Blog #2: Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthum, known internationally as the Star Of The East, was born at the beginning of the twentieth century (it is uncertain exactly when).  Her family was extremely poor and lived in rural Egypt, and her father was a sheik who led services at local mosques.  At an early age she learned how to sing, and her father eventually taught her how to recite the Qur’an.  She would later become famous for not only her vocal abilities and emotional expressiveness, but also for her crystal-clear pronunciation.  Around the age of twelve, her father began taking her to his services to sing with him; and because it was frowned upon for women to perform (or do much of anything outside of the home), he dressed her up as a boy.  She became classically trained by singer Mohamed Aboul Ela, and then eventually moved to Cairo in the early 1920s.

It was in Cairo where Umm Kulthum’s career finally took off.  In the city, it was also more acceptable for women to do more or less what they pleased than it was in the rural areas that Umm Kulthum grew up in; so she was welcomed.  By this time, the gramophone was invented, so her music was played in cafes and restaurants.  Singles were generally looked down upon at the time, but that did not deter Umm Kulthum from releasing them, nor did it put off her listeners; her songs were played so frequently that the sound of her voice blended into the atmosphere.  In the mid-1920s, her friend Mohammad el Qasabgi formed a tahkt (a small orchestra) for her that consisted of musicians that closely matched her ability, so that she could have some accompaniment during her concerts, which were open to the public and not only the aristocrats of the city.

As the radio surfaced in the early 1930s, Umm Kulthum’s fame grew and attracted an ever-growing audience.  She gained international fame and influence, and began appearing in musical movies and performing for the royal family.  During this time she developed a (platonic) relationship with the poet Ahmed Rami, who heard her voice and fell in love with her.  She sang many of his poems, but she did not return his romantic feelings for him.  She also collaborated with Mohammad el Qasabgi frequently; who often would use Western instruments such as the cello in his music.  This created a curious style that blended Arabian and Western classical music with Egyptian popular music and lyrical content.

Umm Kulthum’s reputation continued to spread well into the 1940s and up until the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.  Several extremist members of the musicians’ guild that she had joined decided that she should be kicked out of the group and that her music should no longer be played on the radio, because she had sung for the king that had been overthrown.  By this time, Umm Kulthum had become a sort of voice of Egypt’s people as well as a much-beloved household name; and so the new President Gamal Abdel Nasser (who himself was a fan of her singing) berated them and demanded that she get airplay and readmission to the guild, lest the people turned against him.

By the 1950s, Umm Kulthum’s vocal abilities were beginning to make their decline due to her advancing age.  However, she continued to sing, although her concerts became shorter.  She was now beginning to sing works composed by her old rival, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, whom she formerly competed with.  She was more of a classicist than anything else, while he took pleasure in experimenting with other kinds of music, especially Western music.  (In one piece, he used an electric guitar along with an oud (a five- or six-course Arabian lute) and a Western classical string section.)  From then until the end of her life, she relied more strongly than ever on her ability to evoke tarab- to emotionally touch her audience.  She would sing to her audience, watch their reactions, and then proceed forward based on what they did- this meant that each new rendition of a song that she performed was completely different from the preceding ones.  In 1975, Umm Kulthum passed away, and her funeral became a national event- approximately four million people attended.  She is still remembered today in the Arab world as a legend, and she has influenced many artists from Fairuz to Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin).