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Kulthūm, Umm

Umm Kulthūm

Egyptian-born vocalist Umm Kulthūm (1904-1975) is considered perhaps the most famous singer in the modern Arab world. Her unique and masterful singing style appealed to her fellow Egyptians as well as to other Arabs due to its great range and virtuosity, and for many her singing was a symbol of the Egyptian national spirit during the period from Egypt's emergence from British colonial rule through the first decades of that country's independence.

Kulthūm was born poor in Tamayet-el-Zahayra, a rural village in Egypt's Nile delta. Her birth year is a matter of some doubt, but is usually set at 1904. Kuthūm's father, al-Shaykh Ibrāhīim al-Sayyid al-Baltājī, led the local mosque, and her mother, Fatma al-Malījī, kept the family's home. As quoted by Virginia Danielson in her The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthūm, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century, Kulthūm once wrote of her village: "The greatest display of wealth was the [village leader's] carriage pulled by one horse.… And there was only one street in the whole village wide enough for the … carriage." Her village comprised some 280 households.

Studied the Qur'an

Kulthūm entered a local Islamic religious school when she was about five years old. Memorizing the Qur'an and learning Arabic was the course of study, and she learned to enunciate Arabic, an ability that would bear significantly on her future success. To add to the family income, her father, her brother Khalid, and a nephew would sing religious songs at weddings and other events in the surrounding villages, and Kulthūm learned the songs by hearing her father teach them to the boys. Once when Khalid was ill, Kulthūm was allowed to sing in his place. The repertoire was Qur'anic recitation and other religious songs. Only between five and eight years old, she astounded the audience with the strength of her voice, and she was immediately invited to perform in another village. Word spread, and she soon was in great demand, the family traveling by foot to many villages and towns. She would later remark "that it seemed to her they walked the entire Delta before they ever set foot in Cairo." Because crowds were sometimes rowdy or drunk, Kulthūm's father thought it prudent to dress her as a boy.

Entered the Cairo Milieu

In 1919 or 1920 Kulthūm's father arranged for his daughter's first performance in Cairo. She continued to perform in working-class venues there and also in the homes of wealthy patrons. According to Danielson, "By mid-1922, she was an established performer in the city." The family soon moved to Cairo, where audiences, resentful of condescending Western attitudes toward Arabs and Egypt, hailed the teen as an authentically Egyptian performer because of her roots in the Qur'an and the countryside.

By 1928 Kulthūm had altered her dress and appearance, developed her musical skills, and become a major star. A strengthening Egyptian economy also helped the fortunes of entertainers, and entertainment venues proliferated. Kulthūm was one of a number of young female performers who often entertained primarily male audiences. She no longer concentrated on working-class districts, but was booked into music halls and smaller theaters. Still performing with her father and brothers, she also began to add popular songs to her repertoire. In 1923 Kulthūm began recording and by 1926 had released a number of secular recordings. These sold successfully, in part because her rural following wanted to hear her again. As her popularity grew, she raised her fees, a foreshadowing of the hard-nosed business sense she would develop. She also commissioned new religious texts to be set to music for her to perform.

Part of Kulthūm's education in this period included reading and memorizing poetry and analyzing its form. She also developed her vocal flexibility, learned to play a musical instrument, and learned a new type of song involving difficult melodies. She also studied composition. One teacher in particular, al-Shaykh Abu 'l-'Ila Muhammad, helped her master her strong voice and learn skills for harmonizing meaning and sound. It was felt to be a uniquely Arab and Egyptian style. "He taught me to understand the words before I learned the song and sang it," Kulthūm later recalled of the man who coached her until his death in 1927. As Danielson explained, "the extent to which she pursued musical training distinguished her from most of her peers."

Became Established as a Star

The year 1926 proved to be a watershed year for Kulthūm. She began to wear fashionable dresses and sing love songs written specifically for her, and often drew from a repertoire of completely new songs. She also replaced her family accompanists with a professional instrumental ensemble, called a takht. She hired experts with good reputations, bringing a sophisticated, modern tone to her performances. The takht also facilitated a new mode of singing that became her trademark: As described by Danielson, it was "the solo rendition of sophisticated texts shaped in relation to audience response calling for varied repetition of lines and supported by creative but unintrusive heterophonic accompaniment." Kulthūm was a country girl no longer. Before long she was even the object of imitators. She entered the 1930s at the top of Egypt's roster of female performers, and her wise business management insulated her from the hard economic times ahead.

In the 1930s Kulthūm began one of the best-loved traditions of her career when she started to perform on weekly radio broadcasts. Her live Thursday-night sessions "were undoubtedly her best-known venture, and she continued them almost every season of her career until 1973," noted Danielson. Thursday is significant as the eve of the Muslim holy day. Although some criticized the performances initially, Kulthūm persisted, characteristically determined to follow a path she thought would be productive. Furthermore, the ambitious singer took the production of the concerts into her own hands, negotiated with theaters and arranged advertising, all of which increased her profits. The live broadcasts "institutionalized the first Thursday of every month as 'Umm Kulthūm Night,'" explained Danielson. Kulthūm was at the same time seeking and nourishing friendships with influential men and women within elite Egyptian society. She also learned to cultivate a positive relationship with the press, which had criticized her lack of sophistication in earlier years, and she was diligent in controlling what newspapers and magazine journalists wrote about her.

In 1935 Kulthūm began a new career in the motion picture industry, starring in a film with a story line she invented about a loyal singing slave girl of thirteenth-century Egypt. Her next film tapped nationalist sentiments at a time when students were demonstrating for independence from Great Britain. The third film opened in 1940. "In each film," wrote Danielson, "Umm Kulthūm cultivated sophistication and respectability in her public image and styled herself as an elegant exponent of Egyptian romanticism." The singer made a total of six films, and in five of them she starred as a singer. The songs from these films often made their way into her performance repertoire, where she could elaborate on them.

Possessed Remarkable Vocal Ability

Kulthūm's vocal ability was multifaceted. Her diction was remarkably clear and her pronunciation of literary Arabic excellent. Her voice was strong, and during much of her career she had the stamina to sing for hours at a time. She could sing over two octaves in the 1930s—in 1955, she could still reach a high G—and could sustain long phrases. She also mastered coloristic change, a trait her listeners appreciated as characteristically Egyptian. She controlled resonance well and mastered falsetto, vibrato, and trilling, combining all these devices with great sensitivity to text and great subtlety; furthermore, she did so extemporaneously. Danielson described the desired virtuosity of Egyptian vocalists: "The first task was the clear and skillful delivery of the initial segment [such as a line or stanza] of the composition. Depending on audience response, the singer would then repeat that section, introducing variations, or go on to the next section of the piece. In the ideal performance the singer would vary one or more lines upon encouragement from the audience and thus extend a five-minute song to twenty or thirty minutes or more. The song performance was shaped in this way by singer and audience responding to each other." Not only were her abilities outstanding; they were regarded as specifically Egyptian.

Another important feature of her art was its close association with a live audience. She liked to observe an audience from backstage before going out to perform, in order to gauge its mood. Her first song in a performance often served the same purpose. Her artistry enabled her to tailor a performance to each audience's mood and inclinations. Although she repeated favorite songs in many performances, it is said that "she never sang a line the same way twice."

1940s Proved to Be Golden Age

The 1940s have been referred to in Egypt as "The Golden Age of Umm Kulthūm." They were also a particularly tumultuous time for Egypt and the Middle East. The economy was recovering slowly, and resentment toward Europeans and European-influenced Egyptian leaders was growing. Kulthūm's music became less romantic; instead she chose songs that glorified the Egyptian working classes. Her last two films also reflected this new direction, and were among her most popular, despite her age. Also in the 1940s, she set out in a new musical direction, called neoclassical, and she continued to sing the songs from this period into the 1950s. This shift, explained Danielson, "may be viewed … as part of a strong, deep social and political current toward reaffirmation of Islam and classical Arab civilization as the bases for social order." Neoclassical music was firmly rooted in classical poetry and tradition and overlaid with new musical devices. Kulthūm helped choose texts for these songs, called qasa'id, and suggested the musical devices. With the end of World War II, Egypt's demands for the withdrawal of British troops grew louder, and the music of Kulthūm became more and more closely associated with such nationalist feeling. It was in this period that she was called the singer who "taught poetry to the masses." She also introduced simpler songs that drew popular attention to the nobility of the Egyptian peasantry. Both these populist songs and the more complex qasa'id were appreciated as decidedly non-Western. Once admired, the West was coming to represent in many Arab minds a materialistic and ultimately destructive approach to life. Western secularism in particular was gaining in disfavor. Kulthūm's strong association with pro-Arab feeling is reflected in the sentiment expressed by one Egyptian that "if you want to know what Arab music is, listen to Umm Kulthūm."

Kulthūm's health began to decline in the late 1940s, and she had already been troubled with liver and gallbladder problems in the 1930s. Her mother, with whom she had lived all her life, died in 1947. Curiosity about the singer's personal life and her apparent decision not to marry had existed since she came to Cairo, but it was quieted in 1954 when she married one of her doctors.

Became Associated with Nationalism, Nasser

The 1950s began badly for Kulthūm because of illness and also because the region's political instability and civil unrest had led to curfews and canceled concerts. In July of 1952, when Egyptian King Farouk was forced to abdicate, events were set in motion that led to the 1956 election of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) as president. When Kulthūm heard of the overthrow of Farouk, she returned from vacation immediately and commissioned a national song. Danielson says that "between 1952 and 1960, Kulthūm sang more national songs than at any other time in her life; they constituted almost 50 percent of her repertory, and roughly one-third of her new repertory after 1960." She also began to speak out on social and political questions, and she developed a friendship with Nasser. According to Danielson, "Both were from the lower classes and had utilized opportunities for upward mobility new in their lifetimes. Both were powerful personalities who became skilled at reaching the Egyptian population." Nasser's popularity in the Arab world remained strong even after his death, partly because of his long association with Kulthūm.

Musically, Kulthūm once again changed course during the 1950s, choosing romantic love songs from a new generation of writers. Songwriters were eager to write for her because the association gave a powerful boost to their careers. Possibly with the encouragement of Nasser, she also began an important association with a noted musician of her own generation, Muhammad 'Abd al-Wahhab. Their first collaboration was an unprecedented success and represented a modernizing trend in Kulthūm's repertoire. During this period, she still performed some songs in older styles and themes, many written by Riyad al-Sunbati, who nevertheless introduced piano and electric guitar into his compositions. Another innovation of this time was a long love song with a long instrumental introduction and instrumental improvisation. Many of her new songs shifted emphasis from their vocal to their instrumental aspects, perhaps because, while her voice remained strong, it had altered with age. At the same time, Nasser's expansion of radio and television broadcasting extended her audience.

Following Egypt's humiliating defeat against Israel in 1967, Kulthūm began a series of concerts to raise money for the national treasury. She took her concert to Paris in November of that year, her one and only performance outside the Arab world. Between 1967 and her death these concerts raised over $2.5 million for the Egyptian government.

A Funeral Larger than Nasser's

In 1971 Kulthūm's health worsened, sometimes causing her to cancel concerts, and she gave her last performance in 1973. Finally her heart failed, and she died on February 3, 1975. Mahmoud Fadl, a contemporary Egyptian musician, attended the funeral and wrote on the Piranha Web site; "The whole of Cairo turned out for her funeral procession—even more than when Nasser died.… The police immediately lost control of the coffin.… It was claimed by the masses and touched by tens of thousands of hands as it left the square on a whole new route." Danielson wrote that the crowds bore the coffin "for three hours through the streets of Cairo" before taking it to one of Kulthūm's favorite mosques.

Fadl recalled that Kulthūm's Thursday broadcasts "brought public life to a complete stand-still, not only in Cairo and Egypt but in the whole Arab world from Atlantic and Gulf. On any Thursday … nobody would, nobody could, even try to compete with her." It is said that Nasser "timed his major political speeches carefully around her broadcasts." Decades after her death, Kulthūm's voice continued to be heard on Arab radio stations; according to Fadl, "In Egypt, it seems, only the Nile, the pyramids and Umm Kulthūm are forever."


Danielson, Virginia, The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthūm, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century, University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Rough Guide to World Music, Volume 1: Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, Rough Guides, 1999.


Ak-Mashriq, November, 1995.


Fadl, Mahmoud, "Personal Memories from the Funeral of Umm Kalthum," (December 19, 2003).

"Umm Kulthūm," All Music Guide, (December 23, 2003).

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Kalthum, Umm

Umm Kalthum


For the Record…

Selected discography


Labeled “indisputably the Arab world’s greatest singer” by World Music: The Rough Guide, Egyptian singer Umm Kalthum (alternately spelled Kulthum or Kalthoum) is regarded as a treasure of Middle Eastern culture. In a career that lasted more than 50 years she became known as “the voice and face of Egypt” with a voice powerful enough to shatter glass but that was used more often to capture the emotional depth of the poems she set to music. Her importance to Egyptian music in particular and Middle Eastern music in general prompted her biographer, Virginia Danielson, to write on the All Music Guide website: “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.” Kalthum’s voice was expressive—some critics say melodramatic—and her performances would alternately hold her audiences in thrall and bring them to emotional paroxysms. She performed with a red handkerchief that was rumored to be drenched with opium, and was also said to have smoked copious amounts of hashish before going onstage. Regardless the veracity of these accounts, she appeared to perform as if in a trance. Her voice was equally powerful over a wide range and could shift resonance in an extremely nuanced fashion. She was once challenged, apocryphally, to sing the same line 52 different ways. Not only was she able to do so, she was also able to advance a melody upon each rendering. Such virtuosity allowed Kalthum to adapt longer poems to the musical idiom for performances of a single composition that sometimes lasted longer than one hour.

Kalthum’s official birth year is listed as 1904, although her birth certificate reads 1898. She was born in relative poverty in the rural village of Tammy al-Zahayrah. Her father, al-Shaykh Ibrahim al-Baltaji, was an imam who also sang religious songs and recited the history of the Prophet Muhammad at weddings and special occasions for extra family income. Upon discovering that his daughter had been listening intently and memorizing the songs he was teaching her older brother, Kalthum’s father included her in his instruction. Her vocal skills increased, and her father eventually included her in family and public performances. Her appearances in public however, were conducted with Kalthum disguised as a young boy so as not to anger or shock the local religious authorities who would disapprove of a father encouraging his daughter to perform onstage.

Eventually, Kalthum’s talent was recognized as a phenomenon, and her father followed the promptings of other performers to move his daughter to Cairo in 1923. Her lack of technical voice schooling, however, caused Cairo music purists to disparage her voice and musical selections. Her father helped her alter this perception by hiring music teacher and mentor al-Shaykh Abu al-lla Muhammed, as well as the poet Ahmad Rami (also spelled Ramy), who instructed her in poetry and classical Arabic. Of the nearly 300 songs recorded by Kalthum during her career, 132 were written by Rami.

Upon first arriving in Cairo, Kalthum relied on the songs taught her by her father. She later added popular songs and Arabic poems and adopted a more upscale, European style of dress. She also replaced the vocal accompaniment of her brother and father with a takht, an ensemble of musicians, who played oud, (a stringed instrument resembling an acoustic bass), as well as a violin, qanun (a flat zither-like instrument), and riqq (a small tambourine). In 1924 she recorded several songs for the Odeon label, which became successful throughout Egypt. For the remainder of the decade her recordings were played extensively all over the country. In the meantime, she continued to perform at concert venues in Cairo and, by 1928, had become one of the most popular and successful entertainers in Egypt. In 1934 she was asked to perform on the first broadcast of Egypt’s state-run radio station. Her subsequent radio performances were to catapult her to the pinnacle of Egyptian stardom. In the late 1930s, she began broadcasting a weekly Thursday-night concert over the radio, a tradition that she maintained until 1973.

As her popularity increased, Kalthum began commissioning songs from Egypt’s best composers that were based on poems she selected. Among the composers she employed were Riyad al-Sunbati, Muhammad al-Qasabji, and Zakariyyah Ahmad. She appeared in five films between 1935 and 1948, and was named a member of the Listening Committee, a group that chose the music played on Egyptian radio. She was elected president of the Egyptian musician’s union in the

For the Record…

Born c. 1904 (some sources say 1898) in Al Man-sura, Egypt; died on February 3, 1975, in Cairo, Egypt; also known as Ibrahim Um Kalthum.

Began performing disguised as a boy, 1910s; moved with family to Cairo, 1923; recorded first songs for Odeon, 1924-25; recognized as one of Cairo’s most successful singers, 1928; performed for the inaugural broadcast of Egyptian state radio station, 1934; appeared in first film Widad, 1935; conducted seasonal live Thursday-night radio broadcasts, late 1930s-1973; appeared in fifth and last film, Fatma, 1948; conducted international series of concerts to raise money for Egypt, 1967-68; subject of documentary Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt, 1997; permanent exhibit, “Memorabilia of Umm Kalthoum,” opened at Star of the Orient Museum, Cairo, Egypt, 2001.

1940s. She was also an outspoken advocate of the Gamel Abdel Nasser regime in Egypt, following the 1952 Egyptian Revolution. Following Egypt’s defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, Kalthum conducted an international tour beginning in Paris, France, to raise funds for Egypt.

During the 1970s, Kalthum’s health began to deteriorate. She postponed concerts in 1971 and 1972, and retired from performing after she felt faint during a December of 1972 concert. She subsequently sought medical help for a kidney condition in Europe and the United States, and, in 1974, planned to premiere a new musical piece entitled “Hakam Alayna al-Hawa.” She recorded the piece in a 12-hour session on March 13, 1974, but was unable to perform the piece in concert. After suffering from such physical ailments as kidney and gall bladder problems and light-sensitive eyes for much of her life, Kalthum finally succumbed to a kidney attack in February of 1975. Her funeral was a national event, which was attended by more than three million mourners. While her remains were carried along a three-hour route to the mosque of al-Sayyid Husayn, mourners took her body from the official pallbearers and passed it from one to another for the duration of the journey.

Kalthum’s musical legacy continues to thrive in the Middle East, largely due to Egyptian radio’s continued broadcasts of her music on the first Thursday of every month, as well as continuous airplay on Israeli radio broadcasts for Palestinian audiences. In 1997 a documentary on Kalthum narrated by actor Omar Sharif, Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt, was released. In December of 2001 Cairo’s Star of the Orient Museum opened a permanent exhibit entitled “Memorabilia of Umm Kalthoum” in the 150-year-old Manistirli pavilion, a palace overlooking the Nile River. The exhibit includes stage costumes, an engraved oud, government commendations and awards, and a collection of Kalthum’s red handkerchiefs.

Selected discography

Anthologie de la musique arabeOum Kaltsoum Vol. II (1926-1927-1928), Club du disque Arabe, 1989.

Anthologie de la musique arabeOum Kaltsoum Vol. III (1930-31), Club du disque Arabe, 1989.

Anthologie de la musique arabeOum Kaltsoum Vol. V (1931-1932), Club du disque Arabe, 1989.

Anthologie de la musique arabeOum Kaltsoum Vol. VI (1933-1934-1935), Club du disque Arabe, 1989.

Anthologie de la musique arabeOum Kaltsoum Vol. VII (1936), Club du disque Arabe, 1989.

Anthologie de la musique arabeOum Kaltsoum Vol. VIII (1937), Club du disque Arabe, 1989.

Rak El Habib, Cairophon, 1991.

Salou Kalbi, Cairophon, 1991.

Hallet hayali el amar, Cairophon, 1992.

Ya toul azzabi, Cairophon, 1992.

Aydah, SIDI, 1996.

Majm’oat Aghani Wataniah (Part 1), SIDI, 1996.

Majm’oat Aghani Wataniah (Part 3), SIDI, 1996.

Ela Arafat Allah, SIDI, 1996.

Hadeeth el roh-AI Thulathea, SIDI, 1996.



Broughton, Simon, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman, and Richard Trillio, editors, World Music: The Rough Guide, Penguin Books, 1994.

Sadie, Stanley, and John Tyrrell, editors, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan Publishers, Ltd., 2001.


Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2002, v. 21 (3): p. 40.


“Umm Kulthum,” All Music Guide, (January 15, 2003).

Bruce Walker

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