Umm Kulthum

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This article is about the Egyptian singer. For other uses, see Umm Kulthum (name).
Oum Kulthum
أم كلثوم
Umm Kulthum4.jpg
Background information
Birth name Fatima Ibrahim
Also known as Oum Kalthoum, Om Kalsoum, Om Koulsum, Om Kalthoum, Oumme Kalsoum, Umm Kolthoum, Om Koultoum, Ummi Kultsum, Ummi Kaltsum, Umi Kulsum, Umi Kalsum, El Set, Esset, Alset, Asset
Born (1898-12-31)December 31, 1898
Tamay Ez-Zahayra, El Senbellawein, Dakahlia Governorate, Khedivate of Egypt
Died February 3, 1975(1975-02-03) (aged 76)
Cairo, Egypt
Genres Arabic classical music
Occupation(s) Singer, actress
Years active c. 1924–1973
Labels EMI Arabia
Associated acts Fairuz
Abdel Halim Hafez
Riad Al Sunbati
Mohammed Abdel Wahab
Maria Callas

Umm Kulthum (Egyptian Arabic: أم كلثوم‎‎ ʾUmm Kulsūm; Arabic pronunciation: [um kulˈθuːm]; born Fātimah ʾIbrāhīm as-Sayyid al-Biltāǧī (فاطمة إبراهيم السيد البلتاجي [ˈfɑtˤmɑ (ʔe)bɾɑˈhiːm esˈsæjjed elbelˈtæːɡi]; see Kunya) on an uncertain date (December 31, 1898, or May 4, 1904[1]), died February 3, 1975) was an internationally famous Egyptian singer, songwriter, and film actress active from the 1920s to the 1970s. She was given the honorific title Kawkab al-Sharq كوكب الشرق ("Planet of the East") in Arabic. Known for her extraordinary vocal ability and style, Umm Kulthum was one of the greatest and most influential Arab singers of the 20th century .


Early life[edit]

Umm Kulthum was born in the village of Tamay e-Zahayra, belonging to the city of El Senbellawein, Dakahlia Governorate, in the Nile Delta. Her birth date is unconfirmed, as birth registration was not enforced throughout the Arab world in that era. Some sources claim that she was born Dec. 31st 1897, Dec 31, 1904 or May 4, 1904. She learned how to sing by listening to her father teach her older brother, Khalid. At a young age she showed exceptional singing talent. Her father, an imam at the local mosque, taught her to recite the Qur'an, and she is said to have memorized the entire book. When she was 12 years old, her father noticed her strength in singing so he asked her to join the family ensemble. She was dressed as a boy in order for her father to not face disapprobation due to having a girl on stage. At the age of 16, she was noticed by Mohamed Aboul Ela, a modestly famous singer, who taught her the old classical Arab repertoire. 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 classic ose relationship with Rawheya Al-Mahdi, Amin's daughter, and became her closest friend. Kulthum even attended Rawheya's daughter's wedding, although she normally preferred to avoid appearing in public (off stage).

Amin Al Mahdi introduced her to the cultural circles in Cairo, where she carefully avoided succumbing to the attractions of the bohemian lifestyle and, indeed, throughout her life, stressed her pride in her humble origins and espousal of conservative values. She also maintained a tightly managed public image, which undoubtedly added to her allure. At this point in her career, Umm Kulthum was introduced to the famous poet Ahmad Rami, who wrote 137 songs for her. Rami also introduced her to French literature, which he greatly admired from his studies at the Sorbonne, Paris, and eventually became her head mentor in Arabic literature and literary analysis. Furthermore, she was introduced to the renowned oud virtuoso and composer Mohamed El Qasabgi, who introduced her to the Arabic Theatre Palace, where she would experience her first real public success. 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, performing in important Arab cities such as Damascus, Syria; Baghdad, Iraq; Beirut, Lebanon; Tunis, Tunisia; and Tripoli, Libya.


Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Umm Kulthum.

Virginia Danielson, Harvard Magazine[2]

Umm Kulthum's establishment as one of the most famous and popular Arab singers was driven by several factors. During her early career years, she faced staunch competition from two prominent singers: Mounira El Mahdeya and Fathiyya Ahmad, who had similar voices. However, Mounira had poor control over her voice, and Fathiyya lacked the emotive vocal impact that Umm Kulthum's voice had. The presence of all these enabling vocal characteristics attracted many composers, musicians, and lyricists to work with Umm Kulthum.[citation needed]

In the mid-1920s, Mohammad el Qasabgi, who was an oud player and a composer, formed her small orchestra (takht), composed of the most virtuosic instrumentalists. Furthermore, unlike most of her contemporary artists who held private concerts, Umm Kulthum's performances were open to the general public, which contributed to the transition from classical, and often elitist, to popular Arabic music.[citation needed]

In 1934, Umm Kulthum sang for the inaugural broadcast of Radio Cairo, the state station.[3] Over the second half of the 1930s, two initiatives sealed the fate of Umm Kulthum as the most popular and famous Arab singer: her appearances in musical movies and the live broadcasting of her concerts performed on the first Thursday of each month of her musical season from October to June. Her influence kept growing and expanding beyond the artistic scene: the reigning royal family would request private concerts and even attend her public performances.[citation needed]

In 1944, King Farouk I of Egypt decorated her with the highest level of orders (nishan el kamal), 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 and embrace grassroots causes, such as her answering the request of the Egyptian legion trapped in the Faluja Pocket during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict to sing a particular song. Among the army men trapped were the figures who were going to lead the bloodless revolution of July 23, 1952, prominently Gamal Abdel Nasser, who arguably was a fan of Umm Kulthum and who would later become the president of Egypt.[citation needed]

Early after 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 forbidden 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?"[4] It was his favor that made the musicians' guild accept her back into the fold; but it is uncertain if that happened. In addition, Umm Kulthum was a dedicated Egyptian patriot since the time of King Farouk. 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. Umm Kulthum was also known for her continuous contributions to charity works for the Egyptian military efforts. Umm Kulthum's monthly concerts took place on the first Thursday of every month and 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.

Her songs deal mostly with the universal themes of love, longing and loss. They are nothing short of epic in scale, with durations measured in hours rather than minutes. A typical Umm Kulthum concert consisted of the performance of two or three songs over a period of three to four hours. In the late 1960s, due to her age and weakened vocal abilities, she began to shorten her performances to two songs over a period of two-and-a-half to three 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.

During the 1930s, her repertoire took the first of several specific stylistic directions. Her songs were virtuosic, as befit 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 romantic poet Ahmad Rami and composer Mohammad El-Qasabgi, whose songs incorporated European instruments such as the violoncello and double bass, as well as harmony.

Golden age[edit]

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 had abstained from singing Qasabgi's music since the early 1940s. Their last stage song collaboration in 1941 was "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 sings mostly 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 a lot 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.

Simultaneously, Umm Kulthum started to rely heavily on a younger composer who joined her artistic team a few years earlier: Riad El-Sonbati. While Sonbati was evidently influenced by Qasabgi in those early years, the melodic lines he composed were more lyrical and more acceptable to Umm Kulthum's audience. The result of collaborations with Rami/Sonbati and al-Tunisi/Ahmad was a populist and popular repertoire that had lasting appeal for the Egyptian audience.

In 1946, Umm Kulthum defied all odds by presenting a religious poem in classical Arabic during one of her monthly concerts, "Salou Qalbi" ("Ask My Heart"), written by Ahmad Shawqi and composed by Sonbati. The success was immediate. It reconnected Umm Kulthum with her early singing years, defined Sonbati's unique style in composing and established him as the best composer of music for poems in classical Arabic, toppling Mohammed Abdel Wahab. 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 raised eyebrows of royalists by singing a verse that describes the Prophet Mohammad as "the Imam of Socialists".

At the peak of her career, in 1950, Umm Kulthum sang Sonbati's composition of excerpts of what Ahmad Rami considered the accomplishment of his career: the translation from Persian into classical Arabic of Omar Khayyám's quartets (Rubayyiat el Khayyam). The song included quartets that dealt with both epicurianism and redemption. Ibrahim Nagi's poem "Al-Atlal" ("The Ruins"), composed by Sonbati and premiered in 1966, is considered by many[who?] as Umm Kulthum's best song. While this is debatable, 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.

The duration of Umm Kulthum's songs in performance was not fixed, but varied based on the level of emotive interaction between the singer and her audience and Umm Kulthum's own mood for creativity. An improvisatory technique, which was typical of old classical Arabic singing, and which she executed for as long as she could have (both her regressing vocal abilities with age and the increased Westernization of Arabic music became an impediment to this art), was to repeat a single line or stance 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. 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 both her creative mood for improvisations and the audience request for more repetitions, illustrating the dynamic relationship between the singer and the audience as they fed off each other's emotional energy.

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

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 one of the reasons for Umm Kulthum's tremendous success as an artist. Worth noting though that the length of a performance did not necessarily reflect either its quality or the improvisatory creativity of Umm Kulthum. Some of her best performances were 25–45 minutes in duration, such as the three available renditions, including the commercial version of El Awwila Fi'l Gharam ("First in Love"), and Ana Fi Intizarak ("I am waiting for you"), (commercial and 3-3-1955 performance). On the other hand, her songs as of the mid-1960s would extend sometimes over a duration of two hours (premiere of Enta Omri, Enta el Hobb, etc.); however, the repetitions, mostly executed upon the request of the audience, were often devoid of creative musical improvisations and limited to vocal colorful variations on a syllable, letter or word.

Around 1965, Umm Kulthum started cooperating with composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Her first song composed by Abdel Wahab, "Enta Omri" (You are my Life"), was considered the "summit meeting". Several beautiful songs composed by Abdel Wahab followed, such as "Amal Hayati" ("The Hope of my Life"), "Fakkarouni" ("They reminded Me"), and others.

Her songs took on more a soul searching for Egyptians in 1967 following the defeat during 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.

Umm Kulthum also sang for composers Mohammad El Mougi, Sayyed Mikkawi and Baligh Hamdi.

Death and funeral[edit]

The Star of the East died February 3, 1975, at age 76. Her funeral procession became a national event, with around 4 million[5] grief-stricken Egyptians lining the streets to catch a glimpse as her cortège passed.[1] It is even reported that her funeral's attendance drew a greater audience than the late president at the time.[6]

Artistic legacy[edit]

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

Umm Kulthum has been a 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 as saying, "She's great. She really is. Really great."[7][8] Maria Callas,[9] Marie Laforêt,[10] Bono,[10] Robert Plant,[11] among many others are also known to be admirers of Kulthum's music. Youssou N'Dour, a fan of hers since childhood, recorded his 2004 album Egypt with an Egyptian orchestra in homage to her legacy.[12] One of her best-known songs, "Enta Omri", has been the basis of many reinterpretations, including one 2005 collaborative project involving Israeli and Egyptian artists.

She was referred to as the Lady by Charles de Gaulle and is regarded as the Incomparable Voice by Maria Callas. Umm Kulthum is remembered in Egypt, the Middle East, and the Arab world as one of the greatest singers and musicians to have ever lived. It is difficult to accurately measure her vocal range at its peak, as most of her songs were recorded live, and she was careful not to strain her voice due to the extended length of her songs. Even today, she has retained a near-mythical status among young Egyptians. She is also notably popular in Israel among Jews (of Mizrahi/Arab background) and Arabs alike, and her records continue to sell about a million copies a year. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat inaugurated Oum Kalthoum Street in 2015. In 2001, the Egyptian government opened the Kawkab al-Sharq (Planet 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.[13]

While she was known to have touched many different artists, she also touched the lives of millions of her listeners and fans. As stated above, her performances outputted raw emotion and even political rhetoric. She was incredibly influential and spoke about politics through her music. An example of this is seen in her music performed after World War II. The themes at the surface were about love yet with deeper interpretation of the lyrics as seen in the song Salue Qalbi, it questions political motives in times of political tension.[14] Umm Kulthum's political rhetoric in her music is still influential today, not only in Egypt, but in many other middle eastern countries and even globally. For example, at the Baalbak Music Festival in Lebanon, many listeners are able to relate to her music that speaks out about the hardships of war and injustices.[15] All in all, Umm Kulthum's music is universally known, have you be 10 years old or 90 years old, people can relate to her music and feel the emotion of every word.[16]


Kulthum had a contralto vocal range.[17] This is not so common of a form and is the lowest categorization of the female voice.[18]

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 Arook Lemeen ("Whom Should I Go To").......maqam rast (1958)
  • Al Atlal[19] ("The Ruins")......maqam Rahat-alarwah (1966)
  • Amal Hayati"; Sono ("Hope of My Life") maqam jam (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 bayyati (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) ("memories") (1955)
  • El Hobb Kolloh[20] ("All The Love").......maqam rast (1971)
  • Ental Hobb ("You Are The Love").......maqam nahwand (1965)
  • Enta Omri – Sono ("You Are the love of my life")........ maqam kurd (1964)
  • Es'al Rouhak ("Ask yourself") maqam hugaz kar (1970)
  • Fakarouni ("They reminded me").......maqam rast (1966)
  • Fit al-ma' ad ("It Is Too Late" or "the rendezvous is over") Sono Cairo.......maqam sikah (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 Al-arwah (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 bayyati (1968)
  • Hayart Albi Ma'ak ("You Confused My Heart")......maqam nahwand (1961)
  • Hakam 'alayna al-haw'a ("Love has ordered me") (1973)
  • Hobb Eih[21] ("Which Love").....maqam bayyati (1960)
  • Howwa Sahih El-Hawa Ghallab ("Is love really stronger?") (1960) maqam saba
  • 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 sikah (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)
  • RetrospectiveArtists 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 sikah (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 ("We Have Sinned Against Love") (1962)


  1. ^ a b Umm Kulthūm. (2012). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from
  2. ^ Harris, Craig (1975-01-21). "Umm Kulthum – Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  3. ^ Virginia Danielson. "Umm Kulthum [Ibrāhīm Um Kalthum]". In L. Root, Deane. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.  (subscription required)
  4. ^ Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt. Dir. Michal Goldman. Narr. Omar Sharif. Arab Film Distribution, 1996.
  5. ^ Kumbh together| The world's biggest gatherings
  6. ^ Danielson, Virginia. “Listening to Umm Kulthūm.” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 2, 1996, pp. 170–173.
  7. ^ "Playboy Interview: Bob Dylan". Retrieved 2012-09-08. 
  8. ^ Piazza, Tom (July 28, 2002). "Bob Dylan's Unswerving Road Back to Newport". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-06-29. 
  9. ^ Umm Kulthum: Pride of Egypt
  10. ^ a b Old is gold: Vintage photos of a chic Umm Kulthum in Paris!
  11. ^ Andy Gill (27 August 2010). "Robert Plant: 'I feel so far away from heavy rock'". The Independent. UK. Retrieved 30 August 2010. 
  12. ^ Pascarella, Matt. "A Voice from Senegal: Youssou N'Dour". Retrieved 2010-10-23. '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.' 
  13. ^ Rakha, Youssef and El-Aref, Nevine, "Umm Kulthoum, superstar", Al-Ahram Weekly, December 27, 2001 – January 2, 2002.
  14. ^ Danielson, Virginia. “Listening to Umm Kulthūm.” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 2, 1996, pp. 171.
  15. ^ Barnard, Anne. "Lebanese Festival Presses on, Defying the Region's Turmoil." New York Times (1923-Current file), Aug 08 2013, pp. 2. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times
  16. ^ Galford, Hugh S. "Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt." The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, vol. 21, no. 2, 2002., pp. 104 Ethnic NewsWatch; ProQuest Social Sciences Premium Collection
  17. ^ "Funeral for a Nightingale". Time. February 17, 1975. Retrieved 2012-09-08. 
  18. ^ Owen Jander, et al. "Contralto." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.
  19. ^ "El Atlal الأطلال The Ruins". Arabic Song Lyrics. 2010-08-19. Retrieved 2012-09-08. 
  20. ^ "El Hob Kollo الحب كله All the love". Arabic Song Lyrics. 2010-08-19. Retrieved 2012-09-08. 
  21. ^ "Hob Eih حب ايه What love?". Arabic Song Lyrics. 2010-08-19. Retrieved 2012-09-08. 


  • 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

External links[edit]