Cheika Remitti, Sahraoui | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Cheika Remitti, Sahraoui

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Although Islamic fundamentalism didn't really take hold in Algeria until the late 80s, Cheikha Remitti's music has been causing controversy there since at least the 1950s. In '54 she recorded an unambiguous assault on the virtues of female virginity titled "Charrag, Gattaa" ("Tear, Lacerate")--which would've been a bold move in the U.S. at the time--and throughout her career she's approached all sorts of issues with similar bluntness. At 79, she's the greatest living link to the early days of rai (Arabic for "opinion"), Algeria's populist pop music. The genre emerged in the 1920s in the seedy bars of the port city of Oran; it was a distinctly working-class style that frankly addressed sex, booze, and the upper class in a poetic, largely improvised manner roughly analogous to the blues. Surprisingly, Remitti and other female singers were the bawdiest of the early practitioners, although they performed under veils and never allowed their images to appear on recordings. Rai has embraced technology and a growing list of international influences since then, but at its most traditional it's performed with the spare accompaniment of the gasba (a low-sounding rosewood flute) and the metallic guellal drums; that's how it's heard on Aux sources du rai (Institut du Monde Arabe), an excellent 1994 live recording that spotlights Remitti's voice in all its deep, guttural glory. She also sounds terrific on Nouar (Sono), one of several albums she's made with an electric band--her singing is littered with dynamically repeated phrases, which she alters subtly until they've completely changed shape, and it shines through any arrangement. She's a remarkable improviser, and her advanced age has reportedly had no impact on her live performances. Last year she made her U.S. debut in New York; this is her first time in Chicago. Sahraoui, who along with his ex-wife Fadela scored one of the biggest hits of modern rai in 1985 with "N'sel Fik," opens. The couple dominated the scene for much of the 80s, and in 1990 they became the first rai singers to tour the States; until Khaled came through earlier this year, their appearance here was the only rai concert ever held in Chicago. On his 2001 solo album Un homme libre (Sono), Sahraoui's voice sounds better than ever, a fluid, soulful, rhythmically flexible instrument, but in his choice of material he's a bit behind the curve, dabbling in salsa and slow jams as if to catch a little of the success Khaled and young star Faudel have had with the same. The opportunity to see two key figures in the history of rai on the same stage is still damn rare, though that seems to be changing: first Khaled, now this, and on July 20 rai-rock star Rachid Taha is slated to perform at the Empty Bottle. Saturday, July 6, 10 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.

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