The VOICE of Egypt

June 30, 2016
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BY AMMARA ISA

The name Umm Kulthum is no stranger on the lips of the Middle East. The famous Egyptian singer produced over 300 songs with a myriad of songwriters and composers with fans stretching from the surrealist artist Salvador Dali to multi-award winning singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan.

Born in the early 20th century, Umm Kulthum was born into a self-described ‘peasant’ family. Her father al-Shaykh Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Baltaji taught her to recite the Quran from a young age. The elegance of her voice perfectly matched the grace of the Quranic verses and her father quickly recognized this by casting her in his small performing troupe disguised as a boy.  This attracted the first of her many mentors throughout her career, Mohamed Aboul Ela, an Egyptian singer who taught her songs from the classic Arabic repertoire.

She eventually moved to Cairo in 1923 where she was quickly inducted into Egypt’s cultural scene. Poets and composers flocked towards her, each scrambling to produce material for the bourgeoning singer. Her popularity in the city continued to go from strength to strength and in 1932 she embarked on a tour of the Middle East and North Africa. She even became a firm favourite of the Egyptian royal family who attended several of her public and private performances. It was clear her influence transcended Egypt’s artistic scene as in 1944, she was awarded by King Farouk I with Nishan el Kamal, a decoration reserved exclusively to members of the royal court.

Towards the 1940’s until the end of her career, her musical inclination returned towards an indigenously Egyptian style as she recruited composers Zakariya Ahmad and poet Mahmud Bayram el-Tunsi. Said to be the ‘Golden Age’ of her career, her music at this time perfectly negotiated the narrow distance between poetry and music.

What easily established Umm Kulthum from her contemporaries was her insistence on public performances. Where musical shows were a pastime relegated to the Egyptian elite, her performances were broadcasted live every Thursday evening to the general public. They were renowned for clearing the streets of Egypt as everyone rushed indoors towards their radios. Drenched in a vibrancy that could not be taught, her voice ensured a fascinating rapport with Egypt itself. It inspired a relationship deeply based on dynamism; she drew on the emotional energy of the room ensuring that each performance was different. Listening to her renditions of the same song over the years, she had the exceptional ability to initiate a unique and powerful spiritual exchange between audience and artist with every song. This musical pragmatism ensured a long and prosperous career stretching over half a century.

On the 3rd of February 1975, Umm Kulthum died from heart failure. Over four million Egyptians attended her funeral services as the country mourned the loss of one of the Arab world’s most prolific singers. However, her audience’s visceral attachment to her voice did not stop after her death. Her music continues to be popular throughout the Middle East and in 2001, the Egyptian government opened the ‘Kawkab al-Sharq’ (Star of the East) Museum dedicated to commemorating her extraordinary career.

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