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Women in Raï Music

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Marie Virolle

From La Chanson Raï
© 2001 Marsa Editions
This article is a multimedial elaboration of extracts from the volume La chanson raï (Paris 1995). Translation from the French by Rachid Aadnani and Michael Toler. Used by permission of the publisher ( Kathala ). Article available online here.

1. Being a Woman and a Singer

In Maghrebi society a musical vocation, whether for men or for women, is often lived as a transgression. However, 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.

In the Algerian west, it is the whole universe of Raï and the sheikhat [female singers of traditional music styles] of Oran and the region south of Oran which makes 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 specific social rituals. It has existed for nearly half a century, during which particular traditional aspects have gained attention through the national and international success of some cheb and chebbat [title given respectively to male and female Raï singers] of electric Raï.

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