‘She exists out of time’: Umm Kulthum, Arab music’s eternal star

Umm Kulthum was a social phenomenon who broke gender boundaries.

 

With a voice adored by Bob Dylan, Robert Plant and millions across the Arab world, Umm Kulthum rejected gender norms with her powerful, political music. But can her 90-minute songs work in a new stage musical?

You hear the Umm Kulthum cafe before you see it. Violins swoon and a monumental voice surges from a doorway in Cairo’s Tawfiqia neighbourhood. Outside, couples smoke shisha on plastic chairs, dwarfed by two immense golden busts depicting the singer known variously as “the star of the east”, “mother of the Arabs” and “Egypt’s fourth pyramid”.

Umm Kulthum recorded about 300 songs over a 60-year career and her words of love, loss and longing drift reliably from taxis, radios and cafes across the Arab world today, 45 years after her death. Despite singing complex Arabic poetry, she influenced some of the west’s greatest singers. Bob Dylan said: “She’s great. She really is.” Shakira and Beyoncé have performed dance routines to her music. Maria Callas called her “the incomparable voice”.

There is no western counterpart to Umm Kulthum, no artist as respected and beloved as she is in the Arab world. Despite that, she remains relatively unknown in the UK; a one-off show at the London Palladium on 2 March aims to change that. Umm Kulthum & the Golden Era will dramatise the singer’s life in English with her music sung in Arabic. “My whole message,” says the show’s producer, Mona Khashoggi, “is to promote our rich culture of classical Arabic music in the west.”

The musical depicts Egypt during a period of cultural fertility and seismic sociopolitical change. It responds to a question posed by the ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson, who wrote a biography of Umm Kulthum: “Is it possible that 50 years in Arab societies, where women appear to outsiders to be oppressed, silent and veiled, could be represented by the life and work of a woman?” And not just a woman, but one whose possible lesbianism and rejection of gender norms raised a few eyebrows in her lifetime.

Umm Kulthum was born in a Nile delta village in about 1904 to an imam and his wife. Her father supplemented his income by singing religious songs with his son and nephew, and his daughter would mimic them, later reflecting that she first learned to sing “like a parrot”. Joining the family ensemble, her powerful voice proved a novelty but also, as a woman performing religious songs, provocative. Her father dressed her in a boy’s coat and black Bedouin headdress, leaving only her eyes and mouth visible. Freed from the limitations of gender, her talent shone and she attracted the interest of noted musicians, who invited her to Cairo.

It took Umm Kulthum time to find her feet in the big city in the early 1920s. While her voice was admired in the homes of Cairo’s elite, she was mocked for her rough country attire and behaviour. She gradually learned to dress with style and worked with the best artists of the age, despite a reputation as a demanding collaborator. Record labels competed over her and she negotiated shrewdly to increase her fees and fame. Soon she was making twice as much money as the biggest stars of Cairo’s art scene.

 

Umm Kulthum.
 Photograph: CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant said that he was “driven to distraction” on hearing Umm Kulthum’s voice while in Marrakech in 1970. “When I first heard the way she would dance down through the scale to land on a beautiful note that I couldn’t even imagine singing, it was huge: somebody had blown a hole in the wall of my understanding of vocals.”

Her voice was a contralto, the lowest type for a female, and had enormous power. She performed to large audiences without a microphone and improvised virtuosically. “She acted like a preacher who becomes inspired by his congregation,” the Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz once said. “When he sees what reaches them he gives them more of it, he works it, he refines it, he embellishes it.” Crowds called out for line repetitions and she obliged, meaning a song could last between 45 and 90 minutes. She subtly altered emphasis and explored the maqamat, the set of Arabic scales, to eruptions of applause. It was said she never sang a line the same way twice.

An Umm Kulthum performance would generally last about five hours and consist of three extended songs. Her goal was to induce in her listeners tarab, a state of rapturous enchantment, where time and self dissolve in the music.

During the 1940s she shifted towards colloquial, populist Egyptian music, a canny move as the country chafed under British control. Other songs using vivid Arabic poetry linked her to fine literature. She presented two popular images: the refined woman who could educate the masses and the peasant daughter who articulated working-class pain.

She recorded on vinyl and starred in six musical films; from 1934 for almost 40 years she broadcast a live concert on the first Thursday of each month. This became a social phenomenon: stories abound of streets and workplaces from Tunisia to Iraq becoming suddenly deserted as millions rushed home to listen. She embodied pan-Arab unity and became an irresistible proposition for shrewd politicians.

A common story goes that Umm Kulthum’s music was taken off the airwaves after Egypt’s 1952 revolution because she had sung for the leaders of the old regime. Gamal Abdel Nasser, national hero and later the second Egyptian president, on hearing the star’s music was forbidden, apparently said: “What are they, crazy? Do you want Egypt to turn against us?”

Nasser understood Umm Kulthum was a symbol of authentic Arab and Egyptian culture. He piggybacked off her radio broadcasts by making political speeches straight after, promoting his pan-Arabist agenda. For her part, she sang in support of Nasser and donated millions of dollars to the military. While some regard her as his tool, Danielson believes the relationship was mutually beneficial; they agreed on many issues. “They tended to say the same things about themselves, Egypt and the Arab world,” she says. “There are times you don’t know which one is speaking, Nasser or Umm Kulthum.”

Starring in the 1947 film Fatma.
Starring in the 1947 film Fatma. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo

In 1967, Umm Kulthum made her only performance in Europe at L’Olympia in Paris. She was paid twice what Callas received for the same venue, with admission prices four times those for Sammy Davis Jr. After the show, she said: “No one can describe the extent of my pride when I went to Paris, stood in the middle of Europe, and raised my voice in the name of Egypt.”

 

Tom Faber

 

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