On Saturday, June 30, 2001, history was made at New York’s Central Park Summerstage when 78-year-old Cheikha Rimitti made her North American debut. It seems almost inconceivable, but the original singer of Algerian rai music, one of the musical treasures of the world, had never performed in the U.S. before. The fact became that much more incomprehensible when the lucky crowd gathered that sunny day heard Rimitti’s powerful, punchy band, and heard her still more powerful voice—truly a force of nature. For nearly two hours, Rimitti flirted with the hot sun, shimmying across the stage, shaking her shoulders and booming out one fantastic rai meditation after another. She was devastatingly good, and left the audience howling with joy and admiration.
Afropop Worldwide had mounted a determined effort to interview the venerable Queen of Rai. The night before, a scheduled hotel meeting was cancelled at the last minute. Rimitti showed up early for sound check and vanished before we arrived for the rescheduled appointment. Things did not look good when she vanished into her trailer after the show, leaving nervous, whispering handlers to fend off would-be interviewers. But persistence and patience paid off, and nearly an hour after she left the stage, Rimitti received Afropop’s Banning Eyre in her trailer and gave what we believe to be the one and only interview of her brief American sojourn. Laying back resplendent and aglow in a comfortable couch, she seemed anything but the taciturn, press-hostile diva we had been warned about. But then, we were catching her at an exceptional moment. Here is the text of our brief, historic interview in its entirety.
Banning Eyre: Rimitti, congratulations! After all these years, you have finally played in the United States, in New York. How does it feel?
Cheikha Rimitti: After the second world war, there had been big problems in Algeria, and when the Americans arrived there, they brought good will and happiness. The Americans helped us at this time, and ever since then, I’ve remembered that Americans are friends of Algeria. Since then, I have always wanted to come and sing in America, to thank them. Now, it’s fifty-six years later. I’ve been thinking of this for fifty-six years. And it has been my idea for all these years to come one day to America to return the happiness that Americans brought to us in Algeria.
B.E.: I had the impression watching the show this afternoon that you became younger and younger as it went on. There came a point when I thought I was seeing the young girl you were when you started in Oran in the 1930s. How have you held on to that youthful spirit for all these years?
Rimitti: It’s psychological. It’s true that when I am on stage, I always want to bring happiness to the people listening. This is why I summon all my courage and think about fifty or sixty years in the past, to rediscover that young spirit, the old tenacity on the stage. Even for me, I become young in order to transmit that to the people before me. I’m have to draw up that courage before myself, to encourage the public, and my group, the musicians, and myself, so that everything happens the way it should. It’s something very powerful that I can’t really explain. When I’m on stage, I don’t cheat. I give everything I have in my soul and my spirit.
B.E. :For we Americans, it’s just about impossible to imagine the world in which you began your career in the 1930s. What can you tell us to help us understand or visualize that world a little?
Rimitti: My situation was one of great poverty and difficulty. I grew up as an orphan. My mother and father had died. When I was sixteen, I was poor. I was in misery. I was obliged to go to weddings and parties to learn to sing, and at the same time, when I sung, people gave me food to eat. Misery was like a school for me. It taught me my trade. The proof is that when Americans came to Algeria, they brought us joy; they brought us food, and then through this difficulty, I had become a singer and I was happy. Through sadness, I had become a singer and that could give me food to eat and a life. God helped me to learn this trade, to perform, to record, to do weddings and big parties during the time of French colonialization. And now, at this time, I am very happy, because I have a lot of children. I work for thirty-six people, my children, and the children of my children. I am very happy with this situation. God has helped me.
I sang all the subjects back then. I sang about misery. I sang about love. I sang about the condition of women. I sang about ordinary life, concrete things. I sang the life I had seen, my own history.
B.E.: Rai music has a reputation as a music of social rebellion. Did you think of it that way back in the beginning?
Rimitti: I divide my career into three periods: the period of 78 records, the period of 45s, and the period of cassettes. Throughout all these periods, I have always sung the ordinary problems of life, social problems, yes, rebellion. The problems I saw were common problems, ever since the age of fifteen or sixteen. I still haven’t got it all out. It’s a matter of observing and reflecting. 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.
I will add one more period of my life, when I emigrated to France in 1978. That’s already 23 years ago. Once I moved to France, I discovered other problems. For example, I had been singing for about fifty years, but there were other artists who took my songs—for example Cheb Khaled, Zahouania, Fadela and others—they took my songs and exploited them without giving me my due. They profited from my texts, and little by little, about seven years ago, after I begun working with Gafaïti, I changed my style. In 1994, I begun my new repertoire, my new period.
B.E.: That’s when you recorded Sidi Mansour, with Frank Zappa’s horn section and Robert Fripp and all that.
Rimitti: That’s right. On that record, I established a new picture of my possibilities, my artistic capacity. I recorded my voice in Paris, but all the instruments were recorded in Los Angeles. At the time, I worked an Algerian producer named Talbi. He recorded my voice in Paris and did the mix in Los Angeles. The only problem was that I never saw my musicians. I wanted to have their addresses and phone numbers. I wanted to be in contact with them because these were musicians I had worked with but never seen. On that album, I was also exploited, and that’s why I now prefer to work with Gafaïti, in France, in Paris. We made Nouar there. It’s very modern, but with the legitimacy of rai music from my homeland.
B.E.: It’s a great record.
Rimitti: I think it’s because of the work we did on that album, that now Cheikha Rimitti and her group are now playing around the entire world. Now we’ve even arrived in the United States. But I think that first album Sidi Mansour opened the door. It introduced me, and that’s why I want to send those musicians a kiss to thank them. But up to this moment, I don’t know them. I was hoping that they might come here today to meet me.
B.E.: Well, you have to come back and go to Los Angeles.
Rimitti: If you ever have the chance to meet these musicians, you must send them my appreciation. Cheikha Rimitti greets them. It’s good music. If only I had got to know them. These Americans brought me good luck, but I’ve never met them.
B.E.: Is it possible for you to play in Algeria now?
Rimitti: If God wills it. If the situation becomes calm, I will give a gift to Algeria. I will go and sing there for free.
B.E.: How long has it been since you sang there?
Rimitti: Since 1978. Since I left. I have gone back for vacations, but not to perform. Algeria is my mother. France is also my mother. But I do hope to sing in Algeria again. I pray to God that the country finds peace and tranquility.
B.E.: In sha’Allah!
Rimitti: Ah, this American! I like the United States.
B.E.: We like you too. Please come back.
Rimitti: God is fair, because I’ve wanted to come and sing in American for fifty-six years, and today, it has happened.
Cheikha Rimitti died on May 15, 2006. She never returned to the United States after this interview.