Umm Kulthum

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Umm Kulthum
أم كلثوم
Umm Kulthum4.jpg
Background information
Birth nameFatima Ibrahim as-Sayed El-Beltagi
فاطمة إبراهيم السيد البلتاجي
Born(1898-12-31)31 December 1898
Tamay Ez-Zahayra, El Senbellawein, El Dakahlia, Khedivate of Egypt
Died3 February 1975(1975-02-03) (aged 76)
Cairo, Egypt
GenresEgyptian music, classical
Occupation(s)Singer, actress
Years activec. 1924–1973
LabelsMazzika
EMI Classics
Associated actsMohamed El Qasabgi
Sayed Darwish
Baligh Hamdi
Abdel Halim Hafez
El Sunbati
Mohammed Abdel Wahab

Umm Kulthum (Arabic: أم كلثوم‎, Egyptian Arabic: [ˈomme kælˈsuːm]; French: Oum Kalthoum; born Fāṭima ʾIbrāhīm es-Sayyid el-Beltāǧī فاطمة إبراهيم السيد البلتاجي[1][2] on 31 December 1898, or 4 May 1904;[3] died 3 February 1975) was an Egyptian singer, songwriter, and film actress active from the 1920s to the 1970s. She was given the honorific title Kawkab al-Sharq (كوكب الشرق, 'Star of the East').[4] Umm Kulthum was known for her vocal ability and unique style. She sold over 80 million records worldwide, making her one of the best-selling Middle Eastern singers of all time.[5]

She is considered a national icon in her native Egypt. She has been dubbed "The voice of Egypt"[6][7] and "Egypt's fourth pyramid".[8][9]

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Umm Kulthum as a toddler, with her father Ibrahim El Beltagi

Umm Kulthum was born into a family with a religious background. Her father, Sheik Ibrahim Al-Sayyid Al-Baltagi, was an imam, and her mother was named Fatmah al-Maliji.[10] She was born in the village of Tamay e-Zahayra, belonging to the city of Senbellawein, Dakahlia Governorate, in the Nile Delta.[10] Her birth date is unconfirmed, as birth registration was not enforced throughout Egypt at that time. Various sources claim that she was born on 31 December 1898, 31 December 1904, or 4 May 1904. She learned how to sing by listening to her father teach her older brother, Khalid. She showed exceptional singing talent from a young age. Through her father, she learned to recite the Qur'an, and she reportedly memorized the whole book.[10] When she was 12 years old, her father noticed her strength in singing and asked her to join the family ensemble. She joined as a supporting voice, at the beginning repeating what the others sung.[11] She dressed as a boy in a Bedouin fashion so that her father would avoid the disapproval of having a girl on stage.[11] At the age of 16, she was noticed by Mohamed Abo Al-Ela, a modestly famous singer, who instructed her until his death in 1927. He taught her to adapt her voice to the melody in a traditional Arabic aesthetic and educated her in the meaning of classical Arabic repertoire.[12] A few years later, she met the famous composer and oudist Zakariyya Ahmad, who invited her to come to Cairo. Although she made several visits to Cairo in the early 1920s, she waited until 1923 before permanently moving there. She was invited on several occasions to the house of Amin Beh Al Mahdy, who taught her to play the oud, a type of lute. She developed a close relationship with Rawheya Al-Mahdi, Amin's daughter, and became her closest friend. Later in life, Kulthum even attended Rawheya's daughter's wedding, despite her general preference to avoid appearing in public offstage.

During her early career years, she faced staunch competition from Mounira El Mahdeya and Fathiyya Ahmad, two prominent singers who had similar voices. As competition between the three singers intensified, a friend of Mounira's who worked as an editor at the Al-Masra newspaper went so far as to repeatedly and scandalously suggest that Kulthum had married one of the guests who frequently visited her household. This caused her father to return with her to their village.[13] Her father only changed his mind after persuasive arguments from Amin Al Mahdi.[13] Following the scandal, Umm Kulthum made a public statement announcing that she would no longer receive houseguests.[14] By 1923, she had struck a contract with Odeon records. By 1926, this contract paid her more per record than any other Egyptian musical artist.[15]

Professional career[edit]

Amin Al Mahdi introduced her to the cultural circles in Cairo, where she carefully avoided succumbing to the attractions of the bohemian lifestyle and began to stress pride in her humble origins and conservative values, which she upheld throughout her life. In 1924, she was introduced to the poet Ahmed Rami,[16] who was to write 137 songs for her. He also introduced her to French literature and eventually became her lead mentor in Arabic literature and literary analysis. In 1926, she left Odeon records for Gramophone records who would pay her about double per record and gave her an additional annual stipend of $10,000.[15] She also maintained a tightly managed public image, which added to her allure. Furthermore, she was introduced to the renowned oud virtuoso and composer Mohamed El Qasabgi, who brought her to the Arabic Theatre Palace, where she would experience her first real public success. Other musicians who influenced her musical performances at this time included Dawwod Hosni and Abu al-Ila Muhammad [fr].[16] Al-Ila Muhammad instructed her in the control of her voice, and variants of the Arabic Muwashshah.[17] In 1932, her fame as a singer increased through sales of her records to the point where she embarked upon a major tour of the Middle East and North Africa, performing in prominent Arab cities such as Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, Rabat, Tunis, and Tripoli.

Poster advertising Umm Kulthum's concert in Jerusalem during Mandatory Palestine. 1 January 1930

During the 1930s her repertoire took the first of several specific stylistic directions. Her songs were virtuosic, as befitted her newly trained and very capable voice, and romantic and modern in musical style, feeding the prevailing currents in Egyptian popular culture of the time. She worked extensively with texts by romance poet Ahmad Rami and composer Mohammad El-Qasabgi, whose songs incorporated European instruments such as the violoncello and double bass, as well as harmony. In 1936 she made her debut an actress in the movie Weddad by Fritz Kramp.[18] During her career, she would act in five more movies, of which four would be directed by Ahmad Badrakhan[18] while Sallama and Fatma would be the most acclaimed.[19]

In 1934, Umm Kulthum sang for the inaugural broadcast of Radio Cairo, a state station.[20] From then on onwards, she performed at a concert beginning at 9:30 p.m. on every first Thursday of a month until 1972.[21] Umm Kulthum's monthly concerts were renowned for their ability to clear the streets of some of the world's most populous cities as people rushed home to tune in.[22][21] Her influence continued to grow and expand beyond the artistic scene: the reigning royal family would request private concerts and even attend her public performances.[citation needed]

King Farouk I of Egypt decorated Kulthum with the Order of the Virtues (nishan el kamal) in 1944,[4] a decoration reserved exclusively to members of the royal family and politicians. Despite this recognition, the royal family rigidly opposed her potential marriage to the King's uncle, a rejection that deeply wounded her pride and led her to distance herself from the royal family. She instead embraced grassroots causes, such as answering the request of the Egyptian legion trapped in the Faluja Pocket during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War to sing a particular song. The trapped men included figures who would go on to lead the bloodless revolution of 23 July 1952, prominently Gamal Abdel Nasser.[citation needed]

Following the revolution, the Egyptian musicians guild of which she became a member (and eventually president) rejected her because she had sung for the then-deposed King Farouk of Egypt. When Nasser discovered that her songs were banned from being aired on the radio, he reportedly said something to the effect of "What are they, crazy? Do you want Egypt to turn against us?"[23] Later, Nasser made sure to schedule his speeches around Kulthum's radio performances.[24]

Some claim that Umm Kulthum's popularity helped Nasser's political agenda. For example, Nasser's speeches and other government messages were frequently broadcast immediately after Umm Kulthum's monthly radio concerts. She also sang many songs in support of Nasser, with whom she developed a close friendship. One of these songs —"Wallāhi Zamān, Yā Silāḥī" ("It's Been a Long Time, O Weapon of Mine")—was adopted as the Egyptian national anthem from 1960 to 1979, when President Sadat revoked it due to peace negotiations with Israel and replaced it with the less militant "Bilady, Bilady, Bilady", Egypt's current anthem.[25][26] Umm Kulthum was also known for her continuous contributions to works supporting Egyptian military efforts.[4]

Golden age[edit]

Umm Kulthum with some of the most prominent names in Egyptian classical music. From left: Riad Al Sunbati, Mohamed El Qasabgi, Farid al-Atrash, Zakariya Ahmad.

Umm Kulthum's musical directions in the 1940s and early 1950s and her mature performing style led this period to becoming popularly known as "the golden age" of Umm Kulthum. In keeping with changing popular taste as well as her own artistic inclinations, in the early 1940s, she requested songs from composer Zakariya Ahmad and colloquial poet Mahmud Bayram el-Tunsi cast in styles considered to be indigenously Egyptian. This represented a dramatic departure from the modernist romantic songs of the 1930s, mainly led by Mohammad El-Qasabgi. Umm Kulthum began to abstain from Qasabgi's music in the early 1940s. Their last stage song collaboration was 1941's "Raq el Habib" ("The lover's heart softens"), one of her most popular, intricate, and high-caliber songs. The reason for the separation is not clear. It is speculated that this was due in part to the popular failure of the movie Aida, in which Umm Kulthum mostly sang Qasabgi's compositions, including the first part of the opera. Qasabgi was experimenting with Arabic music, under the influence of classical European music, and was composing for Asmahan, a singer who immigrated to Egypt from Syria and was the only serious competitor for Umm Kulthum before Asmahan's death in a car accident in 1944.

After this shift, Umm Kulthum began to rely heavily on Riad Al-Sunbati, a younger composer who had joined her artistic team a few years earlier. While Sonbati was influenced by Qasabgi during the early years of his career, the melodic lines he composed were more lyrical and more acceptable to Umm Kulthum's audience. Collaborations with Rami/Sonbati and al-Tunisi/Ahmad resulted in a populist and popular repertoire that had lasting appeal for the Egyptian audience.

Umm Kulthum and Fairuz in Beirut, 1967

In 1946, Umm Kulthum defied all odds by presenting a religious poem in classical Arabic. "Salou Qalbi" ("Ask My Heart") was written by Ahmad Shawqi and composed by Ryad Al Sunbati.[27] Its success was immediate and recalled Kulthum's early singing years. Similar poems written by Shawqi were subsequently composed by Sonbati and sung by Umm Kulthum, including "Woulida el Houda" ("The Prophet is Born"; 1949), in which she surprised royalists by singing a verse that described the Prophet Mohammad as "the Imam of Socialists". At the peak of her career, in 1950, Umm Kulthum sang Sonbati's partial setting of Ahmed Rami's classical Arabic translation of Omar Khayyám's quatrains (Rubayyiat el Khayyam). Rami had considered the translation the accomplishment of his career. The song included quatrains that dealt with both epicurianism and redemption.

Around 1965, Umm Kulthum started collaborating with composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Her first song composed by Abdel Wahab, "Enta Omri" (You are my life"). Ibrahim Nagi's poem "Al-Atlal" ("The Ruins"), premiered by Umm Kalthum in 1966 and using both an original improvisation and a melody composed by Sonbati, is also considered a signature song of hers.[27] As Umm Kulthum's vocal abilities had regressed considerably by then, the song can be viewed as the last example of genuine Arabic music at a time when even Umm Kulthum had started to compromise by singing Western-influenced pieces composed by her old rival Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

Her songs deal mostly with the universal themes of love, longing and loss. A typical Umm Kulthum concert consisted of the performance of two or three songs over a period of three to five hours. These performances are in some ways reminiscent of the structure of Western opera, consisting of long vocal passages linked by shorter orchestral interludes. However, Umm Kulthum was not stylistically influenced by opera, and she sang solo most of her career. The duration of Umm Kulthum's songs in performance was dynamic because she would repeat lines requested by the audience at length.[11] For example, the available live performances (about 30) of Ya Zalemni, one of her most popular songs, varied in length from 45 to 90 minutes, depending on the audience and her creative mood for improvisations (however, it is worth noting that the length of a performance did not necessarily reflect either its quality or the Kulthum's improvisatory creativity). An improvisatory technique of hers, typical of old classical Arabic singing, was to repeat a single line or stanza over and over, subtly altering the emotive emphasis and intensity and exploring one or various musical modal scales (maqām) each time to bring her audiences into a euphoric and ecstatic state known in Arabic as "tarab" طرب.[11] She executed this technique for as long as she could, though an age-related regression in vocal abilities and the increased Westernization of Arabic music increasingly impeded this art. The spontaneous creativity of Umm Kulthum as a singer is most impressive when, upon listening to these many different renditions of the same song over a time span of five years (1954–1959), the listener is offered a totally unique and different experience. This intense, highly personalized relationship was undoubtedly a reason for Umm Kulthum's tremendous artistic success.

Umm Kulthum with Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi in 1971

According to André Chouraqui, in May 1967, just before the Six-Day War, she was heard on Radio Cairo and Radio Damas singing "Slaughter, slaughter, slaughter and have no pity ..." towards the Zionist Israeli.[28][29][30][31][32] Another source mentions the creation of a song of war.[33] Laura Lohman[34] has identified several other war songs created for her in that same period. In 1969 it was followed by another one "Asbaha al-Ana 'indi Bunduqiyyah" (I now have a rifle).[35]

Her songs took on more a soul-searching quality in 1967, following the defeat of Egypt during the Six-Day War. "Hadeeth el Rouh" ("The Talk of The Soul"), which is a translation from the poet Mohammad Iqbal's "Shikwa", set up a very reflective tone. Generals in the audience are said to have been left in tears. Following the foundation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971, she staged several concerts upon invitation of its first president Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan to celebrate the event.[36]

Umm Kulthum also sang for composers Mohammad El Mougi, Sayed Mekawy, and Baligh Hamdi.

Death and funeral[edit]

Funeral procession for Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthum died on 3 February 1975, aged 76, from kidney failure. Her funeral procession became a national event, with around 4 million[37] grief-stricken Egyptians lining the streets to catch a glimpse of her passing cortège.[3] It is even reported that her funeral's attendance drew a greater audience than that Nasser, who died the same year.[38] Traffic along the procession route was cut off two hours ahead of the procession. Even so, the sheer number of mourners forced the procession to change direction and bring her coffin to the prominent Al Azhar mosque.[21] She was buried in a mausoleum close to the Mausoleum of Imam al-Shafi'i in the City of the Dead in Cairo.[24]

Artistic legacy[edit]

Umm Kulthum in Life Magazine, 1962

Umm Kulthum is regarded as one of the greatest singers in the history of Arab music,[39] with significant influence on a number of musicians, both in the Arab World and beyond. Among others, Jah Wobble has claimed her as a significant influence on his work. Bob Dylan has been quoted praising her,[40][41] along with Marie Laforêt,[42] Bono,[42] Robert Plant,[43] and many others. Youssou N'Dour, a fan of hers since childhood, recorded his 2004 album Egypt with an Egyptian orchestra in homage to her legacy.[44] One of her best-known songs, "Enta Omri", has been covered and reinterpreted numerous times.

She was referred to as the Lady by Charles de Gaulle and was regarded as the "Incomparable Voice" by Maria Callas.[45] Even today, she has retained a near-mythical status among young Egyptians. In 2001, the Egyptian government opened the Kawkab al-Sharq (Star of the East) Museum in the singer's memory. Housed in a pavilion on the grounds of Cairo's Manesterly Palace, the collection includes a range of Umm Kulthum's personal possessions, including her trademark sunglasses and scarves, along with photographs, recordings, and other archival material.[46]

Monument to Umm Kulthum in Zamalek, Cairo; it is located on the site of the singer's former house

Critics and journalists note that while she influenced many different artists, she had also touched the lives of millions of her listeners and fans. Her performances combined raw emotion and political rhetoric; she was greatly influential and spoke about politics through her music. An example of this can be seen in the music she performed after World War II. On its surface, these songs were about love, but a deeper interpretation of the lyrics – for example in the song "Salue Qalbi" – reveals Kulthum questioning political motives in times of political tension.[38] The political rhretoric within Umm Kulthum's music is still influential today, in Egypt as well as many Middle Eastern countries and even globally.

Voice[edit]

It is difficult to accurately measure Umm Kulthum's vocal range at its peak, as most of her songs were recorded live. However, she was known to be a contralto.[47] Contralto singers are uncommon and sing in the lowest register of the female voice.[48] She was a master of improvisation, and it is said that she never sang a line the same way twice.[11] S

Remembrance[edit]

She is referenced at length in the lyrics of the central ballad "Omar Sharif" in the musical The Band's Visit.[49]

A pearl necklace with 1,888 pearls that she received from Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is exhibited at the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.[36]

In January 2019, at the Winter in Tantora festival in AlUla, Kulthum performed live "appearing as a hologram with accompaniment by an orchestra and bedecked in flowing, full-length gowns as she had when debuting in the 1920s."[50] Hologram concerts with her have also been organized by the Egyptian Minister of Culture Inas Abde-Dayem in Cairo and the Dubai Opera.[4]

Essential songs[edit]

[51]

Song Date Music Lyrics
El Awela fel Gharam 1944 Zakaria Ahmad Bayram al-Tunisi
Salou Qalbi 1946 Riad al Sanbati Ahmad Shawqi
Al Nil 1949 Riad al Sanbati Ahmad Shawqi
Arouh Lemin 1958 Riad al Sanbati Abdel Menhem Al Sbaey
Siret el Hobb 1964 Baligh Hamdi Morsi Jamil Aziz
Inta Omri 1964 Mohamad Abdel Wahab Ahmad Shafeeq Kamel
Amal Hayati 1965 Mohamad Abdel Wahab Ahmad Shafiq Kamel
Al-Atlal 1966 Riad al Sanbati Ibrahim Naji
Alf Leila w Leila 1969 Baligh Hamdi Morsi Jamil Aziz
Arak Assey al Damaa Riad al Sanbati Abu Firas al-Hamdani

Selected discography[edit]

  • Aghadan alqak ("Shall I see you tomorrow?") (Maqam Ajam) (1971)
  • Ana Fi Entezarak ("I am waiting for you") (1943)
  • Alf Leila wa Leila ("One thousand and one nights") (Maqam Farahfaza) (1969)
  • Arouh li Meen or Arooh Lemeen ("Whom should I go to") (Maqam Rast) (1958)
  • Al Atlal[52] ("The Ruins") (Maqam Rahat Alarwah) (1966)
  • Amal Hayati"; Sono ("Hope of my life") (Maqam Ajam) (1965)
  • Ansak Ya Salam ("Forget you? Come on!") (1961) (Maqam Rast)
  • Aqbal al-layl ("Night has arrived") (1969)
  • Araka asiya al-dam ("I see you refusing to cry") (1964)
  • 'Awwidt 'ayni ("I accustomed my eyes") (1957) (Maqam Kurd)
  • Baeed Anak ("Away From You") (Maqam Bayati) (1965)
  • Betfaker fi Meen ("Who are you thinking of?") (Maqam Bayati) (1963)
  • Dalili Ehtar ("I am lost") (1955) (Maqam Kurd)
  • Dhikrayatun (Qessat Hobbi or the story of my love or memories) (1955)
  • El Hobb Kolloh[53] ("All the love") (Maqam Rast) (1971)
  • Ental Hobb ("You are the love") (Maqam Nahwand) (1965)
  • Es'al Rouhak ("Ask yourself") (Maqam Hijaz Kar) (1970)
  • Fakarouni ("They reminded me") (Maqam Rast) (1966)
  • Fit al-ma' ad ("It is too late" or "The rendez-vous is over") Sono Cairo (Maqam Sika) (1967)
  • Gharib' Ala Bab erraja ("Stranger at the door of hope") (1955)
  • Ghulubt asalih ("Tired of forgiving") (1946)
  • Hadeeth el Rouh ("The talk of the soul") (Maqam Rahat Alarwah) (1967)
  • Hagartek or Hajartak ("I left you") EMI (1959)
  • Hasibak lil-zaman ("I will leave you to time") (1962)
  • Hathehe Laylati ("This is my night") (Maqam Bayati) (1968)
  • Hayart Albi Ma'ak ("You confused my heart") (Maqam Nahwand) (1961)
  • Hakam 'alayna al-haw'a ("Love has ordered me") (1973)
  • Hobb Eih[54] ("Which love") (Maqam Bayati) (1960)
  • Howwa Sahih El-Hawa Ghallab ("Is love really stronger?") (1960) (Maqam Saba)
  • Inta Omri – Sono ("You are the love of my life") (Maqam Kurd) (1964)
  • Kull al-ahabbah ("All the friends") (1941)
  • La Diva – CD, EMI Arabia, 1998
  • La Diva II – CD, EMI Arabia, 1998
  • La Diva III – CD, EMI Arabia, 1998
  • La Diva IV – CD, EMI Arabia, 1998
  • La Diva V – CD, EMI Arabia, 1998
  • Leilet Hobb ("A night of love") (1973) (Maqam Nahawand)
  • Lel Sabr Hedod ("Patience has limits") (Maqam Sika) (1964)
  • Lessa Faker ("You still remember") (Maqam Ajam) (1960)
  • Men Agl Aynayk ("For your eyes") (1972)
  • Othkorene ("Remember me") (1939)
  • Raq il Habeeb ("My beloved tendered back") (1941)
  • Retrospective – Artists Arabes Associes
  • Rihab al-huda (al-Thulathiyah al-Muqaddisah) ("The paths to repentance or the holy trinity") (1972)
  • Rubaiyat Al-Khayyam ("Quatrains of Omar Khayyám") (Maqam Rast) (1950)
  • Sirat el Houb ("Tale of love") (Maqam Sika) (1964)
  • Toof we Shoof ("Wander and wonder") (1963)
  • The Classics – CD, EMI Arabia, 2001
  • Wi-darit il-ayyam ("And time passed by") (Maqam Nahwand) (1970)
  • Ya Karawan ("O plover") (1926)
  • Yali Kan Yashqiq Anini ("You who enjoyed my cries") (1949)
  • Ya Msaharny ("You that keeps me awake at night") (1972) (Maqam Rast)
  • Ya Zalemny ("You who were unjust to me") (1954) (Maqam Kurd)
  • Zalamna El Hob ("Love has been unjust to us") (1962)

References[edit]

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  44. ^ Pascarella, Matt. "A Voice from Senegal: Youssou N'Dour". Retrieved 23 October 2010. 'Umm Kulthum was something that we could all share – throughout the Muslim world, despite our differences, her music brought people together,' he says. 'Although I haven't done anything close to what Umm did in music, I'm trying to be part of that musical tradition. For me, through Umm, Egypt became more than a country, it is a concept of meeting, of sharing what we have in common.' 'The Egypt album was my homage to Umm's legacy.'
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Sources[edit]

  • Virginia Danielson. "Umm Kulthūm". Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 20 July 2016.
  • Goldman, Michal, director. (1996). Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt. – an English-language film about the singer
  • "Umm Kulthum lyrics and English translation". Arabic Song Lyrics. Retrieved 27 August 2019.
  • Murat Özyıldırım, Arap ve Turk Musikisinin 20. yy Birlikteligi, Bağlam Yay. (Müzik Bilimleri Serisi, Edt. V. Yildirim), Istanbul Kasım 2013.

External links[edit]