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Umm Kulthum (c. 1904–1975)

Umm Kulthum
(c. 1904–1975)

Umm Kulthum (also Om Kultum, Oum Kalsoum, Umm Kaltum, Um Kultum) Ibrahim al-Baltaji was one of the most famous singers of the Arabic-speaking world in the twentieth century. Her eventual role as a cultural icon made her arguably the most important Arab musician of her time.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Umm Kulthum was born in Tammay al-Zuhayra, a village in the Egyptian delta, probably in 1904. Her father, Ibrahim al-Baltaji, was the imam or prayer leader of the local mosque; her mother, Fatima al-Maliji, was a housewife. She had an older brother, Khalid, and sister, Sayyida. The family was poor and its lifestyle not different from most of her Egyptian contemporaries. To make extra money, Umm Kulthum's father sang religious songs for social occasions such as weddings or saints' days and trained his son to accompany him. Umm Kulthum learned these songs by virtue of proximity and surprised her family with her strong voice. Eventually, dressed as a boy, she joined her father's group and performed regularly in the eastern delta. Despite efforts to disguise her gender, she soon was known as the little girl with the powerful voice and became a local curiosity that attracted attention to the family troupe.

She also joined her brother in Qur'an school, or kuttab, small local schools designed to teach children to recite the Qur'an properly, to read, write, and sometimes to do some arithmetic. (During Umm Kulthum's childhood, British colonial authorities did not encourage further education for Egyptians.) Although attendance at kuttab was more routine for boys than girls, there were other girls in Umm Kulthum's class and, in fact, the lessons of the kuttab formed a common fund of knowledge for most Egyptian Muslims of Umm Kulthum's generation. Despite the predictable variability in teaching at these schools, the children tended to absorb a respect for careful pronunciation of Arabic and a sense of the beauty and elegance of the language that remained with many of them throughout their lives. These widely shared sensibilities informed Umm Kulthum's later aesthetic choices and helps explain the strong connections many of her compatriots felt for her art.

The then-new sound recordings—78 rpm gramophone records that circulated all over Egypt in the early years of the twentieth century—provided another means for Umm Kulthum and her family to learn the art of singing and new songs. Because record players often appeared in public spaces—coffeehouses, for example—even people who could not afford the equipment could hear the recordings. The father of one of Umm Kulthum's childhood friends also owned a record player and invited villagers to listen to records in his home. From these, Umm Kulthum learned to love the religious poetry (Arabic: qasa'id, singular: qasida) performed by al-Shaykh Abu'l-Ila Muhammad who later became her teacher in Cairo.

Following years of traveling the delta, Umm Kulthum came to the attention of musicians from Cairo, themselves traveling to perform at events often sponsored by local wealthy families. They encouraged her father to move the family to Cairo, where increased income and opportunities would be available. After some consideration, the family decided to join the large numbers of villagers migrating to the city in search of work. Similar to many, her family moved into a neighborhood near their new acquaintances and used these contacts to obtain work.

Umm Kulthum appeared in Cairo as a country girl with little urban sophistication, whose repertoire had been performed for years. She seemed initially to be old-fashioned and hopelessly countrified, even though her strong and flexible voice attracted significant attention. An ambitious young woman, she sought through lessons in music and poetry to hone her skills. Al-Shaykh Abu'l-Ila Muhammad, the singer whose work she had admired on recordings, became her main teacher. Her voice attracted a well-known poet, Ahmad Rami, who became her teacher and lifelong mentor. She copied the dress and manners of the elite Muslim women of the city in whose homes she sang; and eventually she replaced her countrified band of male vocalists—whose abilities she now completely outstripped—with an instrumental ensemble of accomplished musicians. Local composers, including Zakariya Ahmad (who had helped her move to Cairo), Muhammad al-Qasabji, Ahmad Sabri al-Najridi, and Da'ud Husni, began to write new songs especially for her.

Similar to many of her colleagues, she also began to make commercial recordings and, largely because of her extensive audience outside of Cairo, these sold extremely well. She accumulated some money and became a desirable commodity for recording companies at the same time that she developed her urban audience. By 1926 she was among the most sought-after singers in Egypt.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Umm Kulthum (Om, Oum Kalsoum, Umm Kaltum, Um Kultum)

Birth: Probably in 1904, Tammay al-Zuhayra, Egypt

Death: 1975, Cairo, Egypt

Family: Married Hasan al-Hifnawi, 1954; no children

Nationality: Egyptian

Education: Village Qur'an school; private teachers in music and literature

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1923: Moves to Cairo from her village of Tammay al-Zuhayra
  • 1924: First commercial recordings appear on Odeon label
  • 1926: Appears for the first time with instrumental accompanists; signs an extremely lucrative recording contract with Gramophone that establishes her financial base
  • 1934: With her competitor, Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, opens the first national Egyptian Radio station
  • 1936: Appears in Widad, her first musical film
  • 1956: Performs "Wallahi Zaman, ya Silahi," which becomes the Egyptian national anthem
  • 1964: Performs "Inta Umri," Umm Kulthum's first collaboration with Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab
  • 1966: Performs in Paris, her only concert outside the Arab world
  • 1967: Initiates her concerts to benefit Egypt
  • 1973: Performs her last Thursday-night concert
  • 1975: Dies in Cairo

The early 1930s brought talkies to Egypt and, with them, musical films became immediately popular. Umm Kulthum made her first musical, Widad, in 1936 and subsequently starred in five more films, Nashid al-Amal, Dananir, A'ida, and Sallama, concluding with Fatima in 1946. But the technology that would prove most significant for Umm Kulthum's position in Arab society was radio. Following the success of private radio stations in Egypt in the late 1920s, the Egyptian government opened a national radio station in 1934 and Umm Kulthum, along with her main competitor Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, became important performers. At the beginning, star singers performed live for as much as twenty minutes, bringing the experience of the wedding or concert hall into homes and coffeehouses. As with record players, radios appeared in public places so that listeners from all walks of life could enjoy the broadcasts. Egyptian Radio also broadcast commercial recordings, supplanting to some extent the popularity of record players.

During the late 1930s and 1940s, Umm Kulthum developed the repertoire that came to represent her "golden age". She established strong collaborations with the composer Zakariya Ahmad and poet Bayram al-Tunisi, both known for their witty and effective use of colloquial language and musical styles. She also cultivated the composition of sophisticated new qasa'id, often on religious themes with poetry by such luminaries as Ahmad Shawqi and by the emerging composer Riyad al-Sunbati. These highly successful collaborations produced her well-known songs "Ana fi Intizarak" (I'm waiting for you), "al-Amal" (Hope), and "Huwa Sahih al-Hawa Ghalab" (Is it true that love conquers all). These were written by Zakariya and Bayram. Al-Sunbati and Shawqi wrote "Wulid al-Huda" (The guide [Muhammad] is born) and "Salu Qalbi" (Ask My Heart), and "al-Atlal" (Traces), written by al-Sunbati and Ibrahim Naji, became her signature tune after its first performance in 1966. Whether colloquial or formal, these songs often carried political, historical, and literary undertones that conveyed to listeners the importance of their Arab and Egyptian heritage and the richness of their culture. With her by-then accomplished and virtuosic renderings that brought listeners close to the impact of the words through repeated improvisations, Umm Kulthum and her repertoire brought masses of listeners to the knees with the affect of the music.

In the late 1930s, Umm Kulthum scored an enormous coup in persuading Egyptian Radio to broadcast her concerts live. By then, she had established monthly concerts on Thursday nights in major Cairo theaters that attracted large audiences and lasted throughout the season, that is, from November to June of each year. Friday being the Muslim day of rest, the Thursday-night events occupied what was considered prime time. This concert series lasted for more than thirty-five years and became that by which she was known throughout the Arab world. Eventually, stories were told about life in the Arabic-speaking world coming to a stop for these monthly concerts. Radio remained a critically important patron of musicians throughout World War II, when material for the production of recordings became scarce and communications with European production facilities interrupted. It took on greater social importance than ever following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 under the government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser who supported the broadcast of entertainment to ameliorate the daily stresses of economic difficulty and who strengthened broadcasting facilities as a means of advancing his political agenda.

Along with many of her compatriots, Umm Kulthum welcomed the Egyptian revolution and sang songs in support of the new regime throughout the 1950s. One of the songs composed for her at the time, "Wallahi Zaman, ya Silahi" (It's been a long time, oh weapon of mine), was adopted as the Egyptian national anthem and remained so until 1977 when then-President ANWAR SADAT found it too bellicose and replaced it with Sayyid Darwish's "Biladi, Biladi" (My country, my country). She had also, by this time, accepted leadership roles in the world of music. She served as seven-term president of the musician's union in the late 1940s and 1950s, sat on the Listeners' Committee that selected songs suitable for broadcast on Egyptian Radio and, in the 1950s and 1960s, served on governmental committees on the arts.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, she also suffered from a variety of health issues including a thyroid problem that seems to have originated in the late 1940s, and problems with her vision (prompting her near-constant use of dark glasses). The number of her performances and her production of new songs decreased in the 1950s. In 1954 she married one of her physicians, Hasan al-Hifnawi; their relationship seems to have been important and companionable, although they had no children. As she regained her health in the 1950s, Umm Kulthum took note of the successes of young singers, notably Abd al-Halim Hafiz, and began to seek new songs from younger composers while maintaining her continuing collaboration with al-Sunbati. She and Ahmad had parted ways in a legal dispute and he died in 1961. Baligh Hamdi, Kamal al-Tawil, and Muhammad al-Muji composed for her on texts from popular song lyricists and a new, modern style of song emerged for her, one that was not always valued by her older listeners but that has remained popular nonetheless. In the 1960s, apparently at the behest of President Nasser's government, she and her rival al-Wahhab agreed to a collaboration that produced ten songs, beginning with "Inta Umri" (You are my life) in 1964, a song that has remained wildly popular ever since.

Especially compared to her younger colleague, the Lebanese singer fayruz, in the 1960s, some listeners began to critique Umm Kulthum as insufficiently engaged with the myriad problems with which the Arab world was occupied. Many felt that, with her growing stature as a cultural figure, she should serve as a more outspoken advocate for the rights and plights of Arabs, notably the Palestinians. Perhaps motivated by this view, following Egypt's defeat at the hands of the Israelis in 1967, Umm Kulthum launched one of her most famous endeavors: her concerts for Egypt. Traveling both in Egypt and the Arab world, she launched a series of fund-raising concerts to benefit the Egyptian war treasury, which garnered more than 2 million pounds sterling, an enormous sum at the time. Often, she solicited poetry by local poets, including nizar qabbani from Syria and al-Hadi Adam from Sudan, which were then set to music by al-Sunbati especially for her concerts.

Beginning in about 1972, Umm Kulthum's health began to fail for the final time and she died on 3 February 1975. Her funeral, which was delayed for several days to allow for the arrival of foreign dignitaries, was reported to be larger that that of Nasser's—itself one of the largest funerals in history.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Umm Kulthum brought historically Arabic aesthetics and music into the twentieth century and gave them new life. Working from her prodigious native ability and single-minded devotion to singing and with the help of teachers, she became probably the best singer of Arabic poetry of the century anywhere in the Arabic-speaking world. Arguably, al-Wahhab was equally accomplished in his youth, but his voice began to fade in the 1940s and he turned his attention to composition.

Her position at the pinnacle of Arabic song derived from her command of the language in both its colloquial and sophisticated literary forms; her vocal power and wide range; her command of the complexities of the Arab melodic system of maqamat (melodic modes, singular, maqam); and, most of all, her ability to fashion one rendition after another of a single line of poetry, each different from the other and each bringing the impact of the meaning of the line to the listener is a slightly different way. This extended the performance of a 10- or 20-minute composition to an hour or more engaging listeners in feeling for poetic sentiment that enveloped them with the rapture called tarab (literally, ecstasy) from listening to her. Her Thursday night performances, which began at 9:30 or 10:00 at night, lasted until 3 or 4 in the morning, making this experience the highlight of the month for millions carried by radio waves across the Arab world.

At the same time, Umm Kulthum carefully controlled her public image. She persisted in following the stylish but modest dress of a wealthy Arab woman. Her chignon mimicked the bun in which many working-class women tied their hair. She spoke and acted as a devout Muslim woman of her day. She deflected media attention from her personal life at all times. Thus she enacted a model of feminine respectability in public life that resonated with the widely held mores of modesty in her society and helped instantiate her as a model of cultural accomplishment.

CONTEMPORARIES

Riyad al-Sunbati (1906–1982), a composer, began his life in a village in the Egyptian delta. His father sang at local weddings and special occasions. Later in life, he and Umm Kulthum realized they had met each other as children, their paths crossing in a train station where both families were in transit to performances. He learned to play the ud (oud) as a young man and came to Cairo first to study at the new Institute for Arab Music and very soon thereafter to teach there. The young Farid al-Atrash, a nascent ud virtuoso and soon-to-be film star, was one of al-Sunbati's early students.

Al-Sunbati's skill at instrumental improvisation soon developed into a prodigious compositional talent. He developed an extraordinary gift for setting poetic texts of all sorts from simple film songs to complex classical qasa'id. He wrote for nearly every major singer working in Cairo (the center of Arab music production during al-Sunbati's lifetime). Among his skills was tailoring compositions to the talents of individual voices.

Umm Kulthum and al-Sunbati worked together for the first time for the musical film Widad (1936). One of his songs for the film, "'Ala Baladi Mahbub" (For my beloved country), was sung by another actor in the film, but Umm Kulthum liked it so well (as did the audience) that when the recordings from the film were released, she sang the song herself. He also wrote the famous "University Song" for the film Nashid al-Amal (Song of Hope).

His most magnificent compositions for Umm Kulthum, however, were undoubtedly his qasa'id. The first was "Salu Ku'us a-Tila" (Ask the cup of wine) in 1938, a qasida written for Umm Kulthum by the poet Ahmad Shawqi after his first meeting with her earlier in the decade. Al-Sunbati composed all of her major poetic works in the 1940s, contributing to a major neoclassical cultural formation. He was a principal author of Umm Kulthum's golden age. He continued to compose work for her until her death, with his "al-Atlal" becoming her signature composition.

The usually contentious Umm Kulthum treated al-Sunbati with great care and respect. She seems to have felt that she could not do without him to provide successful new repertoire. For his part, al-Sunbati, a reserved and taciturn man, never seemed particularly attached to the fame and fortune proximity to Umm Kulthum tended to convey. He seemed happy to compose for a wide variety of performers. Toward the end of his life, al-Sunbati made a studio recording of ud improvisations (taqasim). As do his vocal compositions, these remain today models of neoclassical invention.

When, in her later years, she spoke about Arab and Egyptian society, she took recourse to her background as a fallaha (Arabic: peasant, farmer), a daughter of the country from a poor family and as a good Muslim and patriotic Egyptian. She described herself in terms that would be common to many compatriots of her generation and they often identified her as one of them. With her artistry and demeanor, she grew to be, as one journalist called her, "the voice and face of Egypt" (Akhbar al-Yawm, 19 June 1967).

THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE

As a singer devoted to Egyptian and Arabic musical styles and poetic languages, Umm Kulthum came rather late to international attention. A writer in Look magazine profiled her in 1966 and his article was among the first actually written for non-Arab listeners. Her only concert outside the Arab world came in Paris in 1967, a performance to which she agreed only because of the number of Arabic speakers likely to be in the audience. Her recordings had been sold internationally since the 1920s but usually in outlets serving the Arab diaspora.

With the interest in world music in the late twentieth century and particularly with the communications available via the Internet, a wider array of audience members have become interested in Umm Kulthum and aware of her remarkable role in the history of Arab music and culture. Her recordings and information about her are now widely available. That said, her art remains perhaps a more deliberately acquired taste, its aesthetics still remote to non-Arab or uninitiated listeners.

LEGACY

Viewed from the standpoint of the early twenty-first century, Umm Kulthum's legacy appears to be musical, first and foremost. Her performances continue to be broadcast and sold using the new media of the compact disc and Internet audio file. Young Arabic speakers listen to her songs, though some of the performances are more than fifty years old. Her impact as an accomplished singer of Arabic poetry has had remarkable staying power. The songs themselves have found their ways into other venues of Arab musical life. Performers ranging from folk musicians to electronic composers and religious singers make reference to her melodies in their own work. Most of the songs themselves have been taken into the turath or heritage of Arab music, which is to say they have been accepted as classics. These are performed by state ensembles of Arabic choruses and orchestras in places such as the Cairo Opera House as statements of Arab classical art.

As a human being, she remains a model of accomplishment and respectability that has served well succeeding generations of young women aspiring to careers in public life, whether in music or in professions such as television news broadcasting. In her own way of life, she articulated a sort of local feminism. Although she is now known worldwide, because her primary medium was Arabic sung poetry her impact will probably always be felt most strongly among Arabic-speaking listeners for whom the art of adding meaning to text using melody is historic cultural value.

WE MUST NOT FORGET … OUR ARTISTIC PERSONALITIES

We must respect our artistic selves…. We must not forget our selves, our artistic personalities, our taste…. Take, for instance, the Indians. They show great respect for themselves in art and in life. Wherever they are, they insist on wearing their own clothes and in their art they are intent on asserting their own independent personality and, due to this, their music is considered one of the best and most successful forms of music in the entire world. This is the way to success for us in music.

AS TOLD TO RAJA AL-NAQQASH IN 1965, REPRINTED IN LUGHZ UMM KULTHUM (CAIRO: DAR AL-HILAL, 1978), PP. 48-49.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Danielson, Virginia. "The Voice of Egypt": Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song and Egyptian Society in the 20th Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Goldman, Michael. Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt. Waltham, Massachusetts: Filmmakers Collaborative, 1996.

Gaskill, Gordon. "The Mighty Voice of Um Kalthum." Life 52/22 (1 June 1962): 15-16.

When a Woman Sings. Produced by Gabriel Khoury, Marianne Khoury, and Humbert Balsan; a film by Mustapha Hasnaoui. Seattle, WA: Arab Film Distribution, 2004.

                                    Virginia Danielson

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