An oft-overlooked element of raï was that it was performed in the multicultural cabarets of Oran, a city that was more permissive than the rest of Algeria. It was in Oran, Algeria's second-largest city with a vital port, that raï was performed in clubs that permitted mixed-race and homosexual dancing. Lyrics filled with themes of lust and displacement featuring a sexually ambiguous voice appealed to the patrons of Oran's bars. Rimitti, and in turn raï, emerged from this environment as a popular musical expression of transculturation and the voice of the subaltern.

Raï and Femininity

Rimitti's music served as an added form of minority expression, most notably as that of the woman in Arabic northern Africa. Raï's lyrical themes explored female sexuality and desire amid a largely masculine society that repressed the feminine voice. Raï became popularized in public spaces where women were viewed as objects of desire, all but guaranteeing that the music would stand in direct contrast to the growing Islamist sentiments that were becoming more prominent in Algeria. Rimitti, the so-called mother of raï would perform on stage as the central figure, demanding the focus of those in attendance. In her performances, Rimitti would perform, unveiled, singing lyrics filled with themes of feminine agency.

Described as unintentionally feminist, Rimitti's lyrics addressed themes of a female sexuality that could be considered illicit even by Western standards. Rimitti's first hit, titled "Charrag Gataa" (tear, lacerate), was denounced as immoral by critics for the song's implicit claim that women should not be burdened by the chains of virginity. Songs such as these are expressions of a woman's desire to maintain ownership and control of her own body and sexuality. Rimitti thus sings about woman as an object of desire through her own perspective, rather than a sexual being filtered through the prism of a man's lust.


The early 1990s featured a spike in the popularity of so-called world or non-Western music in such nations as the United States, Great Britain, and France. Contributing to such popularity was the spread of cable television, the embracement of world music by American college radio, and the popularity of the universal and durable compact disc as the preferred method of listening to music. Moreover, the increased presence of Middle Easterners and North Africans in Europe and the United States widened the potential audience for music such as raï. Rock musician Peter Gabriel's World of Music and Dance (WOMAD) tour contributed to the popularization of world music, as the tour featured a collective of musicians from all the around the globe and performed before sold-out audiences worldwide. In the mid-1990s, the Internet provided another point of access for those interested in listening to world music.

It was during this period that Rimitti found her largest audience outside of the Maghreb (North Africa), as well as her greatest levels of fame. In addition to geopolitical realities of the 1990s and early 2000s, Rimitti's embracement of pop raï made her music a feature in some of the world's dance clubs. Pop raï's incorporation of synthetic beats and melodies and accelerated tempos melded well with Rimitti's rapid delivery and haunting lyricism to create a music that successfully translated to a younger generation of listeners weaned on electronic music. This was the musical environment in which Rimitti attained a larger audience, as evidenced by increased record sales in Europe and the United States, along with her fan base in the Maghreb.

In addition to robust sales, Rimitti's albums were well received critically. Much has been made about the haunting beauty of Rimitti's voice and its crackling tones that convey the spiritual and literal thirsts that make raï both unique and reflective of life in the Maghreb. Rimitti's traditional raï albums place her voice at the forefront of the musical production, as the sparse instrumentals serve a purely backing purpose. To the chagrin of some critics, Rimitti's turn toward pop raï saw her voice become part of a larger cacophony in which the electronic beat—a clear appeal toward the dance club audience—is paramount to each song. Despite this shift in production, Rimitti's lyrics remain unchanged as the spirit of the music that she helped to popularize persisted.

Rimitti's death in 2006 was reported worldwide, speaking to both her importance in the sociocultural landscape of Mediterranean music and to her role within the growing popularization of world music. Obituaries following Rimitti's death were printed throughout the world and all addressed her importance in popularizing raï and presenting a dualistic voice of the subaltern—that of the female and the colonized. When discussing her cultural importance, it is easy to neglect the fact that she was a fine performer with a charisma unmatched by many of her contemporaries. Such sentiments are seen in Rimitti's obituary in the Times of London, which described her as "one of the most colourful figures in world music."


There are two means by which one can analyze the importance of a performer whose name is synonymous with the music she helped to popularize. First, and perhaps most important, is her legacy within her native country of Algeria. Raï, with its transcultural and secular tone, always represented the voice of the subaltern in both colonial and independent Algeria. In regard to pre-independent Algeria, raï's instrumentation, lyrical themes, and means of presentation stood in direct contrast to the cultural hegemony faced in the wake of French colonization. Following independence, raï then stood in direct contrast to the Islamic-based moral legislation that marked Algeria's government. Although rarely overtly political, raï was rebellious but never revolutionary. Rimitti once commented in an interview with Afro-pop Worldwide, "Raï music has always been a music of rebellion, a music that looks ahead." Thus a study of Rimitti's lifetime of rebellious career reads as a cultural and feminist history of Algeria in colonial, anticolonial, and postcolonial periods. In this sense, Rimitti's life is reflective of the essence of life in Algeria.

In terms of her legacy within the realm of world music, Rimitti serves as one of the most important voices from northern Africa. Although other raï artists received equal, if not greater, levels of notoriety, Rimitti's presence served as a reminder of the origins of this uniquely Algerian form of music. Moreover, her expressions of feminine—indeed human—desires have a universal appeal that is both timely and timeless. Rimitti's records and their socially conscious lyrics provide insight into the time and place in which they were recorded. Stated another way, Rimitti's albums challenge the listener to understand what was occurring in Algeria at the time they were recorded. Thus, Rimitti's worldwide legacy is that of a singular voice representative of both her gender and her people.


Afropop Worldwide. "Interview with Cheikha Rimitti." Available from http://www.afropop.org/multi/feature/ID/44/?lang=gb.

Bamia, Aida Adib. The Graying of the Raven: Cultural and Sociopolitical Significance of Algerian Folk Poetry. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001.

Gross, Joan, David McMurray, and Ted Swedenburg. "Arab Noise and Ramadan Nights: Rai, Rap, and Franco-Maghrebi Identities." In The Anthropology of Globalization, a Reader, edited by Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Marranci, Gabriele. "Pop-Raï: From a 'Local' Tradition to Globalization." In Mediterranean Mosaic: Popular Music and Global Sounds, edited by Goffredo Plastino. New York: Routledge, 2003.

McMurray, David, and Ted Swedenburg. "Rai Tide Rising." Middle East Report 169 (March-April 1991): 39-42.

"Obituary, Cheikha Rimitti." Times (London), 17 May 2006. Available from http://www.timesonline.co.uk.

Virolle, Marie. "Representations and Female Roles in the Raï Song." In Music and Gender: Perspectives from the Mediterranean, edited by Tullia Magrini. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

                                  Kenneth Shonk