Umm Kulthum (Egyptian Arabic: أم كلثوم ʾUmm Kulṯūm; Egyptian Arabic pronunciation: um kulˈðuːm), born Fātimah ʾIbrāhīm as-Sayyid al-Biltāǧī (فاطمة إبراهيم السيد البلتاجى ˈfɑtˤmɑ (ʔe)bɾɑˈhiːm esˈsæjjed elbelˈtæːɡi; see Kunya) on an uncertain date (December 30, 1898 or May 4, 1904) and who died February 3, 1975, was an internationally famous Egyptian singer, songwriter, and film actress of the 1920s to the 1970s. She is given the honorific title, Kawkab al-Sharq كوكب الشرق ("Star of the East") in Arabic. Four decades after her death in 1975, she is still widely regarded as the greatest Arabic singer in history.
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. Born on December 31, 1904. Her English-language biographer, Virginia Danielson (see sources below), reported that it was May 4, 1904. 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 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 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 close 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
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.
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.
In 1934, Umm Kulthum sang for the inaugural broadcast of Radio Cairo, the state station. 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.
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.
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?" 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.
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 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.
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:
The Star of the East died February 3, 1975, at age 76. Her funeral procession became a national event, with around 4 million grief-stricken Egyptians lining the streets to catch a glimpse as her cortege passed, even as many as the crowds that attended the funeral procession of Umm Kulthum's contemporary, President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
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."Nana Mouskouri, Maria Callas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marie Laforêt, Salvador Dalí, Nico, Bono, Farin Urlaub, Led Zeppelin and Jean Michel Jarre 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. 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. 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.
Kulthum had a contralto vocal range.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license