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The Diva of Arabic Music

Umm Kulthum: An Outline of her Life


Umm Kulthum was born in a small rural village to a poor family. Her background typified that of the mashayikh and did not differ substantially from that of many of her contemporaries. Her father, al-Shaykh Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Baltaji (d. 1932), was the imam of the local mosque, and her mother, Fatmah al-Maliji (d. 1947), was a housewife. (1) Her date of birth is not known for certain, but the most reliable suggestion is May 4, 1904, given on a page from the Daqahliyah provincial birth records for Tammay al-Zahayrah. (2)

Umm Kulthum's father augmented his meager income from the mosque by singing religious songs for weddings and other celebrations in his own and neighboring villages. Upon meeting him in 1917, Zakariya Ahmad remarked that he was "an extremely devout and pious man" and so he seemed to may others who saw him later in Cairo. (3) Umm Kulthum's mother cared for the children: Umm Kulthum, her sister, Sayyidah, about ten years older than Umm Kulthum, and her brother, Khalid, who was one year older. Umm Kulthum was her last child. She described her mother as a good woman who lived simply and taught her children the importance of truth, humility and trust in God. (4)

The family lived in the village of Tammay al-Zahayrah near the city of al-Sinbillawayn in the Delta province of Daqahliyah (See Map 1). The village consisted of 278 dwellings that housed 1,665 people, or about 6 people per hearth. As Umm Kulthum later described it,

"It was a humble village. The highest building in it did not exceed two stories. The greatest display of wealth was the @umdah's carriage pulled by one horse! . . And there was only one street in the whole village wide enough for the @umdah's carriage . . . I sang in the neighboring villages, all of which were small. I thought that the city of al-Sinbillawayn was the biggest city in the world and I used to listen to news about it the same way one would listen now to news about New York or London or Paris." (5)

The family house was a small one made of mud brick; they owned no other property.

When she was about five years old, Umm Kulthum entered the kuttab, or Qur'an school, in her village that her older brother Khalid attended. Upon the death of the shaykh their teacher, the children were sent to the school in the neighboring village of @izbat al-Hawwal, several kilometers away. Umm Kulthum remained a student there for three years. (6) In the rural school, Umm Kulthum memorized sections of the Qur'an and also may have acquired rudimentary skills in reading and writing. Umm Kulthum learned to sing from her father. She overheard him teachings songs to her brother, who was supposed to accompany his father at the celebrations for which al-Shaykh Ibrahim sang. Umm Kulthum learned the songs by rote. When al-Shaykh Ibrahim discovered what she had learned and heard the unusual strength of her voice, he asked her to join the lessons. Umm Kulthum began performing in her own village at the house of the @umdah on an occasion when Khalid felt ill.

Because of her youth and exceptionally strong voice, the child became an attraction for the group and eventually its premiere singer. As their opportunities increased, the family traveled farther and farther afield, often on foot. Umm Kulthum later reflected that it seemed to her they walked the entire Delta before they ever set foot in Cairo. (7) They were able to charge icreasingly large fees, rising to 10E ($50) per evening by 1920.

A number of people encouraged Umm Kulthum and her father to consider going to Cairo to further her career in the center of the entertainment business. Her family was reluctant to do this, saying they did not know the city and had no close relatives nor any assurance of work there. The subject of Cairo remained under discussion for several years.

The Move to Cairo

The move was finally accomplished in about 1923 with the aid of musical mashayaikh from the city with whom Umm Kulthum and her father had established contact. They helped the young girl find performing opportunities and meet the theatrical agents who were essential to sustaining a career in the entertainment world at the time. Umm Kulthum's chief mentor in this endeavor was al-Shaykh Abu al-@ila Muhammad, a composer and singer who also became her principal teacher.

Umm Kulthum's voice was quickly identified as exceptionally strong and vibrant and garnered immediate notice in the press. However her talent was viewed as unschooled: she lacked command of the vocal subtlety and melodic nuance expected of a first-rank singer as well as the requisite stage presence of the established singers of the day. She set out to improve her skills in all areas. Her father hired numerous music teachers: al-Shaykh Abu al-@ila introduced her to poet Ahmad Rami who taught her poetry and improved her command of literary Arabic. She emulated the dress and manners of the elite ladies in whose homes she sang and even became personal friends with a few of them.

When Umm Kulthum began singing in Cairo, her repertory consisted in large part of that sung by her father in the Delta, augmented by a few popular songs that she had learned along the way. Her father's repertory was customarily sung by a solo vocalist with accompaniment by a chorus of two to four men. I the Cairo of the 1920s, this style of performance was viewed as old-fashioned; new songs, and even the older repertory of singers such as Abu al-@ila, were accompanied by an instrumental takht.

Following hints in the spring of 1926 that she should not succeed in the long run accompanied by her family, she hired accomplished and prestigious instrumentalists in their place. Her repertory of religious qasa'id and tawashih gave way to new and modern love songs composed especially for her. This change, accompanied by Umm Kulthum's increasingly elegant personal style, thrust her into direct competition with the city's leading singers. Her trained voice, her new repertory and takht, and her more cosmopolitan demeanor enabled her to rise to the top of the ranks of Cairo's professional singers by 1928.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Umm Kulthum began to make commercial recordings and launched her life-long involvement with mass media, essential to her long and extensive popularity. Her commitments later expanded to include radio, from the inception of Egyptian National Radio in 1934, films, which she began in 1935, and television in 1960.

Her financial success in commercial recording stabilized her income and enabled her to choose her performing opportunities with greater care than was possible for less fortunate entertainers. Radio broadcasting allowed her to count among her most devoted listeners hundreds of thousands of Egyptians and Arabs who had never seen her and would not dream of attending a public concert. While valuing the live audience as integral to her artistry, Umm Kulthum cultivated as her audience all listeners, including the vast numbers sitting in homes and coffee shops near a radio. She used broadcast interviews as well to establish rapport with the radio audience and to identify herself as a familiar figure to them.

Her command of the art of the interview, and hence the projection of a particular persona, was hard-won during the 1920s and 1930s. A number unfortunate blunders with journalists left her wary of uncontrolled contact with representatives of the media. She began to court selected journalists to whom she would grant interviews and who would, in turn, support her in print. She guarded her private life carefully, cultivated friends who did the same, and would speak to reporters only on topics of her own choosing, promulgating carefully expressed opinions and views of herself. Her increasing musical skill and financial stability in the 1930s allowed her to assume great control over all aspects of her performances. As sis most entertainers who were able, Umm Kulthum eliminated the theatrical agent from her professional life as soon as possible. She used her circle of carefully chosen friends as advisors and sometimes representatives and, by 1938, became the producer of her own concerts and negotiator of her own contracts. She was able to obtain extraordinary contracts that called for her approval of virtually every aspect of a performance, including selection of accompanists, and actors and technicians for her films. 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, who's songs incorporated European instruments such as the violoncello and double bass as well as harmony. The "Golden Age" of Umm Kulthum

From the Film : Salamah 1945

A WELL-KNOWN journalist in Cairo, Raj' al-Naqqsh, wrote that, as a child, he thought "listening to Umm Kulthm" meant "listening to singing." When the adults around him listened to singing, they listened to Umm Kulthm, thus "singing," in his youthful experience, equated to "Umm Kulthm." While this attitude would be rare in Egypt now as listeners have moved other music into the domains of their daily life, Umm Kulthm remains a formidable presence as she has been for nearly a century.

Umm Kulthm (1904?-1975) was perhaps the most famous singer of the century in the Arab world. She recorded some 300 songs. Her monthly, Thursday-night concerts were legendary as she extended a single song to last an hour or more, and the concert as a whole extended from 9:30 p.m. until 2, 3 or even 4 in the morning. She was known as an accomplished artist, often characterized as "authentic" (asl), who honed her talents to the performance of elegant Arabic poetry, clever colloquial verse and moving devotional songs. She was called the "voice of Egypt." When she died, her funeral was reported as being bigger than that of President Jaml `Abd al-Nsir. Now, more than 20 years after her death, people still listen to her songs, whether at 5 p.m. when the all-music radio station in Cairo opens its daily broadcast with one of her concert tapes; in the New Opera House, where the state ensembles perform abbreviated versions of her songs; on cassette tapes, where younger artists record arrangements of her songs.

She was a musician who worked in a politically charged environment for most of her adult life. As a commercial artist, her career manifests the engagement of popular culture with politics and economy. Her place in Egyptian society has been constructed by her listeners as much as by herself as they move her recordings into new domains and conceive and re-conceive the meanings of her songs. Memories of her intertwine with beliefs about widely shared social values in Egypt as well as with aesthetics of historic Arab singing.

In the 1990s, her recordings reach a growing international audience, re-released on compact discs. To grasp the impact of this woman's performances and the character of her artistry, what does one choose?

Affinity for her music among Egyptian listeners is often personal. Whereas some songs, such as "al-Atll" and "Inta `Umr," became very popular generally, the choices of individuals often link songs to events or times in their own lives. People remember single lines as having great meaning for them at one time or another.

In broad terms, her repertory falls into groups of songs: her early recordings made during the 1920s and 1930s, which are only available in the 12-minute versions possible on 78 rpm discs; the colloquial songs, or zajal, often by Bayram al-Tnis and Zakariyya Ahmad, most from the 1940s; the elegant qas'id and love songs composed by Riyd al-Sunbt on texts by Ahmad Shawq, Hfiz Ibrhm, Ahmad Rm and others; and the "modern" songs with big orchestras epitomized by Muhammad `Abd al-Wahhb and also composed by Muhammad al-Mawj, Balgh Hamd and other younger composers. The following works, a small selection from her enormous repertory, exemplify each group.

Bayram al-Tnis, one of the outstanding colloquial poets of the century in Egypt, worked often and successfully with composer Zakariyya Ahmad to create songs linked to the grass roots of Egypt. Works and melodies moved with the everyday speech and common entertainments of the country and were at once strikingly familiar and artistically gripping. "An f Intizrak" ("I'm waiting for you") penetrates the frustration of waiting for what does not happen, of listening to promises never fulfilled. Umm Kulthm rivets the emotions of listeners with her repetitions of the lines "I want to know that you're not angry, that your heart does not belong to someone else" (`Ayiz a'raf l tikn ghadbn... ) and later with her crying versions of "You promised me years and days and you came to me with excuses and talk" (Tuwa'idn bi-sinn...). "Huwa Sahh al-hawa Ghalb" ("Is It True that Love Conquers All"), another joint production of the three artists, draws similar emotions together, projects and shares them with the audience. Linguistically and musically, these songs produce decidedly Egyptian culture. The concert recording of the incredibly sad "`Ayn y `Ayn," once again a lament of love lost, this time composed in a style reminiscent of historic camel-drivers' songs, will simply reduce one to helpless tears.

At about the same time during and immediately after World War II, Umm Kulthm sang a group of very different songs, complicated qas'id on ponderous themes, for which she became very famous. She was at the height of her vocal skill. Today's listeners remember the sheer power, affect and intensity of her renditions of such lines as "You cannot get what you want in this world by wishing; you must take it by force" (Wa-m nla 'l-matlibu... from "Sal Qalb"), which rang out in concerts as exasperation with the political forces of the day increased in Egypt. Most of the texts had been written years earlier by Ahmad Shawq. Two of the most famous, "Sal Qalb" and "Nahj al-Burda," were religious in nature, the first intended for the Prophet's Birthday in 1912 and the second a commentary on the 13th-century poem entitled "al-Burda" by al-Busr. Both were set to music by Riyd al-Sunbt, a young man at the time who composed film music and taught at the Institute for Arabic Music. The best performances I have heard of these songs (other than those from tapes aired by Egyptian Radio and available only from them or in private collections) are cassette tapes released by Sono Cairo in the 1980s. The recording of "Nahj al-Burda" features a lengthy, extremely dramatic musical rendition at the climactic line, "Oh Muhammad, here is the throne, take it" (Wa-y Muhammadu hdh 'l-`arsh...), during which one can hear the impassioned response of the audience.

Partly resulting from his work on these qas'id, Riyd al-Sunbt became the most accomplished musical neoclassicist of the century, regarded as a "genius" at working with complex poetry. He wrote many other qas'id and colloquial love songs during the rest of Umm Kulthm's life. His "al-Atll" ("Traces") has become a signature tune for her. Mere snatches of the tune evoke her memory among listeners. The text was written by Ibrhm Nj and published in the late 1940s. Umm Kulthm reworked it substantially (to the consternation of literary critics at the time), and al-Sunbt set it to music in 1966. Lines of love such as "Give me my freedom, set free my hands that I might give you everything, I will hold back nothing," were moved by listeners to signify the repressions of the late `Abd al-Nsir years and the anguish of the defeat of 1967. Thereafter, Umm Kulthm sang "al-Atll" throughout the Arab world and in Paris in her series of concerts to replenish the Egyptian treasury. The neoclassic qas'id, almost all composed by al-Sunbt, formed the bedrock of her reputation for command of the Arabic language and its literature. They helped enable her wide acceptance throughout the Arabic-speaking world.

`Abd al-Wahhb's enormously popular love songs for Umm Kulthm are almost too well-known to mention. Characterized by long instrumental sections, shifting styles and rhythmic patterns and adaptations of varying Arab and western styles in the same song, they depart from the styles of her other composers. "Inta `Umr" is probably the most beloved. My own favorite is "Wa-Drit al-Ayym" ("The Days Passed"), a sad song (that nevertheless features an important waltz-like section in the middle), released just before the death of `Abd al-Nsir, that has become emblematic of the fondness for him that still exists in some quarters. The lines "If I run from my heart, where would I go? Our sweet nights are everywhere. We filled the world with love, we two and we filled the world with hope" (Ahrab min qalb...) may at once contain the bittersweet memories of love lost, of the late president and the famous singer and of the lived experience of a time gone by.

The younger composers with whom she worked in her later years all professed the influence of `Abd al-Wahhb yet composed in distinctive voices. In particular, Balgh Hamd wrote pleasurable, sweet and accessible melodies. Muhammad al-Mawji's songs perhaps lay closer to Zakariyya Ahmad's, rooted more deeply in the aurality of local traditions.

Since her death, Umm Kulthm's first and early recordings have been re-released on compact discs. One can hear the many and different voices of the young singer. "Tala` al-Fajr" manifests a harsh nasality in the still-in-training voice. Umm Kulthm began this recording with a layl (an improvisation sung on the syllables "y layl, y `ayn"), which she rarely did in later years. "M l Futint" manifests the truly remarkable virtuosity and range of the young voice, and "Afdhi in Hafaz al-hawa" exemplifies the neoclassic qasda that marked her repertory even in its early years. (The religious songs for which she was well-known for singing at saints' day celebrations as a child were not included in her early recordings.)

Listening with feeling to these performances can be difficult for students (as indeed the patience of young Egyptians has been taxed in the effort). The long performances are built gradually, line by line, phrase by phrase and sometimes word by word. Attention to nuance is necessary. As Jihad Racy, Salwa El Shawan and many others have pointed out, "listening" to Arab music is historically a holistic experience and an active engagement, following the details of melody and text and responding to what is heard, perceived and felt. For newcomers to the music, this process may best start with one or two lines at a time.

Listeners often say that Umm Kulthm never sang a line the same way twice. Performances differ; not every one is as effective as another. Umm Kulthm herself was aware of this and tried to control which were released and which not, indeed which parts of performances were used in recordings and which not. Even recordings labeled "live" were often heavily edited and were sometimes composites of several performances. Re-presenting a performance from our present vantage point is difficult. Still, Umm Kulthm did not succeed entirely in her efforts at control of quality; it is possible to purchase a relatively boring performance, and listeners should not assume that all releases are interchangeable. To complicate matters, the compact discs released by Sono Cairo, the Egyptian state record company, are not always the same performances available on cassettes from the same company in Cairo.

Videos of performances present similar problems. Those available in North America originate from many sources, most unidentified, and one has to simply watch each one to know whether the quality of the reproduction is acceptable and whether the performance is particularly affective.

With these caveats in mind, listening to this music is wonderful and rewarding. Arabic song is one of the world's great classical traditions. Umm Kulthm's recordings bring us closer to knowing this art.

The Star of the East

The Diva of Arabic Song

"During the 1950s and 1960s Umm Kulthum expanded her role in Egyptian public life. She granted more interviews during which she spoke about her life, repeatedly identifying herself as a villager, a fallahah or peasant, who shared a cultural background and essential values with the majority of the Egyptian populace. Her interviews were full of stories of her family, her neighbors, and the familial qualities of village life.

She cultivated the position of spokeswoman for various causes. She advocated governmental support of Arabic music and musicians, she endowed a charitable foundation and, most importantly, after the Egyptian defeat in the 1967 war, she began a series of domestic and international concerts for Egypt. She travelled throughout Egypt and the Arab world, collecting contributions and donating the proceeds of her performances to the government of Egypt. These concerts were much publicized and took on the character of state visits. Umm Kulthum was entertained by heads of state, she toured cultural monuments, and, in interviews, repeated her views concerning the importance of support for indigenous Arab culture. More than a musician, she became 'the voice and face of Egypt'."

(Excerpt from Virginia Louise Danielson's Shaping tradition in Arabic song: The career and repertory of Umm Kulthum.)