Egyptians have been known to say, "two things never change - the Pyramids and the voice of Umm Kulthum*."
Umm Kulthum Ibrahim El-Beltagi, also known as Kawkab Al-Sharq, or Star of the East, is undoubtedly the most revered singer in the entire Arab world. Even now, over twenty-five years after her death, her recordings are still amongst the most popular music in the Middle East. With her deeply expressive voice and emotional interpretations of every song she sang, her work transcends the boundaries of language and time - it is quite easy to fall in love with her music without speaking a word of Arabic. Most telling of all, she is something of a revered figure even in Israel, at least amongst devotees of Oriental music. To this day she is considered an Egyptian national treasure, and at the pinnacle of her career, many people thought her as influential a figure as Nasser.
Umm Kulthum was probably born in 1904 in the village of Tamayet Al-Zahayra in the eastern Nile Delta. The daughter of a local imam, her first public performance was at the house of village mayor, or omda. Umm Kulthum was then eight years old, and her command of literary Arabic and the tawashih - religious songs of the life of the Prophet - soon drew attention throughout the area. In rural areas at that time, there was an automatic stigma attached to any woman who sang in public, and at first she was forced to perform dressed as a boy.
Around 1923, she moved to Cairo to begin a full-fledged career as a singer. Her family, by then relying on her for most of their income, arranged an endless regime of sessions with music teachers, poets, and composers to broaden her range. Drawing from a wide and growing repertoire of religious, nationalistic, poetic and romantic songs, by the end of the Twenties she became the most popular singer in Cairo. In the Thirties and Fourties, she acted in six musical films. Her popularity grew ceaselessly, to the point where both Allies and Axis used her music for their regional broadcasts during World War II.
From 1935 until 1972, she performed on the first Thursday of every month between October and July. These concerts, which soon became akin to monthly national rituals, usually consisted of three songs each, with most songs lasting from twenty minutes to an hour. In later years, she shortened her routine to two songs per concert. These concerts took place at different venues, and were all broadcast live on Radio Cairo. During the entire course of her career, Umm Kulthum never allowed the ticket price to increase. She was fantastically devoted to the common people who were her most loyal fans, and was known to make generous donations to the poor.
Around 1950, she became friends with Gamal Abdel Nasser, and supported the new Egyptian republic with many nationalistic songs from 1952 onward. Due to her outspoken support, her friendship with Nasser, and the love all Arab peoples held for her, she was commonly viewed as an unofficial ambassador of Egypt. During and after the war with Israel in 1967, she became even more active in this role, touring the Arab countries to raise support for Egypt.
In 1972, she performed at the Qasr Al-Nil Cinema, in what was to be her final public performance. Reaching for a high note in the middle of the second song of the show, her voice cracked - possibly the first time this had ever happened. She immediately froze, and the orchestra fell silent. The audience was stricken dumb for several moments, before breaking into applause that lasted several minutes, while a single tear glistened on the cheek of the goddess. When at last she resumed the song, she sped through it as quickly as she could. She never performed again, and recorded only one new song before her death on February 3, 1975. Her funeral was the second largest in modern Egyptian history, rivalling Nasser's own funeral with four million people in attendance.
* - There are around ten seemingly acceptable ways to transliterate her name. I had always known her as "Oum Kalthoum", and this is a popular spelling. But "Umm Kulthum" seems to be three times as popular on Google. Other variants are Oum Kalsoum, Umm Kalthoum, Um Qalsum (this almost surely violates the accepted rules of transliteration into English) and other combinations.
- (Even a partial discography would be beyond the scope of this writer. Umm Kulthum had a repertoire of around 300 LP-length songs, most of which are still available in some form or in several forms. A few of the sites below have discographies on them. My personal favourite work is "Inta Omri". This is a very popular romantic work from 1965. However, many people believe that her best work was done around 1940, when she was still singing more traditional songs on religious and nationalistic themes.)
- http://i-cias.com/e.o/umm_kult.htm - biography of "Umm Kulthum"
- http://almashriq.hiof.no/egypt/700/780/umKoulthoum/aljadid-uk.html - biography of "Umm Kalthum"
- http://www.ahram.org.eg/weekly/1998/409/fe2.htm - personal recollections of "Umm Kulthoum"
- http://www.ahram.org.eg/weekly/1998/409/fe1.htm - biographical, very good
- http://almashriq.hiof.no/egypt/700/780/umKoulthoum/Songs/ - a list of songs in her repertoire
- http://sunsite.kth.se/feastlib/mrf/yinyue/arab/uk/UKunused/ukSONOdisco.html - list of CD recordings, with track times.