Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sheikha Rimitti: Pioneer of Algerian Women’s Rai

Rai music
Young girls wave the Algerian flag 18 July 1998 during the performance of Faudel, a rai singer of Algerian origins, in the “Francofolies” music festival in La Rochelle, western France. Photo: (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP

The proletariat Sheikha, whose freedom was extravagant

Youssef Sharqawi

Until this day, we witness the appearance of male and female Chebs (young) in Algeria that is famous for its Rai music, which is a title that emerged in the 1980s, replacing sheik or sheikha (old). Rai is a type of traditional folk singing, and it means the path of vision, goal, or plan. Rai also includes the word idea.

Sheikh Senhaji, one of the Rai pioneers, describes Rai saying: (When you say this is your Rai, this means he had an opinion). Mustafa Ramdhani, a professor of popular culture, refers it to what is called Ghiwane. Ghiwans are singing phrases separated from each other.

It has other sources, such as the term Zare’ah – Plantation, which means planting verses. When someone wants to sing a specific song, he (plants a verse) without connecting the previous verse with the next one.

Rai originated from a rhythm called Reggada. This rhythm is a form of dance in western Algeria and the eastern region of Morocco.

While musician Hamida says that when we talk about the first days of Rai, we should not talk about its music but about its words, which specifically are Malhun poetry, and this poetry includes certain Sufism, which means that there is a prophecy behind all of this. After that, Rai was a melody that frames a text expressing pain, suffering, or joy. Its language simulates people as if the singer is acting on their behalf in what they want to say to express themselves.

A poor singer named Saadia Badeif came from a nearby village to Oran in Algeria to be called Sheikha Rimitti. The name tells us how much this woman broke in the heart of the traditionally conservative society.

The proletariat singer was a drifter, moving from a village to another in night bars and rural celebrations. At the age of 15, she worked in very simple professions. She says: I used to collect figs, and sometimes olives and wheat spikes. But that did not last long, as in the 1950’s she got acquainted with Sheikh Mohamed Ould Al-Nems, who composed her first work, Hak el-Sarrah, Hak. This song is the first erotic song in the Bedouin song tradition.

The sheikha rooted her feet deeply in a land that will carry her to women’s issues and concerns. She sang songs that broke taboos and addressed the relationship between men and women, the intimate relationship, the body, and the wine. This approach prevented her from recording on the Algerian radio. Nevertheless, Sheika sang for the Algerian resistance. She illustrated with her songs the revolution and the fighters of the mountains. About her song (Real man fights, but false man sells his brother), she says: (The National Liberation Front and the National Liberation Army did not have to inform me of the need to join the revolution. Since its outbreak, I started singing for a free and independent Algeria. The choice of armed resistance was a principle. We also followed seriously and enthusiastically the patriotic discourses of Messali Hadj at the time. That era influenced the writings of Sheikh Madani. I also remember that Sheikha Khaira Qandil preceded me in my endeavor to confront the colonial power and sing for Algeria;) this was in defense of herself against being stigmatized by the Liberation Front as a lewd, and accusing her of indifference to joining the ranks of the revolution.

After releasing her second album Charak Gataa in 1954, the Sheikha was banned from 1962 until her death from singing in Algeria. Moreover, authorities banned her from attending public concerts. Some considered Charak Gataa as a statement of moral decay and dissolution of the values of Algerian society.

“Let everything tear out.
All I want is to gather with each other until we die.
I only want food. After getting it, let me die.
Oh Tassi, Tassi
More drinks feed ecstasy.
Let things go where they want to.
Give me Tenstar (drugs), give me rosé.
With the help of the liquor maker, I will become dull.
I want to eat; I do not feel well.
I want to drink until I fell unconscious.
Let everything tear out.”

Never before has an Arab female singer broke all stereotypes to shed light on women described as submissive. Sheikha Remitti was a singer who sang about wine, physical pleasure, madness, and wounds. Thus, the singer, whom Al Hurriya newspaper described as underappreciated in her home country, was due to her extravagant freedom.

It is an odd contradiction of the Arab society that praises Al-Zeir Salem that sneaks to water lakes to snoop on women and drinks wine day and night. It is a society that loves the poet Abu Nuwas because he sang for wine, women, body, and sex. Nevertheless, as soon as this society notices a woman who dares to sing her pain and her desire to get drunk (pour me another to fuel my head), it will deprive her of her most basic legitimate rights. Ironically, this society will describe her freedom as extravagant. The woman who gained her title in a bar that embraced her beginnings, Saadia, whenever she emptied her cup, asked the waiter to pour her again. She would say Remettez (pour more), and this is what gave her the title of Remettez until she became Sheikha Rimitti.

The career of sheikha Rimitti did not end here as she traveled to France in the 1970s. Her concerts followed in Europe, Africa, and America, leaving no less than two hundred songs from the springs of Rai. These songs carry her famous saying: “I am dark and strong, and I bring dinner from the ordeal,” until she passed away after a party she set it up in Paris with Cheb Khaled, Cheb Abdo, and Cheb Khalas in 2006.


[1] Al-Rai from Genesis to Globalism, Al-Jazeera Documentary (Arabic).
[2] The History of Rai Music, Mazen Mansour, Al-Hiwar Al-Motamaden (Arabic).
[3] Rai Music from Oran to being Global, Ghassan Kharroub, Al-Bayan (Arabic).
[4] The Rai Song: A Biography and A March That Started from A Virgin Land, Khalifa Fahim (Arabic).
[5] The Rai Song: From being Marginal to Years of Amazement and Confusion, Ahmed Ayashi, Al-Hayat (Arabic).
[6] Sheikha Rimitti: Mother of al-Rai and Poet of Senses, Saeed Khatibi, Al-Akhbar (Arabic).


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