Chiekha Rimitti, RIP


Chiekha Rimitti, one of the pioneers of Algeria's rai music, has died in Paris at age 83. According to The New York Times' obit,

North Africa has a tradition of bawdy wedding songs, performed by and for women. Cheikha Rimitti began to sing them for mixed audiences in public. She also wrote songs about social conditions, including, in the 1940's, the harshness of French colonial rule and the epidemics that ravaged Algeria. She wrote about rough lives and about the temporary diversions of sex and alcohol…in 1954 she caused a controversy with a song called "Charrag Gataa" ("Tear, Lacerate"), which was taken as an attack on the virtue of female virginity. "He crushes, whips and beats me," she sang. "I say that I'm going away, but I still spend the night."

Even after the Algerian government banned her songs from radio and TV in the '60s, the Times notes, Rimitti "continued to perform at private gatherings, as rai music circulated on underground cassettes."

Chuck Freund wrote about rai in Reason back in 2002, pointing out that it

was a major front in the confrontation between Algerian Islamism and the secular forces it sought to overcome. What is rai? The style is at least a century old and has deep folkloric roots, but it is the late, vulgarized form that is at issue. Rod Skilbeck, one of many academics who have studied it, asserts that in its modern form rai has developed into a kind of Algerian blues, "singing of alienation, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and forbidden sexual desires. Hedonism, existentialism, suffering, and total inaction became major structural elements." Despite the fact that it often serves as "background" music, its content has increasingly reflected the worldly, urban concerns of its listeners.

The "rai war" erupted in earnest in the wake of the 1990 elections, when Islamists came to power in many cities. Among their first acts was to close nightclubs, prohibit alcohol, and ban rai. Some Islamists would stone rai fans when they attempted to stage concerts. In 1991 fundamentalists tried to burn down a crowded hall during a performance. In 1994 a leading Berber singer was kidnapped by Islamists; he was reportedly "tried" on religious grounds and then released. After [singer Cheb] Hasni's murder that year, many rai singers emigrated to France….

But if democratic values are stymied in the political sphere, they remain alive culturally. Algerian rai is a vulgar form by elite standards, one that addresses "low" subjects of sexual desire through a "base" model of popular celebrity. It is diffused by way of cheap and widely available consumer electronics and is a potential means for the gradual reordering of the society around the music.