On the first Thursday evening of every month, the streets would be completely empty. No one could be seen walking around or talking to others. Everyone would be sitting at home tuning into the radio ready for that week’s concert by singer Um Kolthoum, the “Nightingale of the Nile.”
The radio announcer would describe every detail: what Um Kolthoum was wearing, how she looked, the performance of the musicians and the surrounding preparation. Her voice was so transcendent and evocative that it penetrated the souls of her fans, from pashas in palaces to peasants in villages.
It has been over 40 years since Um Kolthoum died, leaving her fans entangled in nostalgia and memories. Perhaps another Um Kolthoum will come one day who can replace her. Many singers try to imitate Um Kolthoum, holding a white handkerchief in their hand as she did or doing covers of her songs. However, no one can ever really replace Um Kolthoum as her continuing popularity with the younger generations proves.
On the anniversary of “al-sitt” (the lady), the newer generations appreciate her as much as the old ones did. Theatres still fill with the young and older fans of the great singer. Tickets are snapped up and quickly sold out whenever a venue announces that there will be a concert featuring the songs of Um Kolthoum.
“No one can get enough of al-sitt,” Ibrahim Mohamed, a 55-year-old ticket salesman, said. Mohamed, who has spent more than 20 years in theatres and music venues, said there was a particular atmosphere at songs by Um Kolthoum.
“People are mesmerised by the atmosphere,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly as people were leaving a concert celebrating the anniversary of Um Kolthoum at the Alexandria Opera House. “I always see the older and younger generations together preserving and celebrating the legacy of the greatest signer of all time,” he added.
Enta Omry (You are my Life), Siret al-Hob (Love Story), Fat al-Maad (It’s too Late), Hagartak (I Left You), and many more are poignant classics that fill the hearts and minds of many young fans. “It is not only the singing which amazes me, but it is also the tempo, the rhythm, the composition and the great lyrics,” said Nouran Soliman, a 22-year-old pianist and teacher.
Soliman has been a fan of Um Kolthoum from an early age. She used to sit with her father and grandparents listening to the songs, the verses of which would be repeated over and over again with a slightly changed mood and different inflection.
As a young pianist who has been affected by Western music, Soliman has also investigated the Egyptian musical legacy that her parents instilled in her. “I listen to all kinds of music, modern and old. I listen to French, Spanish and Indian music. But Um Kolthoum has a different taste and atmosphere,” Soliman said, adding that she listens to the singer while driving and walking in the morning.
The legacy of Um Kolthoum extends far beyond Egyptian borders. Last December, Saudi Arabia and the UAE hosted the first hologram concert in the Arab world featuring the great singer. Forty years after her death, this Egyptian diva has been recreated in holographic form to awe audiences in a vision of digital nostalgia.
“The lyrics of her songs live within us,” said Khaled Khaleej, one of the Arab fans of Um Kolthoum in the UAE. “I can feel the lyrics and I live the songs in my own life. I remember when I lost my wife several years ago, it was Um Kolthoum’s songs that gave me strength, love and compassion,” he added.
The legacy of Um Kolthoum also extends to Greek people who used to live in Egypt despite the language barrier. “My parents always played her songs, and I would sit beside them just watching when I was young,” Faiza Arzaky, 45, who is of Greek origin, said.
“A concert of her classics starring young Arab singers is what people need sometimes,” said young Egyptian singer Nada Adel.
Adel has been showcasing her talent in concerts recently with the aim of preserving the Egyptian musical heritage. “As a young girl, I was only concerned with Western songs and absorbed with Western instruments, but when I was introduced to Um Kolthoum at the age of 13 it totally changed the way I see music.”
“It is so challenging to sing one of her songs, with all the different tempos and the rises and falls of the voice. Composers used to write their songs especially for her, so of course not all her songs match every voice,” she said.
“She had the capacity to astound her fans with a new song every Thursday night. Though we were not alive when she was, we young people are still living her songs, proving that she left a legacy like no other. This is a legacy we should always be proud of and leave for the next generation to enjoy,” Adel added.
“She was a true lady who made her songs survive for every age,” said Azza, another fan. “For example, when she used to sing Ahrab min qalbi wa aruh ala feen? (“Can I run away from my heart? Where shall I go?”) the words are full of the sentiments she used to pour into her songs. Um Kolthoum is someone whose songs fit every occasion we pass through in our lives.”
“Sometimes we cannot ‘run away from our hearts’,” Azza said. “Um Kolthoum is indeed a legend,” she concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.