Music as representation of gender in
Venice 11-13 July 1998
The Role of Women Raï Music
Translated from the French by Rachid Aadnani and Michael Toler
Being a Woman and a Singer
In Maghrebi society a musical vocation, whether for men or for women, is often lived as a transgression, but the title "singer," or "master" incites respect and is appreciated by the layman, while its feminine counterpart, even for those who appreciate the talent of the ones who bear it signifies social ostracism and evokes a hellish existence.
For the Algerian west, it is the whole universe of Raï and the sheikhat of Oran and the region south of Oran that make itself felt. Although it is laden with anathema, and associated with low social status and debauchery by those who are not from Oran, Raï by women is an integral part of the local popular culture and indissociable from certain social rituals. It has existed for nearly a half-century during which certain traditional aspects have gained attention through the national and international success of some cheb and chebbat of electric Raï.
The Inaccessible ones
Oran, Sidi Bel-Abbes, Mascara, Ghelizane, Ain Temouchent, and Saida are birthplaces, adopted cities, or cultural heritage sites for the sheikhat. A sheikha does not bear her family name; she sheds it upon entering the public domain and crossing the limits of the horma. She is called by a given name, sometimes followed by a nickname, and/or the place where she works. Rahma el Abassya (Rahma of Belabas), Hab Lahmeur (The Red Buttons), Keltoum el Balini, (Keltoum of the Balini [quarter]), Habiba el Kebira (Habiba the elder), Habiba Sghira (Habiba the Younger), Rimitti el Ghelizanya (Rimitti of Ghelizane), etc. When necessary to distinguish, particles can be strung on in order to not confuse sheikha Djinya el Kebira el Haqqanya bent Saida (Djinya the elder, the true daughter of Saida) with sheikha Djinya el Mascarya (Djinya of Mascar).
With the exception of Rimitti, the most transgressive and the most famous of them, these artists are never pictured on the jackets of their disks and cassettes. They are replaced by an alluring image, always new, of a model from a magazine or a "kitsch" post card. Bait for erotic dreams or the last bastion of respectability? When they appear in person they are often veiled in muslin. They arrive out of nowhere and leave again into the night, surrounded by "their men": the "crier" and those who play the gellal and the flute. It is not unusual that a sheikha is the wife or mistress of one of these artists. Inaccessible.
Thus is created and reproduced, by word of mouth and enhanced by rumors and fantasy, the myth of their presumably tumultuous lives, their hardships and their incessant flirtations with marginality: divorce, legal difficulties, bloody fights at the parties, police raids on the private homes where they perform, accusations of prostitution in the places they frequent, imprisonment of certain friends; all episodes which appear as elusive traces in the songs. Everyone finds in them something to relate to his/her own distress and, under the paroxysm, tendencies of daily life.
The world of the meddahat is less turbulent. The fact that they sing in the feminine milieu shields them from certain charges. But this job, occupied only by women, most often women without husbands or male protectors, does not allow for the cultural recognition that would protect them from obscurity. The earnings, concentrated around the season of marriages and the evenings of Ramadan, are precarious. Moreover, the competition between and inside groups is intense. The financial obligations and the psychological pressures on the me allma, leader of the groups, are often very strong.
The miseries of life
It is a world of violence, precariousness, marginality, for most a perpetuation, in another form, of the miseries endured during childhood, an insufficient response to the need to find a place in a society that is hard on helpless women: those who have "cold shoulders" as the songs say. , While respecting the anonymity to which they are so attached, let us consider some of the lives of these women, rejected and marginalized, dream as much as any others of respectability. All of them express a desire to make the redeeming pilgrimage to Mecca, to marry well, to establish themselves and to forget the past.
One singer was born into a very poor family. Her handicapped father drove a cart "transporting the goods of others." When he died her mother remarried and it was hell for the orphan. She left the house at the age of eighteen and found herself pregnant and unmarried. She met a singer who adopted her child and she entered the world of arts, singing at weddings, and in cabarets. She divorced and married a berrah by whom she had four children; they still sing together.
Another is the daughter of a prostitute, an existence where only the resourceful can survive. She experienced great poverty in which "we had to search to find something to eat or a place to sleep." She has a lovely voice and met some people who brought her to sing at the age of sixteen.
Yet another singer, who was married to a man who was "very harsh and violent," was cloistered by him and swore that when he died she would "sing in front of men." Widowed with two young daughters to support, she began to sing to survive and never remarried.
One was a shepherdess. Orphaned very young, she wandered the roads and streets, sleeping "in other people's places." She was noticed for her singing at a business party, began her career, marrying a flutist and having six children by him, all while continuing to sing because she wanted to do so.
Another sheikhat, from a poor family, found herself widowed at the age of twenty. Her father had also just died. Without hope and with a son who was still a baby, she began to sing in an ensemble of meddahat, then she met a flutist and set off with him on a career as a sheikhat. She never remarried.
In these biographies the need to survive and a love of music are intertwined. They tell of the formation of artistic couples, (the most famous of which is that of Cheba Fadéla and Cheb Sahraoui who sing in a duo and who separate from their young son as seldom as possible), and the lives of mothers who try to strike a balance in their lives on the road. Perhaps in order to find what attracts these singers to a situation that weighs so heavily on them, we must look at some of the finer aspects of this art.
Practicing an art
The Raï of the sheikhat is a song created for libations on hot summer nights under the stars in the countryside around Oran. Leaning against the surrounding wall of a farm where a wedding night is consummated, the singer, accompanied by her musicians and "crier," tortures a microphone with her "Jazzy" voice, a generator hums, bulbs sparkle, and gunpowder explodes in bouquets of sparks toward the sky. The men of the family and the neighborhood as well as friends young and old, arrive in cars, on motorcycles and tractors to stretch out on the still warm earth, under the arch of the sky, allowing the alcohol to course through their veins along with the lamentations, love, pain and nostalgia; a bottle circulates, filled with the sap of the earth that their sweat has watered; words circulate, carrying heart-felt thoughts from tormented lives. Dedications are made: friendly, comic, aggressive, allusive, affirming and reforming alliances. Bank notes are exchanged, put forward in request of songs, reaffirming intentions, materializing the ambient prosperity, as well as distinguishing, then, reformulating the individual and the group. The plaintiff song is, thus, a work of complicity, of intimate ritual: each yraima is a sort of welcoming family for the singer who pours out her Raï rocking that of the others to sleep.
In the women's gatherings that the meddahat animates, the passive nonchalance of the assembled drinkers is replaced, with a frenzy: the women become intoxicated on dance, stimulate themselves with tea and coffee, and shake to the rhythm of the three percussions of the orchestra (gellal, obaya,ar). The cosmic half-light which shelters the men is replaced by the sparkling of fabrics and the jewelry in a covered, well-delineated space, in which the women move about.
But even in the midst of the most feminine ritual, what the singer carries in her trail is a trace of masculinity. This is, in part, owing to the fact that everyone knows that she associates with men in her work but, more symbolically and more profoundly, it is based in the androgynous side of her personality.
As we have seen, a sheikha no longer bears her family's name, so symbolically she no longer belongs, as a woman, to the patrilineage before which she would normally be held accountable both in her actions and gestures. As we have also seen, she bears an artist's name which is, most often, that of an adopted locale or a nickname. Her past is almost always marked by an episode in which she finds herself a "nameless woman". Because of this, she moves, traveling like a man. Her spatial idiom is that of a man. Like men, a sheikha smokes and drinks alcohol, and can, whistle with her fingers to call on any man. A sheikha, (it is also true of prostitutes, as the collective imagination mixes, more or less, the singer and the prostitute, or at least the singer and the "liberated woman.") cultivates a physical comportment that is prohibited in the bodily education of women and is, in principle, the prerogative of men.. Arms become easily detached from the body, legs easily disjointed, chest stretched, big strides. Rimitti likes to, during her performances, to parody a soldiers salute in the most masculine manner possible.
These gestures and postures are not only unfeminine, they emphatically mimic masculinity, the masculine supremacy. An almost complete appropriation of a bodily language through which men often express their generic superiority, the masculine proxémique code which allows one to occupy a space larger than the women's doesn't necessitate hiding a body that must normally be made discrete; instead it displays a body that is imposing and impressive.
Some sheikhat go so far as to transgress the taboos with regard to the use of musical instruments. As a rule, in the Oran region -- and in the Maghreb in general -- women were to use only percussion and certain string instruments. But Raï women singers sometimes touch the flute which is regarded as the masculine instrument.
Finally, the lyrics of the sheikhat's songs are of the kind that no woman can pronounce in public, especially in front of a male audience. As we shall see, just like the men, they sing of love, including physical love, adultery, or even casual sex; they sing the pleasures of alcohol and soirées in which the men and women mix. These themes intertwine with laments and religious evocations which are more in tune with the usual register of feminine songs. The mixing of the sacred and the profane, masculine and feminine discourses is even more fascinating as it is juxtaposed without transition, a textual patchwork. Transgressive, the sheikhat's singing unites the most feminists aspirations: overturning hierarchies and sexual protocols in expressing the desire of women for men -- a desire hardly present in the Maghrebi oral tradition. They have invented the blazons of the masculine body and an egalitarian eroticism.
The Discourse of Feminine Raï
From out of an extensive body of exclusively feminine work over 1500 verses, I have distilled the recurring themes of the songs as they relate to the characterisitcs of feminine emotional life as the sheikhat see it: complaints, answers, and counter-proposals. It is a makeshift structure around the norm, between values of the past, importation of a present coming from elsewhere and the invention of a new self, between pain and pleasure, threnody and libertinism, masochist morbidity and conquering vitality.
The complaint, the lament
The nucleus of the feminine song is the complaint, the exhalation of a pain. It is the most common theme of this type of poetry which is, in this, the heir of all Maghrebi verse, which is a poetics of love, absence, and upheaval. But tradition finds itself pushed aside by the nakedness of expression and by all that is said about the physical sensation of pain.
Suffering is expressed mostly through the mode of physical burning and crumbling:
"Me, my heart is consumed and burned and it cooks on the embers." (Rimitti)
"O, my limbs come undone!" (Fedéla/ Saharaoui)
"Love is a worm, it lives in bones" (Fedéla/ Saharaoui)
"I have turned black, I am withering and despair has taken hold of me." (Zahwaniya)
The specificity of the Raï lament also comes from the relationship, through contiguity, between the pain of love, social injustice and the domination of women illustrated in the texts:
"They have suffocated me [this is said of a girl who is not allowed to go out], they have wronged me, they have hurt me, they have accused me."
(Habiba el Kebira)
"They told me: Swim! and I didn't know how to swim"
"Oh the mother of an only son; she dies of thirst on the roads
[It is not a sufficient support]
Oh she has only one thing to sustain her, I must help her!"
The man is usually represented as a selfish creature; a manipulator:
"Me, my burning is unique, he, he will grow feathers."
"So sincere I am with him, yet he cheats on me!"
Social injustice often takes the shape of malicious gossip. Passages that center around "what have they not gossiped about?" are countless.
A remedy is sometimes suggested: indifference. One must resist and respond through contempt:
" All those who gossip do not wound me, it is like
the wind on the mountain."
However, there is a great helplessness in front of fate and luck when it is bad. Marine images emerge to illustrate negative fatality:
"God of the two worlds, where is my luck?
My luck is lost, a fish ate it in the sea."
Confronted with hardships and injustice, the first attitude is to go back to the ideological norm:
"A woman who is without a man, it is sure that she would
held in contempt."
Another concomitant attitude manifests itself in the desire to reactivate traditional solidarity:
"I wanted to build ties [outside the family] and
I realized they were enemies"; following is a cry:
" Poor me, bring me my father!
(Djiniya el Kebira)
The same singer cries elsewhere:
"They saw my shoulder going down, they crushed me";
She adds in the same song:
"My shoulders are cold, I have no support, I am
alone and unhappy";
Finally, comes the same cry:
"I want to see my father!" (Djiniya el Kebira)
Another response, reserved to traitors in love, is recourse to an old and popular religious practices (magic, the culture of saints):
"I am going to visit Sidi Khaled and he will give me justice" (Djiniya el Kebira)
I will take my love to the Wali (saint) for him to be judged." (Zahwaniya)
Paralleling these appeals to the past and ancestral norms is an exploration of the limits of moral transgression, following the model of adultery, in general complicit. But the expression of guilt is not the most important element: the space of the song gives access to a fantastical pleasure through the expression of transgression. The stronger the enunciation of the transgression is, the greater this kind of pleasure is for the listener who projects himself into the transgression pronounced:
"My love has children, it is sinning for me to take him" (Zahwaniya)
"Oh, he who is married, why have I become a regular (physically involved) to him?" (Rimitti)
"Oh Habit! My love has made us accustomed to the black market (illicit love)" (Zahwaniya)
The tainting of women by men is expressed in song through the metaphor of "habits," a euphemistic word designating what may be sexual habits, drinking, or various social perversions.
"He has bad habits and he is debasing mine." (Rimitti)
The women may be the victim, more or less consenting, to corruption by a lover:
"My love, the road is long, where are you taking me?" (Zahwaniya)
"My love whips me and my enemies watch; all that he has done to me God will make him pay for!" (Zahwaniya)
Sometimes the situation is even worse, when feelings are not a factor and only masculine force enters into play. Here, as well, one must not neglect the fantastical dimension which appeals to an audience of men. The restraints imposed on the women can be expressed in an erotic image:
They have closed all the doors to me and made me drinks four ricards." (Zahwaniya)
It is possible for the victim to effect a justification-vengeance by rejecting the responsibility placing it on the man:
By God who watches me, my love, my sins will follow you!" (Zahwaniya)
In other places, free choice, the emergence of a willful individuality accompanied by a unhappy conscience are clearly manifest in the expression of responsibility,:
Everything that has happened to me I asked for, I wanted suffering and I suffer." (Zahwaniya)
The singer might even profess the conviction that her deviant behavior is symptomatic of an epoch and a troubled life.
"I change, I renounce, I betray, I blend." (Hab Lahmeur)
Much of this misfortune and moral discomfort finds solace in alcohol which allows it to be forgotten:
"Let me drink so that I relieve myself of my lucidity.
What is better for taking away traces than that which erases'
However, drinking may also bring on other sufferings. The praise of wine is one of the classic themes of Arab poetry, yet what makes Raï songs on this theme original is a key-notion of its over-semanticized ideology: elmehna. If one checks the dictionary (Beuassier 1958: 921), the verbal-radical means: "cause to die by drinking, make drunk, cause to die, to fill up". The first meaning of the substantive elmehna relates to this idea; it refers to a "drinking session", or a "drinking spree". But they also mention two extensions: on the one hand, it signifies "ordeals", "torments", on the other hand, it is one of the words that may designate the beloved, the object of desire and the torment of love.
In a Raï text, a multitude of sorrowful evocations of dispairing complacency on the state of those on "drinking sprees" and the mehna are brought together and are, for the most part, associated.
"Oh you who get drunk and live in the torment of
drinking sprees, death is best for you!"
"These are people of the mehna
They have destroyed their lives" (Rimitti)
"Oh path of torments! The path of torments takes me away
and the other [path] brings me back! O path of torments!"
"Leave me in this drinking spree, I have seen the world down here
and the beyond!" (Fadéla)
In Raï, there are many interjections of sacrificial compassion such as "too bad for me, but not for my lover". A more elaborate version is:
"Oh Raï, I am burning your heart with one fire, but my own with two."
However, a rebellious roughness sometimes emerges:
"Oh those who do not sympathize with my mehna, I wish them my
Even as the long complaint on the injustices that society inflects--the ravages love provokes, the tortures that men subject them to, the suffering and the guilt, and the torments of the mehna -- is played out, an entirely different discourse is developed in the same text, according to a principle of composition already mentioned, the parataxical contiguity, of a certain hedonism, and a vital expression of individuality.
Defense and illustration of the pleasure principle
While the Raï of complaint, of a conscience ill at ease, supports itself on a moralist discourse, (that is to say religious, referring to the norms of the past) a concurrent text rises in the course of the laments: amoral and not requiring justification, it incites to transgression and praises free and egalitarian physical love, alcohol and the pleasures experienced by an assembly of drinkers. The contradiction between the two disturbs neither the singer nor the listener, and Raï has never hesitated in juxtaposing calls to God, the Prophet, the saints, with the evocation of practices unequivocally condemned by religion, turning this very dissonance into one of these characteristics of its thematic. It is, most of all, from this intimate mixture of incompatible ideologies that the sulfurous aura surrounding Raï arises, much more so than from the rather crude nature of its lyrics. Another mixture causes an atypical effect: that of the spaces where the Raï songs evolve. The forbidden comes through the autonomisation of spaces; the transgression is based, in part, on the blurring of feminine and masculine spaces, public and private spaces.
Still particularly subversive is the fact that women express their desire in a straightforward manner, discoursing on the male body and delivering erotic inventories, praising female freedom and mixed epicrueanism, briefly seizing, unapologetically and in spite of the ceaseless affirmation of the existential impasse faced by the unhappy being, the right to proffer a counter- discourse in a zone relegated to the emotional, to the confines of popular culture.
The provocative tone may be light and the subject matter seemingly insignificant, but in fact it is crucial. Humor sometimes also becomes part of it:
"The Zastava [imported car that was popular about a decade ago; in other
versions, or other songs, it would be another brand name], take it and give
me its driver"
Elsewhere a more caustic irony is used:
"I would like to ask the scholars if the fact of kissing
breaks the fast in the season of abstention."
Then in the same song:
"Oh my beloved, watching you is a sin, it is you who
made me break my fast!/ Oh the lover, watching you is
a sin, it is you who made me eat' Ramadan! I asked
the scholars; they told me: "It is God who curses Satan!".
But the provocation can be made more direct:
"Break the fast, young girl,
I will bear the resulting sin for you."
The female singer sets herself as the scapegoat of feminine transgressions, redeemer of women sinners, but also mender of rips in morality as we saw in an earlier section.
"Tear and cut and Rimitti will mend!" (Some saw in this a metaphor of virginity). (Rimitti)
Men can take the initiative and have the power to make sexual decisions, but so can women. Thus the man becomes an object of desire out of which a physical ideal is drawn.
"Oh mustache of a tiger and look of a lion! Yes, and it suits him, as does the birthmark under the mustache" (Rimitti)
"My love has a long neck and a big chest." (Zahwaniya)
"My love is nicely proportioned and has gold teeth" (Rimitti--ana nebghih) [Rimitti belongs to a generation in which gold dentures were valued for men as well as women; I have not heard this aesthetic criteria in the songs of younger singers]
"He is big and it suits him; he is well proportioned" (Zahwaniya)
"The one I love is short and cute, in my heart he has quivered" [Can we interpret a more erotic allusion here?] (Rimitti)
The singing is an enticement to union with this physically imposing man.
"I thought that the kisses would make me patient, but they only increased (my desire). As I die for him (I love him)." (Rimitti)
"My love will come to the house and we will make (love) night and day)." (Zahwaniya)
Sometimes the eroticism is more torrid.
"Sleeping alone has numbed my sides, warm me and cover me!" (Rimitti)
"He rubbed my back and I gave him everything." (Rimitti)
It may be expressed in metaphor
"Let him play on the rearing horse." (Fadéla)
"Oh mama, a sharpened stake, torment and love make me crazy!
A sharpened stake and passion make me crazy!" (Rimitti)
An expression, of reciprocal value, summarizes the successful, egalitarian relation. It must be understood in the sexual sense.
"I take my love, he does to me what I want." (Zahwaniya)
"I do to him what he wants done." (Zahwaniya)
The libertinage is accompanied by a joyous and free conception of life. These free individuals form nice handsome assemblies.
"What is best is the gathering of friends in intimacy and savoir-faire!" (Rimitti)
These pleasures are associated with alcohol:
"Call on Malik, for he brings the iced (beer)!" (Zahwaniya)
"Let the glass reach me. To share a glass is good!" (Rimitti)
It may even be the highest pleasure.
"Ah, how nice a good binge of whisky drinking is?" (Djinya el Kebira)
This praise song for drinking can go very far, as in Rimitti's song:
"The people adore God, but I beer"
Rimitti fears nothing. As we have seen, she bears an overflowing vitality and a deep sense of revolution.
Me, me, why do you smother me? I can accept anything, but not suffocation"; and later, in the same song, "Patience, [a virtue extolled in women and by women, in the way of accepting their condition] makes me crazy" (Rimitti)
A pillar of Raï for fifty years, she has, as we have seen, managed her singing career highlighting that which regarding her private life would give grounds to harsh judgment and rigid stands; she has thus become the living emblem of the emotional thematic of Raï.
But it is elsewhere that one must look for a sort of general manifesto of the feminine individuality triumphant in Raï. Consider the text matsĒ lunië "don't ask me to account (for myself)", interpreted by Zahwaniya, which has seen several years of great success and from which I have already provided a large extract),
Don't ask me anything, let me cry on my Raï!
Don't ask me anything, let me do what I want!
Functions of discourse and counter-discourse
This rapid tour, through the privileged lens of the feminine expression, of the sheikhat texts, gives us a glimpse of the rather transgressive discourse and counter-discourse emerging alongside the more or less coherent, dominant social dialect. It is clear that under an apparently contradictory structure of enunciations, a system that calls for a dynamic reading of the songs can be ascertained. It is articulated in several modules which consist of bipolar and multipolar relations.
At the center of the utterance is a nugget which is a complaint. It is the lucid and unhappy report of a malaise attributable to various factors: at one level destiny, social injustice, malicious gossip and the domination of men over women; at another level, which in itself is a consequence of the first or a failed attempt at compensation, unhappy love, transgression lived with difficulty, or the torments of alcohol and evening parties.
Attempts at a partial response are woven around these complaints: from one side there are makeshift repairs in the frame of ancient norms, searching for traditional solidarities, recourse to the sacred; from another there is a backward retreat of the limits of the norm, indifference toward what is said and solidarity of the marginalized amongst themselves.
Beyond these limited responses a counter-discourse is elaborated on the basis of a type of hedonism (eroticism, alcohol, gathering of friends) an egalitarian affirmation of desire and amorous decision, and provocation to transgress. This counter-discourse is almost entirely concerned with love and alcohol, and poses only a vague revolt in opposition to the social elements which make up the first level of the complaint: destiny, social injustice. It is understood neither as an ideal for society nor as a project for the transformation of society. Rather it is symptomatic of the emergence of certain ideologies: that of individual liberty (from which emerges the frequent use of ana (me) and the verbs "to want" and "to desire"), and that of pleasure (free love, access to alcohol and freedom of movement).
This fragile pole of resistance and of counter-propositions in the face of sexual segregation and the interdiction of certain behaviors--all the more fragile in that it has a tendency to refer to a existential ghetto, "the people of the meÊ na, and its sub-culture--is shored up by force of affirmation of a vitality that has now found a massive media expression.
The profusion of this vital impetus may influence a work " from the inside" on the images created by the listeners themselves caught between different models of identification and subject to exogenous ideological pressures of western origins (images of "liberation" through material consumption, images of the petite-bourgeois couple). Beyond the traditional function of the love songs and the complaints: mirror of a social unhappiness--freely admitted to--and a social impasse, would it be possible to create a communication between the aspirations, now diversified, of "ordinary" women and the "flowers of evil"--a sort of ambiguous message--of these extraordinary, "deviant" women that are the sheikhat?
NoteThis idiom is not equivalent to the English idiom "to get (or to give) the cold shoulder."
Women have played a very important role in the elaboration and diffusion of Raï music, including modern Raï. These women include singers and dancers of brothels, cabarets and taverns of pre-independence era; the sheikhat of the male assemblies or geî rat "leisurely assemblies" and gheramat "weddings festivities"; gatherings of meddahat "praise songs (of the Prophet and saints)" which, since the sixties have incorporated more and more Raï songs in their performances in female assemblies, above all the mahdar, a musical session at marriages; and finally chebbat "jeunes" who, burn under the fire of the spotlights and mix their voices with the notes of the synthesizer to disco tempos like their compatriots the chebs -- sometimes in duet with them -- while at the same time taking up the repertoire of their ancestors and all without scorning the traditional performances in restrained gatherings.
These artists have generated the most undisciplined and most spontaneous part of Raï. Exploited among the exploited, even more outcasts because they are transgressive women, catalysts of emotion, most-often illiterate and perhaps less cultured, than their male counterparts who were uprooted by the colonial system, in spite of their wanderings. But they are certainly also the most iconoclastic in relation to the canons of classical popular poetry which has been, overall, the province of men. They have everything to say, much to invent, and little to lose in a new genre. The current wave of chebs owes them nearly everything in regards to themes, wordings, and figurative language. These women have, above all, were musical innovators. They have dug the ideological and stylistic bed of the genre. Little is written on them and even fewer scholars have considered their texts.
Because of this and in order to advance the deep knowledge of Raï, it seems important to give them a special place and to follow with emotion and reason their trajectory and the testaments contained in their texts.