Umm Kulthum

(1898-1975)

Umm Kulthum (born Fatma Ibrahim al-Beltagi) (May 4, 1904 – February 3, 1975) was born in Tamay ez-Zahayra, next to al-Senbellawein, and is known as the Star of the East (kawkab al-sharq). More than three decades after her death, she is still recognized as one of the Arab world's most famous and distinguished singer of the 20th century.

At a young age, she showed exceptional singing talent. Her father, an Imam, 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 disguised her as a young boy and entered her in a small performing troupe that he directed. At the age of 16 she was noticed by Abol-Ela Mohamed, a modestly famous singer, and by the famous oud player Zakariyya Ahmad, who invited her to come to Cairo. She waited until 1923 before accepting the invitation. She was invited on several occasions to the house of Amin Beh al-Mahdi, who taught her how to play the oud (lute). She developed a very close relationship to Rawheya al-Mahdi, daughter of Amin, and became her closest friend. Kulthum even attended Rawheya's daughter's wedding, although she always tried to avoid public appearances.

Amin Al Mahdi introduced her to the cultural circles in Cairo. In Cairo, 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, she 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 a- Qasabgi. Qasabgi introduced Umm Kulthum to the Arabic Theatre Palace, where she would experience her first real public success. In 1932, her fame increased to the point where she embarked upon a large tour of the Middle East, touring such cities as Damascus, Syria; Baghdad, Iraq; Beirut and Tripoli, Lebanon.

By 1948 her fame had come to the attention of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who would later become the president of Egypt. At one point 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. Nasser did not hide his admiration for her. When he discovered that she was no longer allowed to sing, he reportedly said something to the effect of "What are they? Crazy? Do you want Egypt to turn against us?" It was his favor that made the musicians' guild accepted her back into the fold. 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 six hours. In the late 1960s, due to her age, 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.

During the 1930s, her repertory 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 Muhammad al-Qsabji, whose songs incorporated European instruments such as the violoncello and double bass as well as harmony.

Umm Kulthum's musical directions in the 1940s and early 1950s and her mature performing style caused this period to be popularly called 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 Zakariyya Ahmad and colloquial poet Beiram al-Tunsi cast in styles considered to be indigenously Egyptian. This represented a dramatic departure from the modernist romantic songs of the 1930s. The result was a populist repertory that had lasting appeal for the Egyptian audience.

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. A typical improvisatory technique of hers was to repeat a single phrase or sentence of a song's lyrics over and over, subtly altering the emotive emphasis and intensity each time to bring her audiences into a euphoric and ecstatic state, and was considered to "have never sung a line the same way twice." Thus, while the official recorded length of a song such as Enta Omri (You Are My Life) is approximately 60 minutes, a live performance could extend to many hours as the singer and her audience fed off each other's emotional energy. This intense, highly personalized creative relationship was undoubtedly one of the reasons for Umm Kulthum's tremendous success as an artist.

In parallel to her singing career, Umm Kulthum at one point pursued an acting career and starred in six films. However, she gave it up because of the lack of personal and emotional contact with the audience. The lights used to shoot these films also damaged her eyes, which required that she wear dark glasses in the presence of bright lights.

In 1967, Umm Kulthum was diagnosed with a severe case of nephritis. She gave her last concert at the Palace of the Nile in 1973. Tests at that time indicated that her illness was incurable. She moved to the United States, where she benefited for some time from the advanced medical technology, but in 1975, upon re-entering her home country, she required hospitalization due to declining health. Umm Kulthum died in a Cairo hospital on February 3, 1975.

Her funeral was attended by over 4 million mourners—one of the largest gatherings in history—and descended into pandemonium when the crowd seized control of her coffin and carried it to a mosque that they considered her favorite, before later releasing the coffin for burial.