Cheikha Rimitti: Musician for the People

Born in the village of Tessala in Western Algeria on 8 May 1923, Saadia El Ghizania later came to be known as Cheikha Rimitti and was referred to as the mother and grandmother of Algerian wahrani and raï music. With a career that started as a teenager, Cheika Rimitti performed to an audience of thousands in Paris just two days before her death at the age of 83 on 15 May 2006. During her career she had built an international reputation for her style of singing and controversial lyrics addressing social problems, and had recorded hundreds of cassettes, singles, vinyl albums and CDs.

Named Saadia (meaning Joyful) at birth, Cheikha Rimitti was orphaned at a young age and had to fend for herself in a world that was less than kind. She was 15 years old when she learned to dance and sing with a group of Algerian musicians, and soon found she had a talent for writing her own songs. Her life experiences were later reflected in the lyrics of her songs that told of everyday hardships, alcohol abuse and the realities of a world at war, but also told of the joys of friendship and (quite shockingly at the time) of the pleasures of love and love-making. While traditionally, candid songs about love and lust were sung by Algerian women for occasions such as wedding celebrations, this was always done in private settings and was not subject matter for open society. By means of her own songwriting, and using street slang and real-life situations, Cheikha Rimitti’s lyrics brought these previously taboo topics out into the open and found a wide and accepting audience.

While her talent for singing and songwriting became known in Algeria by word of mouth, it was during World War II that Cheikha Rimitti made her first radio broadcasts from Algiers, under the patronage of Algerian musician Cheikh Mohammed Ould Ennems. In 1952, she made her first three-track record Cheikha Remettez Reliziana, one of the tracks being the famous Er-Raï Er-Raï. She later recorded Charrak Gattà, encouraging young women to lose their virginity. It became both famous and infamous, as fans praised it, but Muslim orthodoxy condemned it. During the Algerian War of Independence she was criticized by nationalist forces fighting against French rule, and upon independence in 1962, the Algerian government banned her music from public broadcasting for having been played when the French were in control.

While always seen as a controversial figure, the music of Cheikha Rimitti continued to be very popular with working class people. She was seriously injured in a car crash in Algeria in 1971, in which three of her musicians were killed. Fortunately, she made a full recovery, and in the 1980s she moved to Paris, but never forgot her Algerian fans. In the 1990s Algerian raï gained popularity in the west and Cheikha Rimitti performed at concerts around the world, collaborating with international musicians. Algerian singer Rachid Taha dedicated a song to her, and raï singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Khaled performed a cover version of her song The Camel. Although she had been banned from broadcasting in Algeria, Cheikha Rimitti’s final album, N’ta Goudami was recorded at the Boussif Studios in Oran – the birthplace of raï music more than a century ago.