Called by some kawkab al-sharq (star of the East) and by others ’empress of Arab tunes,’ Umm Kalthoum, 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 Kalthoum 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 through 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 modern singing and clung to the time-honored Arab classical melodies.
Tall, with pitch black hair, Umm Kalthoum 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.
After taking power, President Jamal Abd al-Nasser established a close relationship with Umm Kalthoum. 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 Kalthoum’ has a solid base. Yet, even more than Nasser, like the eternal Sphinx, this voice of the Arabs became a national symbol of Egypt.
Umm Kalthoum 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 Kalthoum 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 Kalthoum’ are perhaps more true today than when this nightingale of the Arabs walked the earth.
(Source: Umm Kulthoum Article, Vol. 1, No. 1 (November 1995), al@mashriq, by Habeeb Salloum)
Alternative spellings of her name: Umm Kulthum, Oum Kalsoum, Oum Kalthum, Omm Kolsoum, Umm Kolthoum.
Her songs are mostly about love, longing, and loss, delivered in an almost operatic style. In her concerts, a single song might continue for several hours, depending on how the audience responded. Sometimes she would repeat the same line over and over again, with subtle variations. An indication of her huge popularity is that an estimated crowd of more than four million attended her funeral – one of the largest public gatherings in history. She is still revered in Egypt today and her songs remain as popular as ever.
And “When she sang, she was never the heroine. People heard their own story in her songs.” commented AMAL FAHMY, a RADIO COMMENTATOR.
HER MOST FAMOUS SONG:
Aghadan Alqak (Would I Ever Find You Again)?
Would I ever find you again
You, the heaven of my love, my yearning and madness;
You, the kiss to my soul, my cheer and sadness?
Would your lights ever break the night of my eyes again?
Would I ever find you again?
This world is volume and you’re the notion,
This world is night and you’re the lifetime,
This world is eyes and you’re the vision,
This world is sky and you’re the moon time,
Have mercy on the heart that belongs to you.
-Lyrics: Al Hadi Adam; Composer: Mohammed Abdel Wahab