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Saturday, 26 May 2018

Remembering Umm Kalthoum: The grand dame of Arab singing

3 February marks the 43rd anniversary of death of the grand dame of Arab singing, Umm Kalthoum, whose rich voice was backed by intelligence and deep cultural appreciation

Ashraf Gharib, Saturday 3 Feb 2018
Umm Kalthoum
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In the entire history of Arab art, whether in the past or present, no artist has enjoyed the truly exceptional stature of the Star of the Orient and the grand dame of Arab singing – Umm Kalthoum.

I don’t believe there will ever be an artist who can compete with her in terms of stature, not only because of her intrinsic characteristics, but because the atmosphere in which Umm Kalthoum emerged and lived until her death in 3 February 1975 was totally different.

Umm Kalthoum was born Fatma Ibrahim Al-Biltagi, most likely in 30 December 1898, in Tamay EL-Zahayra, a village in the Dakhleya Governorate, in the Nile Delta. Her father was a singer of religious chants from whom she inherited the beautiful voice and love of singing. He trained her in the art of serene performance; learning the Holy Quran by heart had helped in this respect. In addition, while she was still twelve years old, she gained singing experience by joining with her father in singing religious poems in villages across Egypt.

Umm Kalthoum
Umm Kalthoum on stage (Photo: Al-Ahram)

She soon became famous, and music connoisseurs advised her to travel to Cairo, where she could display her talent on a much bigger scale.

The country girl arrived in the Egyptian metropolis in 1923, where the Sheikh Abul-Ela Mohamed, one of the important names in the world of singing at the time, took her under his wing and honed her talent until he died in 1927.

At that stage, she had already covered vast territory in the land of Arab singing, collaborating with all the well-known composers, such as Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmad, Mohamed El-Qasabgi, Ahmed Sabri Al-Nagridi, Riyad Al-Sunbati and others. Her favourite lyricist, meanwhile, was the poet Ahmad Rami.

By the mid-thirties, Umm Kalthoum became the most famous and most important name in the world of singing, not only in Egypt but in the entire Arab World. She established a habit of giving a concert in the first Thursday of every month, broadcast by Egyptian Radio. Arabs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf gathered round to listen to a phenomenon that they found nowhere else but with this great songstress.

Umm Kalthoum
Umm Kalthoum on stage (Photo: Al-Ahram)

As for the cinema, Umm Kalthoum’s debut was Wedad (1936), directed by the German director Fritz Kramp. It was the first production of Studio Misr, the most important cinematic monument the Middle East has ever known, and a project of Talaat Harb, one of the most famous Egyptian entrepreneurs.

She followed it with five more films, all of which were directed by
Ahmed Badrakhan.

From the beginning of the Egyptian narrative film in 1927, Umm Kalthoum took a whole nine years to decide to venture into this new medium. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that, until the early 1930s, she wasn’t firmly established in the world of singing -- and at that time sound films were not yet established in Egypt. This was only achieved in the spring of 1932.

Her hesitation with regard to every new thing also played a role in the delayed decision to explore her film career. Indeed, before joining the fray, she waited to see the outcome of six other singers’ forays in film. The most important of those singers was, of course, her main competitor Mohammed Abdel Wahab, who made The White Rose (1933) and Tears of Love (1935), both directed by Mohamed Karim.

Umm Kalthoum
Umm Kalthoum backstage with Abdel Wahab (Photo: Al-Ahram)

As soon as Umm Kalthoum had been reassured that this invention of cinema was successful, and that she might gain some benefit by it, she agreed to star in her first film in 1936.

Upon realising that her audience would only go to her films to hear her sing, Umm Kalthoum was intelligent enough to select plots that suited her as a songstress above all else.

She played the lives of three slave girls who were famous for their beautiful voices during ancient Islamic eras, namely: Wedad (1936) from the Mamlouk era, Dananeer (1940) from the Abbasid era, and Sallama (1945) from the Umayyad era.

She also starred in two other films: The Chant of Hope (1937) and Aida (1942) as a contemporary songstress. In her last film Fatma (1947), she played an ordinary nurse, albeit one enjoying a sweet voice.

Those six films constituted a rare opportunity for Umm Kalthoum to present her wealth of short, diverse songs that were based upon dramatic situations that ran parallel to her long poems and songs away from the silver screen. These songs, which were characterized by a relatively fast tempo, allowed her to acquire a new audience among the younger generation, who weren’t so enthusiastic about the long songs presented in her monthly public concerts.

Umm Kalthoum
Umm Kalthoum in the rehearsal (Photo: Al-Ahram)

After her final film Fatma, Umm Kalthoum began to suffer from health problems, both with her eyes and in the thyroid gland. That made it difficult for her to continue a cinematic career, where she exposed herself to exhaustion and her eyes to continuous bright lighting. In addition, she was close to 50 years old, and it didn’t suit her to play leading roles.

She decided to keep away from the silver screen, although her voice appeared in the songs of Rabaa Al-Adawiya (1963), directed by Atef Salem.

From 1947, Umm Kalthoum devoted herself totally to singing, achieving what no songstress had done before.

From the beginning of the 1952 Revolution, this intelligent woman strengthened her relationship with the Egyptian president to the extent that she became more than just a famous songstress.

This was evident when she played an important political role following the 1967 Defeat in support of the war effort through a number of concerts inside and outside Egypt.

Umm Kalthoum
Umm Kalthoum with prominent writers, Naguib Mahfouz and Tawfik El-Hakim (Photo: Al-Ahram)

This drove President Gamal Abdel-Nasser to giving her a diplomatic passport, through which she was treated as a state official.

With the early 1970s, health problems began to recur, until she gave up singing at general concerts in January 1973. A few months later, she ceased to sing altogether, following the recording of her last song Ordered by Love, by the composer Baligh Hamdi.

Umm Kalhtoum died in 3 February 1975, aged 77.

The Arab peoples paid their last farewell to her in the form of hundreds of thousands taking part in her awesome funeral in a scene that was totally new for the artistic life in Egypt.

But there remains an important question: Was Umm Kalthoum just a strong singer endowed with a voice capable of arousing both ecstasy and expressiveness, thereby captivating both hearts and ears?
In other words, did the grand dame of Arab singing rely - in her exceptional success - only on such a voice, which combined, with noteable distinctiveness, strength and depth?

I don’t think so.

Umm Kalthoum
Umm Kalthoum with Abdel Halim Hafez (Photo: Al-Ahram)

It is true that her voice enjoyed a number of characteristics and advantages, but her era was packed with clever female voices with special characteristics: the Singer of the Two Countries, Fathiyya Ahmad, the Sultana Mounira El-Mahdeya, Hayat Sabri, Nagat Ali, Nadra and others.

However, the difference between all these songstresses and Umm Kalthoum was she had the broadest culture, was the most intelligent and the deepest in her ability to absorb every single bit of information. She transformed all that she encountered in facing life’s storms into an accumulation of life experience, emerging victorious and outrunning all her competitors.

Fathiyya Ahmad, Mounira El-Mahdeya, Hayat Sabri, Nagat Ali, Nadra and even Asmahan had strong and beautiful voices. But Umm Kalthoum realised through her innate intelligence that talent isn’t enough to achieve virtuosity and uniqueness.

Thus, she began to equip herself with what the others lacked – namely culture – in order to be capable of making the correct choices in the field of music.

Umm Kalthoum
From left to right: Musician Mohamed El-Mougi, former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Umm Kalthoum and former president Anwar El-Sadat (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Despite the fact that she wasn’t educated like Nabawiyya Musa (the pioneer of women's education), or familiar with Western culture like Huda Sha'arawi (founder of the Egyptian Women’s Union), this country girl decided to acquire a huge base of culture and knowledge, even if it was through oral means for the most part.

If Sheikh Abu-Ela Mohamed, Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmad, Mohamed El Qasabgi and Ahmed Sabri Al-Nagridi worked on refining her singing talent, she succeeded throughout her long career in surrounding herself with the senior intellectuals and culture lovers, such as Sheikh Mustafa 'Abd Al-Raziq, Talaat Harb and Mohamed El-Bably, then later Mustafa Amin, Fekry Abaza, Saleh Gawdat, Ibrahim Nagy and Kamel El-Shennawy.

Before all these names, there was Ahmad Rami, poet of the youth, who was her first and most influential teacher, from their first meeting in 1924 until her death.

Suffice to say that Rami was the first person to introduce to her the best of Arabic poetry, both old and new, to French literature and to Persian poetry, assisting her in selecting the most suitable poems to be sung.

His influence was such that one of the singer's most intimate friends, Fekry Abaza, said in surprise: "How many thousands of lines of poetry did Umm Kalthoum know by heart, chanting and enchanting ears, minds, heads and hearts?" Indeed, she knew thousands of lines of poetry by heart.

Umm Kalthoum
Uum Kalthoum in one of the celebrations held at the Old Opera House (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Enjoying a cultured and intelligent voice made the whole difference then between Umm Kalthoum and other songstresses of the time.

It also gave her a captivating personality that won her the respect of all those attending any gathering, no matter who was present. The grand figures of her times, of culture and politics in Egypt and the Arab World, sought to be present in her company and brag about this.

Umm Kalthoum has left us a clear experience that ought to be learnt by any aspiring talent, and a created a unique case of success that can remain the model for everyone who seeks uniqueness and immortality.

Umm Kalthoum
Umm Kalthoum funeral (Photo: Al-Ahram)

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