Umm Kalthum - Legendary Songstress of the Arabs

Habeeb Salloum

Called by some kawkab al-sharq (star of the East) and by others 'empress of Arab tunes,' Umm Kalthum, with a voice powerful and clear, can still be heard daily on radio stations in the multitudes of coffee shops and taxis all over the Arab world. Even though she died over two decades ago, her love lyrics, national odes and religious chants continue to affect millions of people. Her audience, as if on cue, hums along or cries in despair in reaction to her range of pitch, filled with nostalgia and yearning, touching the very Arab soul.

Umm Kalthum was born in 1908 to a humble peasant family in Tamayet-el-Zahayra -- a tiny Egyptian village. She began her singing career as a poor peasant girl dressed as a boy because it was thought that virtuous maidens did not sing in public. At the same time, she studied the Qur'an and mastered its language. During weddings and family feasts she recited in traditional style parts of this Holy Book and from the as-Sirah -- ballads which tell the story of the Prophet Muhammad and his family. Even at an early age, her voice had an unequaled emotional range and spread her fame throughout the Valley of the Nile.

In 1924 she moved to Cairo where during the following years, in every part of the Arab world, she developed a cult following and her concerts a rite. Each performance became a pan-Arab event. People from North Africa and the Middle East, especially from the Arabian Peninsula, would fly into Cairo on the first Thursday of every month for the sole purpose of attending her concerts which, in the main, consisted of a single song lasting into the wee hours of the morning.

Each song usually celebrated the miracle of the Arabs and their Muslim faith. Almost every one was a collection of the great Arab themes which ran the gamut of pining away for the past, languid love, injured pride and memories of lost passion. They bridged the many gulfs to fuse the diverse social fragments of the Arab world into an emotional whole. It is said that she is responsible for keeping alive the Islamic heritage and the ancient poetry of the desert. Notwithstanding the fact that she starred in many films, she rejected modem singing and clung to the time-honored Arab classical melodies.

Tall, with pitch black hair, Umm Kalthum was striking and with her words and voice she could create a magical atmosphere and enchant her listeners as no other Arab singer in the past or at present has been able to do. She had a uniquely expressive tone which could make her listeners laugh or even bring them to tears.

Standing a few feet away from the microphone in an evening gown studded with diamonds, she twisted and crumpled a flowing scarf in her hands, as her voice, sometimes husky and strained or leaping with pangs of love, would hit some impossible tones. At other times, her alto voice which stretched to soprano or tenor and was punctuated, decorated and echoed by her orchestra, touched cosmic depths and brought on a mixture of longing, wistfulness and unfulfilled dreams.

During the Second World War her lyrics had such a sway over the Arabs that both the Allies and Axis, in their programs broadcast to the Middle East, utilized her records. Late in the 1940s she became the acknowledged leader of Arabic song and her life thereafter became the story of modern Egypt.

After taking power, Nasser established a close relationship with Umm Kalthum. In the succeeding years she enjoyed a special status with this young Arab hero -- a singular position which no other artist ever attained. Her voice became almost as important as the speeches of the charismatic Nasser. To ensure an Arab world-wide audience, important political news items were broadcast before Umm Kalthum's concerts. Hence, the saying that "in the 1950s two leaders emerged in the Middle East, Jamal Abd al-Nasser and Umm Kalthum," has a solid base. Yet, even more than Nasser, like the eternal Sphinx, this voice of the Arabs became a national symbol of Egypt.

In the world of artistic splendor of the 1950s and 1960s, when Umm Kalthum became the toast of Cairo and a national heroine, her fame and adoration also reached its zenith in the other Arab lands. Nicknamed the 'Ambassadress of Arabic Arts', her importance in the Arab countries was so great that she was received with the same ceremony as heads of state, and taken into account when plans were made for important events.

During her twilight years, this Arab celebrity was a composed and modest woman. Unlike many Arab artists of our times she was proud of her Arab-Islamic heritage. In her daily life she followed Arab traditions and acted as one of the ordinary people. This endeared her to the masses. They idolized and thought of her as one of themselves, referring to her as al-Sitt. A dedicated humanist, she distributed much of the money she made to the poor. It is said that during her lifetime she supported at least 200 peasant families.

Umm Kalthum died in February 1975. Her funeral was led by the presidential court and followed by over a mile long procession of loving worshipers. Film stars, poets, business men, ambassadors and ministers walked shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of her ordinary fans, forming a phalanx of mass grievers. From the front of the mass column to the last, the chant, 'Good-bye! Good-bye our beloved songstress!' echoed amid the sobs of the mourners. The massive turnout of grieving people was second only to Nasser's farewell -- the largest funeral in Egyptian history.

Strange as it may seem, death did not end her sway over the masses in the Arab world. Her phenomenally powerful and captivating beautiful voice still stirs the hearts of millions. Over 20 years after her death the legend of Umm Kalthum lives on among the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East. Over 300,000 of her tapes are still sold annually in Egypt alone. It appears that the magic of the voice which made her audience euphoric, begging her to repeat the same words again and again, will not diminish with the years. The saying in Egypt that two things never change 'the Pyramids and the voice of Umm Kalthum' are perhaps more true today than when this nightingale of the Arabs walked the earth.

This article appeared in Al Jadid magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1 (November 1995).

Copyright © 1995 by Al Jadid

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