The sources of the Raï

The sources of the Raï

Cheikha Remitti

This “first lady” of Raï, she who first put it and its particular themes on the map, so to speak, has not had an easy life. Orphaned at an early age, she found herself with no fixed address, obliged to wander and sleep out in the open, or do some cleaning in exchange for a bed for the night and a handful of small change. Only very much later did she join a troup of musicians, before going on to make a name for herself as the most ispired “grandmother” of Raï.


1Hiyya bghat es-Sahra – 6’29
2Sidi Taleb – 7’14
3Dana wa dana – 4’49
4Sidi Abed – 6’08
5La Camel – 4’55
6Ya l’hmam, ya l’imam – 3’59
7 – Debri, debri – 4’31
8Djat thawwes – 4’26
9Charrag, gattaa – 4’32
10Fatma, Fatma – 5’49
11 – Win rak tergoud – 6’56
12Ya lemmima – 5’30
13Bakhta – 7’30

Interpreters and instruments

Cheikha Remitti (singing)
Nouba Belahcène (derbouka)
Abdelkader Medjahri (guellal)
Mohamed Hamnache (gasba)
Cheikh Nedromi (gasba)


From the 18th century onwards, aside from Arabo-Andalusian music which was very appreciated by the well-off city dwellers, there started developing the sh‘ir al-malhun, a sung poetry with brilliantly written stanzas in dialectal Arabic and fabulously rich versification, adopted by the guilds of craftsmen who were prospering in the suburbs of the big cities of the Maghreb. In early 20th century Algeria, the malhun started to “turn rural” due to the contact of the timeless montonous chants of the Bedouins which, in turn, spread to the plains. Although in the mountains the Berber mark has remained intact, you cannot say the same thing about these large, sometimes semi-desert expanses which make up the agricultural lands and the high plateaus. Here, the Berber tribes, gradually Arabized, integrated the tunes brought by the Hilalians but played them with their own instruments: the gasba (reed flute of different sizes) and the guellal (a sort of long drum dug in an aloe trunk and covered on one side by camel hide). The poets, called fahsi-s (inversion of the word fasih, eloquent) would declaim their texts which were finely polished at the basfas (evenings in Oranese) during their visits to the bazaars or the festivities organized by the local authorities.

In 1906, some privileged ears gained access to the first sound recording made by the Sheikh Mohamed Senoussi, native of Mostaganem, a parent-city to numerous singer poets. Talented epigones were to rise and give the name gharbi , western, to their songs, although we can find a similar genre in the region going from Oujda to Taza in Morocco. In the beginning, they were only used as musical foils to the malhun but as more recordings were made, they freed themselves from the ancestral tutelage by reinventing another language. The gharbi is based on a dozen modes, most often named after their regions of origin (tiarti, mazouni… ) and is played in five different rhythms: the tenqar (slow, bringing to mind the steps of the camel), the hamza (a little more lively), the alaoui (very fast and generating a dance with fascinating figures), the guebli and the taoussi (the walk of the peacock).

In the 1930’s, the gharbi established itself as the style most appreciated by the “little” people, something that did not escape the attention of the recording houses (His Master’s Voice, Baïdaphon, Pathé, Polyphone, Philips, Dounia or Ducretet). The most popular sheikhs, under contract with these labels, recorded their singles in Algiers, Paris and even Berlin. The most famous were Hamada, El Khaldi, Ben Yakhlef, Bouras, El Madani, Abdelkader and Ben Achit and it should be stressed that although they would volontarily dress in traditional costumes (the turban and the gandoura), they were nevertheless city dwellers. We owe them texts which were already bearing shrewd and suggestive allusions, copied from Bedouin metrics, some of which were real masterpieces of poetry such as “Ya del Marsam” (The Refuge), “Goul el Bakhta, Goul” (Tell Bakhta, tell), “Ya el hammam” (the Moor Bath), “Biya dag el mour” (Times are becoming bitter for me), “Ana mahlali noum” (I do not appreciate sleep) or “Yamina” — and were to be sung again not only by the sheikhats but also by the followers of Asri (modern Algerian music of the 50’s to 60’s) or by the plugged Raï.

This music, which was not yet called Raï (the word itself showed up in numerous songs in order to compensate the hollowness of a sentence, to punctuate words or complete a title) but which was labelled as “Oranese folklore” on the jackets of the records, filled the childhood of Sheikha Remitti, who was hardly ten years old when the vocal echoes of the first ladies of Oranese song were resounding in impish and ribald tones. They were called Fatma Bent El Meddah (author of “Fatma, Fatma”), Kheira Guendil (“Sidi Boumediène” and “Ghir el Baroud”), Zohra Bent Ouda (“Khayef la Yedouk”) or Zohra Relizania (“Moula Baghdad”). Their repertory, a product of synthesis, united the prosodies of the meddahats (ladies’ groups singing the praise of Allah and the Prophet before an audience assembling only women) with tunes which freely used the rhymes of the sheikhs and turning more toward themes about their condition. The sheikhats had very bad press and many moralists would discredit them and accuse the colonial authorities of encouraging “this genre characterized by slackening morals and the moral degradation of the Algerian people… It has opened the doors of the radio wide in order to spread it and contaminate whatever purity was left in our people ; it has attacked weak souls by introducing it into nightclubs, popular celebrations and places of ill fame.” This violent diatribe, expressed by the Hachelaf brothers in their Anthology of Arabic Music (Publisud Editions) reflects, give or take a few flights of stereotyped language, what the well-to-do class of the era used to think, especially of the Zendanis (from the word zendan, cellar or warehouse), tavern songs, then also popular in the Algiers area. In his book on Moorish music, published in 1920, Jules Rouanet recalls these sort of quatrains or haikus which were used as the framework for a multitude of the sheikhats’ compositions: “Right at the bottom of the musical scale of the natives, in low regard of the virtuosos, are the zendanis. Among these small verses, some have a very shortlived existence, born today, from an incident on the street or a local event, gone tomorrow and replaced by some trendy refrain ; others are an instant public hit and remain there for new words. There are some that have become classics ; some, finally, are part of Maghrebin morals… This easy adaptation of the zendani to the musical sentiment and to the Maghrebin people’s need for songs has created an infinite number of these rudimentary melodies: they are most often used to accompany words of love, even homosexual love, for the complaints of the evicted or abandoned lovers ; they are also used for saucy stories, for words of orgy, for satires…”

It is true that in Maghrebin societies, the word singer was synonymous with being depraved and loss of status, but in the case of urbanized Bedouin songs, the male performer did not have to be ashamed of his status: his title of sheikh bestowed prestige, admiration and respect on him. On the other hand, the sheikha, although an object of secret delight because of her sulphurous cutting remarks, was considered a debauched person and a woman of easy virtue. By the force of circumstances and the ups and downs of their life, which was far from a bed of roses, it was to be the sheikhats, as stressed by Marie Virolle-Souibès in her book Ray, the women’s side, who would create “the most undisciplined and spontaneous part of Ray . The most exploited, even more berated because they were women (…), surely more iconclastic towards the canons of popular classical music which was more a man’s job, they had much to say, much to invent and little to lose in this new genre.” Moreover, by embarking on an artistic career, the sheikhats threw aside their real identity by giving themselves names or nicknames recalling the names of cities, neighbourhoods or physical characteristics. On the record jackets, they stayed anonymous and instead of their pictures, the producers placed exotic sceneries (fir trees on mountain slopes !) or some creature — usually a blond — cut out from a magazine. At performances, they would stay in the shadows, their face hidden under a small veil or litham, accompanied by their musicians and their berrah (crier).

As pointed out by the academic Hadj Miliani, “these sheikhats perform generally before male audiences and during the community celebrations which follow the harvests. Their marginal status on the social level and their disturbing insertion in musical culture which was, up to then, dedicated to repeating melodies and poetic texts, guarantees them a sulphurous notoriety.”

Remitti is undoubtedly the most transgressive of the sheikhats. She is also the one who founded the thematic bases of Raï as it is played today and the artisan of a “poetic” technique which relies on an inventory of words including the allusive sexual jargon of the red-light districts (especially the “village el-left” district of Sidi Bel-Abbès), the (drawling) tonic accent of the village idiom and the list of metaphors, double meanings and the clichés of the malhun.

The lady, who defines herself as a singer for the night set, lived through quite a difficult childhood. Orphaned at an early age, she settled down at the age of twenty in Relizane, a big agricultural centre, under the protection of the patron saint, Sidi M’hamed Ben Ouda. This city spread out on a plain is home to certain tribes that had participated in the struggle led by Emir Abdelkader against the French troops led by General Pélissier. It also used to be the natural habitat of some great sheikhs such as Belabbas and Mohamed Ouali (who had the famous Abdelkader Bouras as a student) and precursory sheikhats (Aïcha, Yamina or Zohra).

Materially speaking, as in all “colonial” centres in the 30’s, the situation was becoming more and more difficult for the less wealthy people. “We used grilled wheat grains instead of coffee which we drank with syrup. Those were the times when you would dress up in sheets, when food was rationed and when the gold Louis was equal to ten francs”, Remitti recounted with emotion to Bouziane Daoudi of the French newspaper Libération. She added: “When the sirens started ringing, we would run for the vineyards and hide in the holes.” During this period she went from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, slept in the hammams. “It was as if I was possessed, I would sometimes go and rest in the sanctuaries”, she recalled. Sometimes she would work as a maid for the French in exhange for a bed and money. Then came the Second World War and its lot of misery, food shortages and complete confusion. In those times of great uncertainty, Remitti hung on to a group of Hmdachi musicians with whom she still lived the same wild life. Protected, nourished and (hardly) paid, she considered changing her role of dancer to singer-composer. At that exact moment horrible epidemics befell the country, (which Albert Camus recounts in The Plague, his book which takes place in Oran) emphasizing the daily squalor and Remitti was to take inspiration from this spectacle of desolation to improvise her first verses. All her future repertory was to be marked by this real-life experience. “Misfortune has been my teacher. The songs start running through my head and I memorize them by heart. No need for a pen and paper”, she likes to repeat.

Her encounter with the already famous Sheikh Mahamed Ould Ennems, whom she describes as the “champion of the gasba” was to be the determining factor. He introduced her to the artistic milieu by making her do a recording on Radio Algiers. But, as she insists, the first time she was noticed was during one of those numerous ceremonies — where men and women mingled together — which she enjoyed in Sidi Abed, near Oued Rhiou. Immortalized in a song by Sheikh Hamada, the rather unorthodox festivities of Sidi Abed would take place inside tents, each proposing a different artist — known or debutant — and the public would pay between 10 and 20 douros (50 centimes and 1 French franc) to watch the show. Remitti’s voice caught the attention of a lady who offered to present her to a Frenchman who recorded the sheikhs. Moreover, Remitti’s nickname originates from a botched ceremonial in Sidi Abed. On that day, torrential rain prevented the performance. While the French military men were putting down the tents, Remitti, accompanied by her musicians and the sheikhs Hamada and Bouras, took refuge in a “canteen” to drink a coffee. Upon seeing and recognizing her, the clientele welcomed her with enthusiasm. Flattered, she offered a round of drinks, but not knowing any French, she partly remembered a song which she used to sing: “Another round (“remettez” in French) of shandy, lady” and started humming it to the barmaid. The clientele started chanting “Remitti, the singer Remitti !” Ever since, she carries this nickname like a banner and it is under the name of Sheikha Remettez Reliziania that in 1952, Pathé produced the wax disk comprising three songs: “Gasmou Tiaret”, “Trig Tmouchent” and “Er-raï Er-raï”. She is accompanied on the gasba and the guellal by Habib and El Menouer. But it was only in 1954 that she had her first national success with “Charrag Gattaa” (Pathé) in which many would see an all-out attack against the taboo subject of virginity. Four years later, “El-hmam” and “Debri Debri” (Dounia) definitively established the proud descendant of the Berber tribe of Charguis as the absolute reference. A myth amongst all myths, people fight over her to liven up wedding and circumcision parties.

It should be pointed out that Remitti, an unwilling feminist, has sung about the difficulties of being a woman and introduced in detail the notion of carnal pleasure since the beginning of the 1940’s and 50’s. But her thematic range does not stop there. As a tremendously prolific author, she has explored all forms of love, sung the praises of friendship, tried to explain how people can drown themselves in alcohol, deplored the obligation of immigration and berated the moralists. She has also known how to describe the life of nomads and transhumants. No subject escapes the wisdom of the sheikha, including modern tools (the telephone and express trains). Love, bread and fantasy, spiritual praise of spirits. Her songs, for those of us who know how to decipher the refrains and to appreciate her half cheeky, half vehement tone, teach us about the attraction of women to light. Through her audacity dipped in humour or vitriol, Remitti has shocked more than one puritan soul. She, who dared to sing an ode to Emir Abdelkader in Jewish cafés right in the middle of the war for liberation, was going to become subject to the thunders of the National Liberation Front’s censorship upon independence. The El Moujahid daily did not stop attacking this “folklore perverted by colonialism”, without naming her in person.

Today, in her seventies, proclaiming herself the “Oum Kalthoum” of Algeria, Remitti is only half satisfied with this international consecration. In her own country ravaged by violence, she is still banned from performing on television and the stages. She grumbles mostly about the cheb-s who have used her material without due credit: “These singers who throw their songs like kleenex are hurting us. They trot out what we have sung before them. But the sieve will seperate the chaff from the wheat”, she confided to Libération. Recently, for a change, she recorded a Rock-Raï record under the guidance of Robert Fripp. The Hadja (pilgrimage to Mecca in 1976) who had performed a first time in France in 1979, goes back regularly to Oran where she keeps house during the summer. She no longer drinks or smokes and still lives in a modest hotel room in the 18th district of Paris. A bit bitter, she nevertheless takes note that “the other sheikhats, their faces have lost life, but the candle in me is still burning after so many years of singing”. Rediscovered by a new generation, Remitti, very impressive on stage as was the case during her performance in the Arab World Institute in February 1994, may be perceived as a visionary. Her songs, pounded since nearly half a century, have never been so close to the immediate reality of the history of the Algeria of the 90’s, the years of living dangerously. Especially for women for whom Remitti has been the most audacious and lucid speaker.

Rabah Mezouane, translated by Mona Khazindar

  • Reference : 321.008
  • Ean : 794 881 602 728
  • Main artist : Cheikha Remitti (الشيخة ريميتي)
  • Year of recording : 1994
  • Year of publishing : 1999
  • Music style: Raï
  • Country : Algeria
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Cheikha Remitti
  • Lyricists : Cheikha Remitti
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe