It has been 40 years since an estimated four million people paid their last respects to the “Lady of Arab singing,” Umm Kalthoum, who died on 3 February 1975.
The death of the most prominent of all Egyptian and Arab women singers put an end to a career that was initiated in the early decades of the 20th century, first as a reciter of the Holy Quran and then as a singer who started with short songs, some of which appeared in the six films in which she starred between 1935 and 1948, before she established her hallmark brand of long songs that she performed publicly until only a few years before her death.
Today, Kalthoum, dead before over 40 per cent of Egypt's current population was born, is still widely appreciated, including among the youth
At the Cairo International Book Fair, Sawt Al-Qahira, the recording company that produces her songs, offered a special collection: a box of 50 CDs compiling her most famous songs. The Best of Umm Kalthoum was put out on CDs five years ago and has been repeatedly reprinted due to wide demand.
Younger men and women who buy Umm Kalthoum CDs say they are keen on her expressive performance along with beautiful music and lyrics. Some of them say they particularly enjoy listening to Kalthoum’s songs that include long classical poems. Mostly, however, it is the colloquial songs that are most in demand by the younger generation.
“There is a specific list of songs that we keep a good stock of because we know they are most in demand by all ages, especially the young,” said Moustafa, a seller at one of Sawt Al-Qahira's outlets downtown.
According to Moustafa, the shortlist of best sold Uum Kalthoum songs includes: Inta Uumri (You are my Life), Alf Leila Weileila (A Thousand and One Nights), Amal Hayati (Hope of my Life) and Daret Al-Ayyam (The Days have Come Around).
Most are songs composed in the 1960s by both Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Baligh Hamdi.
Sawt Al-Qahira offers a selection of these “most popular songs” on one CD to cater for the market demand. “In the one CD song, you get to listen to the full recording of the performance, but on the CD that brings together several songs there is only a shorter version —without the full replays that a traditional Umm Kalthoum fan would enjoy,” said Moustafa.
“So yes, Umm Kalthoum is still finding new listeners but in a different way,” he added.
Adel, a manager of a private music store in Heliopolis, says that “For the most part, the younger men and women who ask for Umm Kalthoum do not usually look for the full song but for specific couplets of the songs, and we compose what we call the mix that brings together the most popular couplets of several songs.” This is a common approach and Adel is sure to sell several of this Umm Kalthoum mixes.
In this, he argues, Umm Kalthoum is different from other singers of what is arguably the "Golden Age" of Egyptian music, like Abdel-Halim Hafez whose work is more on the side of shorter songs.
There is a standard compilation that Adel puts together and there are also compilations that he made upon the demand of his customers.
Ayyman El-Sayyad, former editor of the cultural monthly Al-koutob Weighat Nazr, acknowledges the longevity of the Umm Kalthoum legend. “There is no doubt that she lives on and there is no doubt that among the younger generation there are some who certainly welcome her songs. But the question there is whether it is a wide audience that she has in this generation or not,” he said.
El-Sayyad says it is very hard to judge, given that the music consumption of the younger generation now is not CD-based, but rather online or shared mp3s.
This said, El-Sayyad recalled that during the 18 days of the January 25 Revolution the crowd in Tahrir Square, which was mostly young, was keen on playing and singing patriotic Uum Kalthoum songs originally performed in the 1950s and 1960s.
Oum Kalthoum (Photo: Al Ahram)
The patriotic collection of Umm Kalthoum performances, which were mainly produced in the 1950s and 1960s after the 1952 Revolution with which Kalthoum managed to associate herself, despite prior close ties with the monarchy, are not as celebrated as her larger volume of love songs. Nor are the religious melodies that some, according to both Moustafa and Adel, demand without knowing that Kalthoum is the singer who performed them.
“But this is not about the quality of the patriotic or religious songs, but rather about the nature of our society. Egyptians are people who observe their religions and love their country, but who are essentially full of love for life,” argued novelist Naim Sabri.
In his novel Youmiat Ttfel Kadim (The Memoires of an Old Child), Sabri captures the love that Egyptians have traditionally had for Uum Kalthoum.
In one scene, he shows two young men frequenting the Uum Kalthoum Café in Downtown Cairo — a three-floor place where fans could listen to the monthly performance of “Al-Sit” (The Lady), either while drinking tea and playing cards on the first floor, or while just sipping their drinks on the second floor, or on the third floor where fans were allowed to sit without having to order any drinks, though with the lights off.
In a parallel scene he depicts preparations that a family would undertake for the Umm Kalthoum evening, with dinner and drinks.
Today, these rituals are no longer, but Umm Kalthoum is still there: to the point where most radio stations schedule longer than average programming for Umm Kalthoum songs and retrospectives on the history of her time.
Oum Kalthoum lives on because of the quality of her art, which is hard to contest, and because she stands for and represents a moment in time that prompts great nostalgia, agree both El-Sayyad and Sabri.
“In fact, Umm Kalthoum had developed into an entity of her own. In this sense she by-passed the limited dictionary definition of pan-Arabism and offered a definition of the word where her songs would bring together all those who subscribed, even if remotely, to the Arab cultural moment,” El-Sayyad argued.
The influence of Umm Kalthoum surpassed, Sabri says, the short-lived dream of pan-Arabism that was effectively eliminated in the late 1970s. “After Umm Kalthoum herself had passed away and when there was not much to bring Arabs together, she remained one of the very few things that actually would bring them together, in a sense.”
Oum Kalthoum is definitely a symbol of what is often referred to as "Egypt’s lost soft power" — a concept that brings together the musical, literary and cinematic production of Egypt from the 1940s to the early 1970s.
The reason Umm Kalthoum was at the heart of Egypt’s "soft power" when alive is not far from the reason why “she is never gone,” according to Yasser Elwy, a diplomat who authors a regular column on music in Asswat Massriyah.
“Soft power is not engineered by design; it is about [art production] that is developed by virtue of its own force, to a point where the state can capitalise on it. The idea that you can ‘create’ soft power is simply a fallacy,” Elwy said.
Elwy adds that while a government can benefit from the production of an artist, as a "soft power" reserve, “it cannot and should not reduce it into a sheer propaganda tool. There is a line that should not be crossed.”
This is, among other reasons, Elwy added, why it was impossible to replace Umm Kalthoum with Yassmine El-Khayyam during the very last years of her life, despite much support offered to the latter from First Lady Jihan El-Sadat, wife of the then-president.
From left to right: Musician Mohamed El-Mougi, former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Oum Kalthoum and former president Anwar El-Sadat (Photo: Al-Ahram)
“The state should not try to get too close to the source of its soft power. Nasser realised this, and when he expressed a wish for a musical collaboration between Umm Kalthoum and Mohamed Abdel Wahab as a composer, the product that came in the 1960s was not a patriotic song but a love song (Enta Oumri),” Elwy said.
Meanwhile, Elwy recalls, “Soft power does not guarantee political influence and certainly does not substitute for political strategy.” In that sense, the great popularity that actor Adel Imam enjoys across the Arab world does not immediately guarantee the state added political ground.
Elwy also adds that Nasser’s claim to fame was not about any of the songs that were performed, even in his praise, either by Umm Kalthoum or Abdel-Halim Hafez, but rather the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
In this sense, El-Sayyad argues, it was the central role that Egypt had in the Arab world under Nasser that served to position Umm Kalthoum. “You cannot forget that all the singers who wanted to establish a name from across the Arab world came to Egypt,” he said.
The story and the making of Umm Kalthoum, who was born Fatemmah Ibrahim El-Sayed in rural Egypt in the late years of the 19th century, or very early years of the 20th century (until now the exact date is unsure), was turned into a soap opera that was produced in 1999 and is now being replayed by Egyptian TV drama channels in memory of her.
This soap opera depicts the life of a rural girl who made her way to fame and splendour, despite many challenges. It does not closely examine the fact that Elwy elucidates, that Kalthoum as an artist was the product also of two urban middle class modernising artists, Ahmed Ramy, a poet who studied Persian in France, and Mohamed El-Kassabguie, a composer who reworked the musical path of Kalthoum following the death of Mohamed Aboueila in the early years of the 20th century.
“Ramy and El-Kassabguie were both keen on experimenting and Umm Kalthoum went along,” Elwy said.
Not long after her successful debut with these two artists, Umm Kalthoum found the most impacting partnership on her path with composer Riyad El-Sonboty, whose name is associated with some of her best classical songs (some argue that Al-Atlal, or The Ruins, is the most memorable song of her discography), as with many of her colloquial songs, both short, like Efrah Yaalbi (Rejoice My Heart), and long, like Hagartak (I Deserted You).
Upon the wish of Nasser, Kalthoum started collaborating with Abdel Wahab who helped her venture to new areas in the musical arena before her encounter with Baligh Hamdi who, according to the most conservative of critics, revolutionised her performances.
Across the many phases of her career, Umm Kalthoum always came across as “almost a pious lady, rather than a singer,” argues feminist activist Mozn Hassan. “She was always this immaculate artist who was singing love songs, but not said to be falling in love or getting married until later in her life — the late 1950s,” Hassan said.
In that sense, Hassan argues, “This lady who would never depart from ultra-conservative conduct and who was always making a point to show pride in her rural origin, and who would donate her jewelry to help rebuild the army” after the 1967 defeat, was exactly “the kind of woman-image that the state wanted to promote at the time.”
Hassan adds: “Umm Kalthoum and Faten Hamama, 'the Lady of Screen,'" another icon of the era, and who died earlier this month, were granted "stateswoman status."
It is a status that was challenged, however, Hassan adds, following the end of the Nasser era and with the introduction of “what was thought to be a new term of reference for Egyptian women: the First Lady.”
At the end of the day, Hassan said, neither the ladies of Egyptian singing or the screen, or the First Lady, were necessarily representative of the diverse and complex profile of Egyptian women.
However, “it is the incredible artistic talent” of Umm Kalthoum that keeps her in the spot as the "Lady of Egyptian and Arab singing" — despite the many other remarkable talents that appeared during the second half of her career.
“Oum Kalthoum surely managed to create her own brand of singing that could not have been copied or kept by anyone else,” Elwy concludes.
For how much longer will Umm Kalthoum live on? Answers El-Sayyed: “Classics do not die easily, and Umm Kalthoum is a classic. But it is hard to predict the volume of her audience beyond the lifetime of the remaing two generations who lived with Umm Kalthoum —those above 65 and those in their late 40s."