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The unrivaled queen of Algerian rai music, Cheikha Rimitti was one of the most beloved and controversial singers of the Islamic world, challenging deeply ingrained notions of sex, politics, and femininity with such candor and ferocity that she was ultimately forced into exile. Born May 8, 1923, in the western Algerian countryside of Tessaa, she was orphaned as an infant and given the name Saadia, spending her adolescence working as a domestic. At age 15, she joined a troupe of traveling musicians known as the Hamadachis and became an accomplished dancer. In time Saadia became a singer (or "cheikha") as well, and though illiterate, she possessed a remarkable gift for wordplay, updating traditional Algerian folk songs with contemporary dialogue and slang. Sometime during World War II, she began billing herself as Cheikha Rimitti, adapting the surname from a conversation with a French bartender during which she proved unable to pronounce the word "remetezz." As Rimitti's fame grew, so did her notoriety. Her songs captured in vivid detail the struggles faced by Algerian women, with a recurring theme of escape by any means necessary, whether emigration, drinking, or sex. In 1952 Rimitti signed to the Pathe Marconi label to cut her debut single, "Er-Raï Er-Raï," and quickly emerged as a superstar. With the 1954 release of "Charrak Gattà," she became a lightning rod for controversy throughout North Africa for openly advocating sexual liberation and encouraging young women to lose their virginity.
When Algeria's first independent government ascended to power in 1962, Rimitti's songs were denounced as "folklore perverted by colonialism," and she was banned from appearing on television and radio. The censorship forced her to relocate to France, where she continued writing and recording to the delight of the fast-growing Algerian immigrant culture. During a brief Algerian tour in 1971, Rimitti was critically injured in an automobile crash that killed three of her backing musicians. The experience resulted in a 1975 pilgrimage to Mecca, after which she abandoned cigarettes and alcohol but continued her musical career. By the 1980s rai was the music of choice for a new generation of disenfranchised Algerians, and Rimitti was hailed as "La Mamie du Rai" — that is, the mother of modern Algerian pop. As artists including Cheb Khaled and Rachid Taha covered her classic compositions, Rimitti's international profile grew exponentially, and she toured as far as Japan and Canada, in 1994 teaming with producer Robert Fripp for the LP Sidi Mansour, widely cited as a watershed in rai's creative evolution. In the summer of 2001, she made her U.S. debut at New York City's Central Park Summerstage, and in 2005 made her first trip back to Algeria in more than a quarter century to record the acclaimed N'ta Goudami. Just two days after performing a sold-out Paris date, Rimitti died of a sudden heart attack on May 15, 2006; she'd celebrated her 83rd birthday a week earlier.