Umm Kulthum Ibrahim

Brief life of "the star of the East": 1904?-1975

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, the most accomplished singer of her century in the Arab world.

Born to a poor Qur'an reader and his wife in a small village, Umm Kulthum grew up to become, for many, "the voice and face of Egypt." Her career spanned more than 50 years, from about 1910, when she began singing with her father at weddings and special events in villages and towns in the eastern delta, until her final illness in 1973. For almost 40 years her monthly, Thursday-night concerts were broadcast live, until her radio audience numbered in the millions all over the Middle East. She was president of the Egyptian Musicians' Union, a member of government committees on the arts, and a cultural emissary to other Arab nations. Her funeral was described as bigger than that of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and she remains an inescapable figure in Arab musical life.

"My background," she stressed, "does not differ from most of my compatriots'." Like many Egyptians, she was born in an agrarian community and attended Qur'an school; she retained deep ties to the land. She carried this background and its values into her public life and wore them like banners. "We are all peasants," she used to say, despite the wealth and fame she attained.

Her career flowered in the Cairo of the 1920s, where she made commercial recordings that sold by the thousands. In that cosmopolitan city, according to historian Husayn Fawzi, one could hear adaptations of the latest French plays, European operas, Sousa marches, and "Way down upon the Swanee River." Umm Kulthum confronted this international array with a cultivated Egyptian-Arab style of song, informed by new sounds and instruments from the West, but essentially local. By 1928, she was established at the top of the ranks of performers in the city.

With the founding of Egyptian Radio in 1934, her career took off. In 1937 she cannily arranged for her monthly concerts to be broadcast live. Virtually everyone tuned in and, as the station's power increased, so did her audience. With the advent of the transistor, she reached the smallest villages, camps, and tents.

She was at the height of her vocal powers during the 1940s; she sang songs for which she would be remembered for the rest of the century, especially colloquial love songs echoing the language and music of working-class people. "Her voice," they said, "was full of our everyday life." She also sang elegant and sophisticated poetry in literary Arabic, laden with historic and religious images. Many of the poems had been written earlier in the century by Ahmad Shawqi, who engaged classical verse to comment on contemporary events. The songs, with settings composed especially for her by the neoclassicist Riyad al-Sunbati, had political overtones supporting social justice and Egyptian self-rule.

Umm Kulthum's performances helped shape Egyptian cultural and social life and her musical style helped advance an ideology of Egyptianness. Both she and her repertory were called asil, authentically Egyptian and Arab. "She does not just sing the Ruba'iyat," one musician said of a translation of the poem that she recorded, "she infuses it with meaning." Her performances took works by the finest poets and composers of her day into an entirely new dimension, for historically, in Arabic singing, listeners help create a song with carefully timed exclamations of approval. Standing before her audiences, she repeated phrases and sections at their behest; people said she never sang a line the same way twice. With virtuosic command of the historic Arab melodic system and hundreds of vocal colors and ornaments, she stretched 20-minute compositions into two-hour performances. Crowds roared their approval; listeners at home shouted acclamations to each other.

When the Egyptian Revolution did occur, in 1952, Umm Kulthum supported its initiatives and recorded numerous songs celebrating the new republic and its leader. But the most dramatic political effort of her life occurred after her country's defeat in the Six-Day War, when she toured the Arab world on Egypt's behalf and donated the proceeds of her concerts, some $2 million, to the Egyptian government. Those trips had all the characteristics of state visits. "We look at her," an Egyptian intellectual said, "and we see 50 years of Egypt's history. She is not only a singer."

Umm Kulthum was a village girl who became the cultural symbol of a nation, a competent professional who negotiated a demanding path through the Egyptian music industry, and an actor in a complicated and power-laden political environment in which she represented to many Egyptians local values confronted by powerful colonial and neo-colonial "foreign" forces. Perhaps most of all, she is remembered as a musician whose singing was and still is viewed as a contemporary exemplar of an old and deeply valued Arab art. Together, her musical skills and her listeners created the Arab virtuoso of the century.

Musicologist Virginia Danielson is keeper of the Isham Memorial Library and curator of the Archive of World Music in Harvard's Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library. Her book "The Voice of Egypt": Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century will be published this July by the University of Chicago Press.

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