Sunday, June 04, 2006

Another Cheikha Rimitti Obituary

From the Los Angeles Times
Cheikha Rimitti, 83; Algerian Singer, `Mother of Rai'
By Jocelyn Y. Stewart
Times Staff Writer

June 4, 2006

In the 1930s no respectable Algerian woman dared to make music about sexual pleasure, alcohol consumption, poverty, oppression.

Cheikha Rimitti sang anyway.

The artist, whose pioneering recordings inspired younger generations in her homeland and around the world and earned her the title of "mother of rai," the Algerian music of dissent, died of a heart attack May 15 in Paris. She was 83.

"I don't know that the world has anyone ready to step into those shoes," said Leigh Ann Hahn, director of programming for Grand Performances and a longtime fan, who helped bring Rimitti to Los Angeles for a historic performance. "It's a huge, huge loss."

Just last month Rimitti, who was still performing concerts in Europe, released a new recording, N'ta Goudami ("Face Me").

Rimitti began singing as a means of surviving. Born Saadia Bediaf near Sidi Bel Abbes in Algeria on May 8, 1923, Rimitti was orphaned at an early age and struggled for daily existence. When she sang at weddings and parties as a youth, "people gave me food to eat."

"Misery was like a school for me," Rimitti said in a 2001 interview with Afropop Worldwide, a radio program and website dedicated to African pop music. "It taught me my trade."

At 20, Rimitti joined a group of musicians who sang at religious festivals, weddings, births and other rites. Her predecessors included early rai singer Cheikha Tetma.

Cheikha is a title given to female rai singers, who in the early days of rai were regarded as outcasts and often took on nicknames or stage names.

In Arabic the word rai means "opinion" or "way of seeing." In its early form, the music was rooted in the concerns of everyday people — the joys, the pains, the unspeakable. It was dance music, sung in the language of the streets.

Nourredine Gafaiti, Rimitti's most recent producer, called the music "as happy as funk" and "as deep as the blues." It is both hopeful and melancholy, Gafaiti said in a biography of Rimitti posted on the singer's official website.

Algeria was a colony of France when Rimitti began singing. Her first recorded hit, "Charrak Gatta" ("Tear, Lacerate"), was released in 1954, the year the Algerian War of Independence began.

The song has been described as an attack on the virtue of virginity and an invitation for women in the Muslim nation to rethink their views on morality. Her signature husky voice led later observers to describe her music as earthy, raw and bold.

"It's a matter of observing and reflecting," Rimitti said in a 2001 interview with Afropop Worldwide.

"Rai music has always been a music of rebellion, a music that looks ahead. At that time, it was even more so, with just the flute and the tam-tam," a type of gong.

But in the new Algeria there was little tolerance for the bold or the brash. The religious considered her immoral. The revolutionaries considered her anti-revolutionary and apolitical. In the 1960s the new government banned Rimitti and other rai artists from performing on the radio, relegating the music to private parties and black-market cassette tapes.

In 1978, she moved to France, but her heart — and her musical legacy — remained in Algeria. Years later, rai would experience renewed popularity and Rimitti complained that younger artists took her songs and "exploited them without giving me my due."

In 1994 Rimitti collaborated with Flea, bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Robert Fripp on the album "Sidi Mansour." The musicians recorded in Los Angeles, while Rimitti recorded vocals in Paris. The collaboration, she later said, opened the door to realizing her long-held dream of performing in the United States.

By the time Rimitti performed in the U.S. in 2001, she was 78, but she was still vibrant and innovating. The next year she performed at California Plaza in downtown Los Angeles as part of a Grand Performances lineup of world music artists.

Many who attended the performance were local fans who had never had an opportunity to see Rimitti perform live. Others there were open to exploring Arabic "cultural tradition in order to be able to take a different look or perspective on the global community" in the aftermath of 9/11, Hahn said.

Times writer Lynell George described Rimitti striding out "in a dress as white and elaborate as a wedding cake. A sparkling tiara rests atop her long blue-black tresses."

"Suddenly turning, arms close to body, gold-slippered feet shuffling like a moving hieroglyph, she makes two passes across the stage before a ragged voice curls out from somewhere way, way low — a map, a road, a history unscrolling," George wrote.

Over the years, even as the times changed, the bold, raw flavor of her lyrics remained.

"I sang the life I had seen, my own history," Rimitti said.

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