Umm Kulthum

Nightingale of the Nile

Egyptian journalist Raja al-Naqqash once wrote that during his youth he misunderstood “listening to Umm Kulthum” as “listening to singing”, because the female artist was all anyone appeared to listen to. [1] Born at the turn of the century, Umm Kulthum is one of the most celebrated singers of the Arab world. Lauded as the “Star of the East”, the “Great Pyramid of Egyptian Song”, and the “Nightingale of the Nile” [2], she positively dominated the music culture of the Middle East until her death in 1975.

Umm Kulthum radiated elegance and style as a performer (in 2008, one of her dramatic necklaces sold for $1.2 million at an auction in Dubai! [3]), but her authenticity in the eyes of the Arab public was surely rooted in her more modest and relatable beginnings. Growing up in a small Egyptian town, she enjoyed the common experience of learning to recite the Qur’an as a child, and furthermore helped to support her family by publicly singing religious songs alongside her father, who was a Muslim leader in their local community. This informal training enabled Umm Kulthum to develop her own skill and artistic identity as a singer. [4]  While this identity blossomed and crystallised, Egypt expanded its own identity as a centre of entertainment and culture. The Egyptian radio and film industries took off, and Umm Kulthum rode the rising wave of commercial Egyptian music to take a well-deserved place at the top of the charts. [5]

Soundtrack to a new Egyptian identity

The arc of Umm Kulthum’s coming of age as a musician was particularly special because it spoke so powerfully to the historical events unfolding in Egypt. Egypt gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1922, around the same time that Umm Kulthum established herself as a popular singer in Cairo. In many ways, Egyptians saw Umm Kulthum as a superheroine of a new Egyptian identity. Her music became a soundtrack to the political movements of the time, and as her popularity spread beyond Egypt to other parts of the Middle East, she helped define Arabs’ feelings of belonging to a broader, international community. On the first Thursday of every month, when Umm Kulthum regularly sang on the radio, streets across the Arab world were deserted as people stayed home to hear her voice. [6] As one writer recalls, “Everyone from the Bedouin with their transistor radios to the businessmen arriving for the event by private plane listed to Umm Kulthum.” [7] Keep in mind that this was not a passing obsession or a blip on the map of Egyptian pop music: Umm Kulthum’s career flourished for nearly four decades. She was Egyptian pop music.

One of the most unique and impressive characteristics of Umm Kulthum’s music is its mixed form. It was commercial pop, yet her style also paid homage to traditional Arabic poetry, while her delivery clearly reflected her days reciting the Qur’an. Umm Kulthum herself claimed “the Qur’an was her first teacher”. [8] Her training in religious recitation influenced how she pronounced and emphasised words in her music, how she breathed and paused when performing. The result is a collection of songs – some romantic, others traditional and folk-like, and still others performed with entire orchestras – that enchant their listeners and command attention. What’s more, Umm Kulthum’s songs were marathons compared to the three-minute pop songs of today: a single song often lasted for more than an hour, yet the Nightingale of the Nile kept people listening eagerly until she was finished. One expert observes of Umm Kulthum’s drawn-out music: “By the time she gets to the end of the line, everybody reaches a kind of ecstatic breakthrough that people feel can only be arrived at through singing of poetry.” [9] This ecstasy was everywhere during Umm Kulthum’s reign. As one fan puts it, “Her music was like a household fixture, like the lightbulb, like your mom’s cooking, it came with the spices, and that’s why everybody relates to her.” [10]

Music pioneer

Umm Kulthum’s power as a symbol of dignified and inclusive Arab and Muslim identity was only enhanced by her own identity as a woman. Her father was for a time uncomfortable with presenting his talented daughter to men he didn’t know, and consequently she spent several years of her youth dressing in boy’s clothes when she sang with him. [11] As she came into her own as a performer, however, she mastered and set a new standard for a type of creative expression which was in many ways previously dominated by men. Just as Egypt and the larger Arab world forged new identities that recognised the past while looking forward to the future, Umm Kulthum pioneered the bridging of gaps between traditional and modern styles. She sang many songs that were originally composed by male artists, but made them entirely her own by injecting them with unsurpassed talent and creative flair. [12]

Umm Kulthum created a central space for culture and music at a time when politics could easily have dominated conversations about Egypt and the Middle East. Her music complemented the political sentiments of much of the Arab world, but offered to the public a distinct, artistic form of expression. Hers was a form of expression to be respected – indeed, even Egypt’s beloved President Gamal Abdel Nasser rescheduled a speech to work around one of Umm Kulthum’s concerts! [13] Millions mourned Umm Kulthum’s death in 1975. Citizens of Cairo took turns carrying her casket in an extended tour around the city during her funeral, which surpassed President Nasser’s in size. [14] Fortunately, Umm Kulthum’s legacy lives on, as her songs continue to be played on the radio and honored in television documentaries, while her fame and popularity becomes increasingly global. 

 

[1] Danielson, Virginia. “Listening to Umm Kulthum.” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 30.2 (1996) 170-173. Online.

[2] “Profile: Egyptian Singer Umm Kulthum.” All Things Considered. National Public Radio. 14 Dec. 2000. Radio. 

[3] “Umm Kulthum’s rare necklace sold for $1.2 m at dubai auction.” Gulf News 30 April 2008. Online.

[4] “Profile: Egyptian Singer Umm Kulthum.” All Things Considered. National Public Radio. 14 Dec. 2000. Radio.

[5] Lohman, Laura. Umm Kulthum: Artistic Agency and the Shaping of an Arab Legend, 1967-2007. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2010. Print. 1.

[6] “Profile: Egyptian Singer Umm Kulthum.” All Things Considered. National Public Radio. 14 Dec. 2000. Radio.

[7] Danielson, Virginia. “The ‘Qur’an’ and the ‘Qasidah’: Aspects of the Popularity of the Repertory Sung by Umm Kulthum.” Asian Music 19.1 (1987) 26-45. Online. 29.

[8] Ibid. 30.

[9] “Profile: Egyptian Singer Umm Kulthum.” All Things Considered. National Public Radio. 14 Dec. 2000. Radio.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gehr, Richard. “Review: The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century.” The Village Voice 30 December 1997. Online

[13] Danielson, Virginia. “The ‘Qur’an’ and the ‘Qasidah’: Aspects of the Popularity of the Repertory Sung by Umm Kulthum.” Asian Music 19.1 (1987) 26-45. Online. 29.

[14] Ibid

 
Images:
 
By Unknown - probably dead the photo was first published in Egypt and taken by a government photographer working for the local press (منتديات المغرب التقنية) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUmm_Kulthum4.jpg

 

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Lauded as the “Star of the East”, the “Great Pyramid of Egyptian Song”, and the “Nightingale of the Nile”, Umm Kulthum positively dominated the music culture of the Middle East until her death in 1975.