Her Thursday night broadcasts brought the Middle East to a standstill, the streets empty as people gathered to listen to her sing on the radio. When she died in 1975, four million people lined the streets of Cairo for her funeral. Her name was Umm (also sometimes spelled Oum, Um or any of a number of other variations) Kulthum (or Kulsoum, Kalsoum, etc.), and she was the greatest Arabic singer of the 20th Century.
It was an epic end for a woman who’d had very humble beginnings. Born in the dry desert village of Tamy Al-Zahayrah in 1904, she absorbed music almost by accident. Her father was the iman at the village mosque, calling the faithful to prayer. He also performed at weddings and festivals, singing religious songs, and was training his son to follow in his footsteps. To his astonishment, Umm memorized the songs and began singing them. She began to sing and perform with the family, but it was soon apparent that her talent outstripped them all. She was a major attraction throughout the region (and this in a time and place where it wasn’t quite as seemly for a woman to sing in public), and her father decided to move to Cairo to help her career.
She’d been a big fish in a small pond, but in Cairo, she was swimming in deep water, surrounded by sharks. To a sophisticated urban population, she was little more than a hick country girl with little more than a crude technique.
Many would have been discouraged. Instead, Kulthum found a mentor, and studied with several teachers, including Ahmad Rami, who schooled her in poetry and Arabic literature, almost a necessity for anyone wanting to be taken seriously as a singer.
She made her first recordings in 1926, and from there her star rapidly rose. Instead of the songs her father had taught her, she widened her repertoire, singing material composed by some of Egypt’s best, with many of the lyrics penned by Rami. While she didn’t have a huge vocal range, a bit over two octaves, her power was in what she could do with it. She learned remarkable breath control and modulation, how to ornament lines, and the applause she received frequently led to her repeating the lines over and over in concert. Her command of the Arab melodic system was far ahead of anyone else’s. As one critic noted, “She does not just sing the Ruba'iyat, she infuses it with meaning.”
When Egyptian radio began broadcasting in 1934, she was one of the first artists on the air, and a year later she made her debut on film. In 1937 she arranged for radio to broadcast her monthly concerts live, which made much of Egypt, not just Cairo her audience. As time passed, and the transmitter area grew, the entire Middle East was able to hear her, and her Thursday concerts became events.
During the 1940s, at the height of her artistic powers, she became more political, with some of her songs offering subtle overtones of Egyptian self-rule and political justice. By then she was an unstoppable force and power in music. She became a member of the Listening Committee, which selected what music would be played on the radio, and then head of the Egyptian Musicians’ Union.
Unlike most singers, especially female singers, she had a huge amount of control over her career, choosing her material, her accompanists, and even the actors and technicians for the movies she continued to make. The word diva might well have been invented for her.
With the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, her political side came more to the fore. A strong supporter of Nasser, she frequently sang songs supporting the new republic and its leader, and never hesitated in becoming a role model, emphasizing her humble beginnings in interviews, to point out that anyone could overcome poverty with hard work. But probably her greatest work for Egypt came after the Six Days’ War in 1967, when she toured a demoralized Arab world giving concerts, and donated the proceeds, some $2 million, to the<
The Voice Of Egypt, by Virginia Danielson (University of Chicago Press, 1997)
There’s nothing by Umm Kulthum available domestically in the U.S. at present. However online outlets in the U.K. and France do have material.
The Mother Of The Arabs (EMI) offers a 13-track anthology, as good an introduction as you’ll find, well remastered (unlike most of her work).
Oum Kalsoum—Anthologie (Next Music/Sono) As mentioned above, there are several spelling variations on Kulthum’s name, but however you spell it, the music remains wonderful. This French five-CD set goes into much more depth, and fully captures her vocal majesty and magic. And it’s bargain-priced, for those ready to make the leap into her greatness.