Cherifa Kersit, vocal
In the Middle Atlas, the country of the Imazighn (the Moroccan Berbers the art of the sheikhat is a musical form that has developed mainly in urban centres such as Mrirt, Boumya, Zaouit sheikh, Ait shaq and Khenifra. In Morocco, the word sheikhat, the plural form, or its masculine form, shyoukh, are used very vaguely. They don't denote a single musical genre at all. the terms apply to all men and women whose professional activity is music and/or dancing. However, there are some important differences between the sheikhat of the Middle Atlas and those of the Atlantic plain (Dukkala and Abda), in spite of the widespread use of the terms sheikhat and shyoukh in both areas.
The differences occur not only on the level of the language used in the songs, but also in the music, dress and choreography of each version. We should also remember that this generalised term normally includes musicians considered as popular or traditional, and here the term is applied with a certain disdain. For many people the form is a minor one, for it belongs to the most modest strata on the social scale, and these people are often of rural origin.
This would explain why this art and those with whom it finds favour is becoming more and more marginal, so much so that it is not being studied correctly, nor is it being preserved with recordings of quality, nor is it even properly listed, Cherifa Kersit is a singer sheika from Tazruth mmu ukhbu "the hanging rock" a few kilometres from Khenifra. She was born in 1967 and was brought up in her family in the country, where she never went to school, like all the other girls of her age. She practised singing in the open air, either as she followed her herd, or as she did the housework, or again when she met up with other young girls. When she was sixteen, she gradually started to perform at weddings or traditional village fetes. Her reputation started to gain ground in the early 80's when she met Mohamed Rouicha, one of the singing stars of the Middle Atlas. Up til then she had never shown the desire to record anything under her own name; she'd always been with other singers such as Rouicha, Meghni, Lmrabeth Aziz Arim and others. Her family did not want her to make a career of singing. But with her powerful, typically Middle Atlas voice, she quickly made a name for herself in her own region. She met her match only in the person of Tifrsit, another tamawayt singer, and incidentally Cherifa's idol, as well Rqya Abbou and Hadda Ouâkki, to mention only women. Cherifa made her first visit to France in September 1999, when she took part in the show `Dances and songs by the women of Morocco, from dawn to dusk` at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. This was in turn part of the Paris Autumn Festival, under the aegis of the special `Honouring Morocco in France` campaign. Her particularly strong, rough voice touched and moved the European audience. Where Rouicha had revived and highlighted the lutar(lute) by adding a fourth string and altering its shape, it was now Cherifa's turn to try and reinstate the sheikhat with her singing. The unjustly bad reputation surrounding the sheikhat comes from a perception of this art form that does not stem from intimate knowledge of it, and which in turn is due to the fact that too much emphasis has been placed on dance, much less than on the voice and the words of the songs, which can only he understood by the Imazighn.
In fact, the central matter here is pure poetry, linked to the daily life of the people and their moments of joy or misery. It is poetry construed around a whole philosophy of life rich in teachings and wisdom on this people's conception of the world. But the poems are often difficult to translate because of their highly metaphoric style, made up of images where everything is stated in half tones. The inshshadn or songwriters do not necessarily sing their own songs. Like the singers, they are illiterate, and they make up their poems during group dances (ahidus) or other similar circumstances. The poems are rarely written down, for we are at the heart of the domain of oral transmission here, and the fact that they are sung on cassette only gives them a new opportunity of being transmitted. Generally speaking, a song progresses as follows: First of all, an instrumentalist, in this case the lutar (the Berber lute) player plays an improvised taqsim, followed by the singer (who may be a man or a woman) who begins a solo known in Berber language as a tamawayt or Imaya. The singer will demonstrate his/her vocal prowess by the nature and complexity of the ornamentation he/she expresses. Then the chorus enters and begins to sing what will be the refrain or ligha ; they accompany their performance by beating out the rhythm on the alloun, a circular drum covered in goatskin, two such drums being required for the right effect here. The ligha is taken up by the singer and remains the same throughout the song. 11 is taken up again by the chorus and the singer between the two parts of a distich. The lines sung alternatively by the chorus and the singer are known as izlan in Berber ; they are independent of each other and don't necessarily touch on the same themes. They can skip from one theme to another whilst speaking, for instance, of an impossible love, of moral or social problems, in short of everything that affects their emotions in the course of their daily lives. The songs often draw to a close with much livelier tunes known as tahidust, the masculine form of ahidus, the traditional and highly symbolic collective dance of the Middle Atlas. The gestures made by the dancers' or singer's hands recall the gestures made by women at their loom, or their movements as they untangle and skein the wool used to make the famous zayan carpets from this region.