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Umm Kulthum (1904?–1975)

UMM KULTHUM (1904?–1975)

An accomplished and famous Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum's career extended over fifty years. Born to a poor village family in the Egyptian delta, Umm Kulthum learned to sing Muslim devotional songs by imitating her father, the imam of the village mosque who sang for local occasions. She began to perform with her father, who dressed her as a boy to avoid the opprobrium of presenting his daughter on public stages.

In the early 1920s, the family moved to Cairo to work in the lucrative world of performance and recording. At first Umm Kulthum appeared markedly rural and lower class compared to the more sophisticated actresses and singers of the day. However, her strong voice attracted the attention of poet Ahmad Rami who wrote lyrics for her and taught her poetry. She adjusted her appearance and repertory and, by the late 1920s, commanded a busy schedule in major venues and one of the best recording contracts in the Middle East.

Between 1935 and 1946, she made six musical films. As the Egyptian economy worsened in the 1930s and the problems of imperialist European domination persisted, Umm Kulthum altered her repertory from escapist, romantic lyrics, to the terse, localized colloquial poetry of Bayram al-Tunisi set to music by Zakariya Ahmad. With this, she rooted her performance in the sounds and meanings of local Egyptian words and music. With Islamism growing as an alternative to Westernization in the 1940s, she sang complicated religious and political qasa˒id (sing. qasida, a centuries-old sophisticated poetic genre) by Ahmad Shawqi set to music by Riyad al-Sunbati.

In the 1950s, she recorded numerous songs in support of the ˓Abd al-Nasser government and became linked with Egypt's charismatic president as an ambassador of Egyptian culture. In 1964, she joined forces with long-time rival Muhammad ˓Abd al-Wahhab, producing ten new songs marked by ˓Abd al-Wahhab's characteristic "modernity" and the historically Arab performance style of Umm Kulthum.

After the Egyptian defeat in the war with Israel in 1967, Umm Kulthum toured the Arab world giving concerts to raise funds to replenish the Egyptian treasury. She became a near-mythical figure, drawing together Egyptians and Arabs from different social classes and regions. Her legacy springs from her compelling renditions of fine poetry, her musical skill, and her uncanny ability to connect with her audience.

See alsoMusic .


Braune, Gabriele. Umm Kultum, ein Zeitalter der Musik inÄgypten: die moderne ägyptische Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt-am-Main: P. Lang, 1994.

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

Virginia Danielson

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