Thursday, May 25, 2006

Cheikha Rimitti, R.I.P.

Two of my favorite Middle Eastern artists pass away within 8 days of each other! Cheikha Rimitti died of a heart attack in Paris at the age of 83 on May 15. She was a performer right to the end; she had just performed in Paris two days before she died. Rimitti was one of the great cheikhas of modern rai, releasing her first recording in 1952, but it was her 1954 release, "Charrak, Gattaa," that made her renowned, and infamous, throughout Algeria. The song was considered by some to be an attack on the preservation of female virginity. After independence, her music was banned by the NLF from the airwaves, because of its vulgarity.

Rimitti had a reputation for bawdiness, and her name reportedly came from her habit of demanding more drinks: "Remettez!"--"Give me another." Cheikha Give Me Another Drink. Her reputation for excess should not be exxagerated, as it is all too often in publicity about rai. After an accident in 1971, Rimitti gave up drinking and smoking, and went on hajj in 1976. I even have a cassette, purchased in Paris' Barbès district, which she recorded under the name Hajja Rimitti.

Rimitti recorded in the traditional cheikha style of Oran, singing typically to the backing of the gasba (read flute), guellal (a small metallic drum) and a rebaba (one stringed violin). After "pop rai" blew up, first in Algeria by the late seventies, and then on the world music market by the late eighties, Rimitti began recording with the type of electric backing typical of contemporary rai. A failed experiment, in my opinion, was Sidi Mansour (1994, with Robert Fripp and Flea). I find her electronic recording Nouar (2000) much more compelling. I've only listened to her just released N'ta Goudami a couple times, and I rather prefer Nouar. You can listen to all of N'ta Goudami and several cuts from Nouar and Sidi Mansour if you go to Cheikha Rimitti's official website and go to "Discotheques." I prefer Rimitti's traditional, unplugged recordings, but all of her recordings feature her deep, amazing, scorched voice.

If you want to see what Rimitti was like in performance, check out her performance at the Kennedy Center in July 2002 (you have to scroll down a ways, and then when you open the file, the Rimitti segment starts at about 51 minutes). Remember that she was 79 years old at this performance. The band vamps a bit too much, but the belly dancer who shows up for some of the songs is a real treat.

We'll miss you, Rimitti.

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