Music, Women in Muslim Africa

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Music, Women in Muslim Africa

This entry focuses on music as women's cultural output in three distinct genres and countries of Muslim Africa. It highlights how the genres, the performance contexts, and the music and words themselves reflect contradictory aspects of the status of women and influence the popular discourse around sex and gender. These music genres are the Algerian Rai, represented by Cheikha Remitti; the work of Mauritanian women artists, embodied by Ooleya mint Amartichitt, Dimi mint Abba, and Malouma; and Tarab, symbolized by Siti bint Saad and Kidude Baraka in Zanzibar.


Cheikha Remitti is the undisputed queen of Raï in the Maghreb. Born May 8, 1923, in Tessala, in Sidi Bel-Abbès region, Remitti single-handedly expanded the arena of Raï songs, which not only represent the collective consciousness of Algeria but also draw on the daily lives of Algerians and the turbulent history of her homeland. Her nickname, Remitti, stems from her generosity of ordering drinks for some European admirers at a café, as she called on the waitress to refill their drinks: "Remettez," hence, the nickname Remitti (Daoudi and Miliani 1996, p. 184).

In contrast to the silenced voices of women in Algeria, Remitti—with her battle cry "ya rayi"—became a source of inspiration to women and men singers in the Maghreb. She sings: "Ana kbart itiima" (I grew up orphaned) in her song, Charakt Rarabt. Through her songs, some of which have been reprised by many Chebs (young), such as the famed Cheb Khaled, Remitti recovers what has been lost, mends what has been torn, and pieces souls together. Her hoarse and ringing voice exhorts women to be independent and defend their rights: "Debri, debri," manage on your own. Through sheer ingenuity and courage, she deemed herself a healer of tormented souls, the dispossessed and the heartbroken.

In her song Hiya bghat al-Sahra, Remitti weaves her tunes through an array of themes that interlace the secular and the sacred, the halaal (the allowed) and the haraam (the forbidden), and blur distinctions between men and women and gender norms, as well as between geographical borders in the Maghreb. Contrary to the view that Cheikhats (women singers in traditional groups) tend to be effortlessly seduced by men, in her song "Sidi Abed" Remitti vigorously counters this perception: "manish 'ashaqa wa na'shaq man jaa" (I am not a lover and do not love whomever comes my way). In her song "Shab El Goum," Remitti questions the past and the ancestors, speaks for immigrants, being one herself. Her songs on exile and loneliness are fraught with nationalistic overtones: "Awlaad al-Jazaa'ir ya sha'b Al-munaaDil" (Oh, natives of Algeria, fighting people). Remitti even refers to the famous Algerian leader and warrier Abdelkader (1808–1883). Her songs have provoked the wrath of the fundamentalists who have attacked her and other artists. Remitti held herself on a par with Umm Khultum (1904–1975), the Egyptian star singer (Daoudi and Miliani 1996).

A few months before her death in Paris on May 15, 2006, at the age of eighty-three, Remitti continued her musical journey, releasing her last album, N'ta Goudami.


Ooleya Mint Amartichitt, Dimi Mint Abba, and Malouma Mint Maideh, among other women artists, represent the Mauritanian musical tradition, whose genius lies in its power to blend the traditional and the modern and embrace various musical cultures (Arab, Bambara, Berber, Sudanese, Tuareg, and Wolof, among others) to create a music characterized by warm, emotional, and complex rhythms.

Amartichitt sings in Hassaniya, the Arabic dialect in Mauritania. In "Zahratou El Ekewany" (the flower of brothers), on her album Praise Songs, Amartichitt eulogizes the Prophet Muhammad, and the notables in her tribes. She also sings about the "Mema," the mother.

Dimi Mint Abba is considered a pillar among women and men singers in Mauritania. Like Amartichitt, she grew up in a musical family that encouraged her to break boundaries set by men and take the lead in telling stories as an iggawin, a griot, a term which denotes more than being a musician. Dimi has been eulogizer, chronicler, social and political commentator, historian, and storyteller, a human encyclopedia who imparts wisdom and safeguards the memories of her people. She partnered with Khalifa Ould Eide, her second and late husband, and formed a musical band. Her lyrics gravitate more toward classical Arabic than Hassaniya. In Moorish Music from Mauritania, her album of 1989, Dimi Mint Abba transcends the traditional themes of love and urges the daughters and sons of South Africa and the entire world community to help stem apartheid.

Malouma Mint Maideh grew up unburdened with any patriarchal tension; her father was her inspiration. In her Desert of Eden (1998), Malouma uses modern instruments, a key feature of recent Mauritanian music, which relies on European sounds (Racy 2003). Nevertheless, Malouma's songs remain rooted in the Arab poetic tradition. Her album moves from personal songs and idyllic tunes to more worldly themes, such as inequalities and AIDS.

Malouma's songs also embrace the past, as she longs for the old days in "Ayam Zaman," yet ushers in a promising future, as in her song "Soura" (photo), where the artist appeals to the world to preserve human rights and not deprive the people of a picture of unity and peace. She ends her album praising Mohamed Cheikh Mbacke, a senior, highly respected and charitable Senegalese man known for soothing the pain of the distressed and the poor.


Tarab is a musical form played at wedding events and closely associated with the cultural life of Zanzibar. The Arabic jadr, root of Tarab, means "delight, pleasure" (Al Faruqi 1981, p. 350). Tarab encompasses aspects of Indian music, blending elements from Egypt and Africa. Through Tarab, women have reshaped their image and crossed critical gender boundaries, assuming the role of lead singer.

Despite her humble background (she was a descendant of slaves), Siti binti Saad (1880–1950) embodied Tarab in Muslim Africa; she was the first East African artist to be recorded on discs, in 1928 (Suleiman 1969). She brought this music genre down to the less fortunate outside the palace and formed an emotional, almost mystical union between herself and the audience. Thanks to binti Saad, Kiswahili gradually supplanted Arabic and became the language of pride among Zanzibaris (Topp 1994). Binti Saad's songs captured and disseminated the collective memory of colonialism and injustices perpetrated on Zanzibaris. When she composed "Wala Hapana Hasara" (There Is No Loss), about the punishment of a usurping lord at the hands of the British, the song became like a document in local people's memory. Tarab was also an art form deployed among adversaries for settling scores and inflicting psychological wounds through metaphors and backbiting. When a woman wrote a song to damage binti Saad's status, stripping her of any qualities save her voice, binti Saad retorted by painting the woman as inferior to a disgraced street girl who cannot survive (Suleiman 1969). The protégé of binti Saad, Bi Kidude Baraka, who won the prestigious WOMEX award at age ninety-three in 2005, has developed this subgenre among Zanzibari women.


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                                                  Hamid Bahri

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