Music is a fundamental component of every culture worldwide, in all four corners of the world. Historically, women have always been at the forefront, touching hearts and gaining fans alike as they set their emotions free, with gut-wrenching lyrics tinged with sad melodies of hardships, struggle, heartbreak, as well as calling out societal issues that prevail in their region and homelands. These women have remained household favourites, from generation to generation, until today, in an industry dominated by men.
This is no different in North African households, as legendary voices such as Aziza Jalal, Naima Samih, Cheikha Rmitti and Oum Kalthoum have consumed our households and have had our mothers (and fathers) sing along when their songs come on the radio. How many of us have grown up with our parents teaching us musical history, telling us these artists, often tragic, life stories, or any controversies surrounding these legends. How many times have they gone through their discography, showing us their old cassette and vinyl collections, explaining the context behind their favourite songs, or what our grandmothers’ favourite song was. This goes to show the extent these stars have transcended time, left their mark on our culture, remaining amaranthine.
Beginning with Latifa Raafat, who hails from the northern coastal town of Kenitra just a few miles away from the capital Rabat. She burst onto the scene in the 1980s and has persisted as one of Moroccan music’s leading purveyors. Raafat’s musical style can be described as ballad-like, often singing songs about love and heartbreak, including hits such as “Mawaal Al Hob” (Love Adherents), “Alach ya Ghzali” (Why My Beautiful?), “Moghyara” (Jealous). The success of her songs led her to become widely credited for spreading the Moroccan dialect to the wider Arabic speaking world and for putting it on the map.
Raafat may not record as much anymore – her last release was a collaboration with Algerian artist Mohamed Lamine in 2010 – but she remains relevant to Moroccan audiences, old and young alike, as her songs are still heard on radio airwaves across the nation. She continues to perform at festivals across Morocco, and often appears on television.
Perhaps the most legendary Algerian singer of all is Cheikha Remitti, the undisputed feisty queen of Raï. Remitti, apparently is her way of pronouncing the French word Remettez, was also known as Saadia El Ghilizania and hails from the birthplace of Raï: Oran. She is known for being one of the first women to take up the same singing style as men in her time, and is often credited with not only being the Queen of Raï, but also one of the genres pioneers. Her songs tell stories of the hardships she endured growing up as a poor, orphan girl in rural western Algeria, as well as including risqué lyrics of sex, love and alcohol – all with a recurring theme of escaping hardship – as she chose to shun more commercially pleasing lyrical content. She forayed into the music world by joining a dance troupe at the tender age of 15, and quickly began to pen her first songs, drawing inspiration from her unfortunately sorrowful life. She is credited with writing her own songs, despite being illiterate, and once mused: “Songs canter through my head and I tie them to my memory, I don’t need a pen and paper.”
One of her most memorable songs is Charrag Gatta – loosely translated to “tear/rip the vagina” – a song which was heavily criticized for encouraging women to lose their virginity. It comes as no surprise that Rimitti was lambasted by Algerian society for being “lewd” as her songs were deemed to be “folklore perverted by colonialism”. The subjects of her songs were often criticized for being “western-inspired”, though, she was often simply singing about basic sexual desire and lust, amongst several other topics. Rimitti’s relatable lyrical content and use of slang and Chaabi (i.e popular) language resonated with the everyday Algerian woman, and then to the wider Algerian Diaspora, whom she later started singing for.
Remitti’s talent crossed borders and knew no bound as her prominence reached new heights, when she forayed into the Western world, collaborating with Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Robert Fripp. She continued to perform live until her very last days, before passing away aged 83, showcasing the immense talent and splendor for performing she always possessed.
Aziza Jalal, almost as famous for donning the thick-rimmed glass-bottom glasses akin to the ones your grandmother would wear, as she was for her iconic songs. The Meknes-born legend burst onto the scenes in the 1970s and instantly became a hit with Moroccan audiences. Known for crossing over to Egyptian, and other Arabic, dialects, she opted for pan-Arab themed songs. She was alleged to be Hassan II’s (former tyrant king, but that’s another story) favourite singer; no easy feat. Aziza’s songs such as “Mesteneyak”, “Howa LHoub Laabah” and “Rouhi Feek” would span over twenty minutes each, yet still remain amongst Moroccan household favourites. After a few successful years as one of Morocco’s sweethearts, Jalal’s career came to a prompt end as she decided to abandon the music scene in favour for marriage and a life of piety with a Saudi businessman in the mid eighties. Yet, her legacy still lives on.
Dhikra Mohammed Abdullah Addali, known mononymously by her chosen name, is deemed to be one of Tunisia’s most iconic singers of the modern era. Her first taste of fame was from performing on Tunisian variety show Fan Al Mawahib, which she went on to win, leading her to be discovered by the region’s famous composers and performing at the prestigious Carthage International Festival. Like several North African singers before her, notably Samira Said, Dhikra chose to migrate to Egypt to further her career, thus becoming one of the region’s iconic Arab artists in the nineties, during which she released hit such as “Wehyati Endak”, “Al Asami”, and “Youm Alik”.
Her success was paramount, however, like several ill-fated Western and Eastern artists before her, it was no happy ending for the Tunisian icon, whose life came to a crushing end after being involved in a domestic altercation with her businessman husband, who shot her to death in 2003.
Layla Mourad, born Lilian Zaki Mourad Mordechai, was a star of the screen and voice of the radio throughout the thirties and until the sixties. Mourad’s life, like many Egyptian stars of her generation, was littered with scandal, such as rumours of visiting Israel, as well as her family sending financial aid to the Israeli army, which lead to the boycott of her songs by some Arab stations. Her alleged conversion to Islam, and her being chosen over Oum Kalthoum to perform the song of the Egyptian revolution also led to controversy. However, despite everything, Murad is still regarded as one of the largest contributors to the Egyptian silver screen and radio waves, with hundreds of songs and films under her belt. She is often hailed as one of the most iconic Arab Jews of all time; so iconic that a Ramadan biopic series based on her life was one of the most watched at the time of its release. Her most loved song remains “Ana Albi Dalili” (My Heart is my Guide).
Warda Al-Jazairia, (Warda, the Algerian) was a French-born singing legend in the Arabic-speaking world. An artist of Algerian and Lebanese lineage, she was extremely proud of her Algerian heritage, hence her stage name. A true patriot, she sang songs of nationalist pride and used her music to denounce colonialism. Much like fellow Parisian-born legend Edith Piaf, she discovered her knack for singing during her teenage years in one of her father’s cabarets, which welcomed a range of Arab artists.
When her family was rocked with accusations of storing weapons for the FLN, Algeria’s independence movement, her family, unable to seek refuge in Algeria, went on to re-settle in her motherland of Lebanon, where she further developed talent in her craft by performing in Beirut’s trendiest cabarets, only to be discovered by Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. He took her to Egypt, where she catapulted to stardom.
Her soothing, honeyed voice delivered lyrics of Arab nationalism – a movement some may say was adopted during the struggle against colonialism – relevant during her time, causing Gamal Abdel-Nasser, often hailed the father of Arab nationalism himself, asked the Algerian Rose to perform alongside Abdel Halim Hafez in the magnificently operatic film Al Watan Al Akbar (The Greater Nation), where she sang the words: “My country, and the revolution against colonialism, if we all seek to sacrifice ourselves for you, colonialism, will come to an end.”
Then Algerian president, Houari Boumedienne, a great fan, continuously invited her to perform at Algerian independence celebrations. Her patriotism, relevant even now, when, during the Arab Spring, her voice reigned supreme as it echoed in Cairo’s streets, yearning for democracy and humanity. While Warda spent years upon years shifting between the Middle East and North Africa, she eventually settled in the hub of Arab culture, Cairo, where she married composer Baligh Hamdi, who, as well as being a devoted husband, also wrote for her. Collectively, Warda performed in countless movies and had hundreds of songs in her repertoire, notably “Helwa Balady El Smara”, “Batwannis Beek”, “Akdeb Alayk” and “Haramt Ahebak”. In May 2012, Warda succumbed to illness and passed away, yet her legacy lives on in Algerian, and Arab, hearts.
Tunisia is known for producing iconic artists upon artists from the last century, ranging from Naama to Habiba Mssika, from Oulaya to Dorsaf Hamdani. But Latifa is incontestably the quintessential diva of the Tunisian music scene. Much like her Algerian counterpart Warda, Latifa sought musical guidance from Baligh Hamdi and Mohammed Abdel Wahab in neighbouring Egypt, and burst onto the scene in the early 1980s. Latifa’s emergence onto the music scene was not an easy one, as she was plagued by financial issues, prohibiting her from reaching Egypt sooner to develop her talent and make her mark. She flirted between remaining in Tunisia to pursue her education and devoting her life to developing her musical talent in Egypt, and evidently, she went on to choose the latter as her voice was too unique and powerful to not pursue any kind of musical career. Latifa is no stranger to dabbling in different genres of music and broadening her horizons, a quality which makes her so remarkable. She has sung, and currently still sings, in various Arabic dialects, has performed Tunisian, Raï, Egyptian and Khaleeji-style music, pop, and yes, even disco-tinged song are part of her catalogue. She is without doubt one of the most hard-working singers of her generation, with more than twenty albums spanning her twenty year and more career.
Zohra Al-Fassiya is without a doubt one of the most beloved Moroccan female singers of all time. She is known for building her singing career on sad lyrical content, something she is credited with popularizing. The first known recording female artist in Morocco, she paved the way for fellow cheikhates to come.
Born in 1910 to a modest Jewish family in the small town of Sefrou, a stone’s throw from Fes from which her stage name derives from, Zohra began performing in the synagogues of her hometown and the coffee houses and cabarets that litter the hustle and bustle of Casablanca. Zohra’s music was secular of nature, though much of it was befitting of Jewish liturgical songs.
Zohra feverishly contributed to the Malhoun, Chaabi and Gharnati genres, was adored by Muslims and Jews, our neighbours from across the border, and even King Mohammed V. There has always been a coexistence between the two religions, both integral components of Moroccan culture, and Zohra’s universal popularity was a demonstration of such.
However, in the 1960s, Zohra’s career came to a halt as, like many Moroccan Jews at the time, she emigrated towards Israel where her talent was shunned in favor of more Western sounding music due to the dominance of Ashkenazi culture. Zohra thus faded into obscurity and lived in Israel until her last breath yet, despite this, she is still very much alive in Moroccan culture, amongst Muslims and Jews alike. Her biggest hit, “Hak a Mama” (There You Go Mom), is still very much popular today and is often covered by many contemporary Moroccan artists.
North African singers all too often use their art as a form of escapism from a sexist and patriarchal society, as well as all of life’s other hardships. They use their music to liberate themselves and others, and allow their lyrics to resonate with the general public, letting other women know they are not alone.
Regardless of whether these women are no longer in this world, whether they’ve abandoned their careers, whether they’re still thriving, they remain icons whose legacies are still very much prevalent today, and whose melancholic lyrics still fill households with their beauty.