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Umm Kalthum - Legendary Songstress Of The Arabs

posted on: Mar 2, 2016


BY: Habeeb Salloum

The Moroccan wedding feast had been sumptuous and now we were enjoying an evening of music with its gripping melodies whose history could be traced back to the Moors in Spain. The dozen musicians clothed in the traditional Moroccan dress were playing ancient instruments — many of which were the ancestors of those used in our modern world. The tantalizing muwashshahat poetry they sang held every one of us spellbound. It was as if we were living in a magical world of dreams.

My friend’s words brought me back to reality. “Let’s go! An evening with Umm Kalthum is awaiting us”. I was somewhat annoyed, “Do we have to leave? Can there be anything more enchanting than this Andalusian night?” He looked at me as if I was ignorant of the Arab entertainment world, “Come! You will see.” Grudgingly I left, shepherded by my companion. Living all my life in Canada and barely familiar with Arabic entertainment, I could not believe Umm Kalthum could compete with the centuries-old music and song rooted in Moorish splendour.

The room we entered with its sparkling and colourful glazed tiles took my breath away. It was as if we were walking into an ancient fairytale palace. After salutations; our host motioned us to the divans on which two dozen men were reclining in silence listening to Umm Kalthum’s thrilling voice full of nostalgia and yearning. Flooding the room, it seemed to have tranquilized the attentive audience:

         “Oh my love I Do not ask me where is love,

In my fantasy it was clear, but it has faded away.

Drink and give me a drink on the ruins of this love,

And talk about me since the tears speak and say

Of how that love became a rumour from yesteryear,

And conversation from the talk that grief conveys.”

I was bewitched with her quivering tones blending sorrow and pleasure in intoxicating ambiguity. My heart and soul soared as the voice of that singer which I had heard so much about came over the radio. I turned to my friend, “The Arab immigrants in North America always talk about Umm Kalthum and call her kawkab al-sharq (star of the East) but I never knew what they meant until now.”

Hearing my voice, the gentlemen on my right glared at me in anger. My companion whispered in my ear, “Do not say a word. You are amid the Society of ‘Umm Kalthum Fans’. The first Thursday of every month they meet and listen in silence for a whole evening to that ‘Queen of Arab Song. If one says as much as a word, they are expelled from the organization.”

As the evening progressed and we sipped on refreshing Moroccan tea served by a silent maid, I was entangled more and more in the web of that marvellous voice. From that night, I became a devotee of the most celebrated singer the Arab world has ever known. Over the following decades I came to know why her international audience had labelled her ‘Empress of Arab Tunes’.

Umm Kalthum was born in l908 to a humble peasant family in Tummay el Zahayra – a tiny Egyptian village. She began her singing career as a poor peasant girl dressed as a boy because it was thought that virtuous maidens did not sing in public. At the same time, she studied the Qur’an and mastered its language.

During weddings and family feasts she recited in traditional style parts of this Holy Book and from the Assirah – ballads that tell the story of the Prophet Muhammad and his family. Even at an early age, her voice that had an un-equalled emotional range spread her fame throughout the Valley of the Nile.

In 1924 she moved to Cairo where during the following years, in every part of the Arab world, she became a cult and her concerts a rite. Each performance became a pan-Arab event. People from North Africa and the Middle East, especially from the Arabian Peninsula, would fly into Cairo on the first Thursday of every month for the sole purpose of attending her concerts that, in the main, consisted of a single song lasting into the wee hours of the morning.

Each song usually celebrated the miracle of the Arabs and their Muslim faith. Almost song she sang was a collection of the great Arab themes which ran through the gamut of pining away for the past, languid love, injured pride and memories of lost passion and, not forgetting her nation, the love of her country and the call for Arab nationalism. Her songs bridged the many gulfs to fuse the diverse social fragments of the Arab world into an emotional whole. It is said that she is responsible for keeping alive the Islamic heritage and the ancient poetry of the desert. Notwithstanding the fact that she starred in many films, she rejected modern singing and clung to the time-honoured Arab classical melodies.

With her words and voice she could create a magical atmosphere and enchant her listeners, as no other Arab singer in the past or at present has been able to do. She had a uniquely expressive tone which could make her audiences laugh or even bring them to tears. As she twisted and crumpled a scarf in her hands, her voice sometimes husky and strained or leaping with pangs of love, would hit some impossible tones. At other times, her anguished tones, punctuated, decorated and echoed by the orchestra, touched cosmetic depths and brought on a mixture of longing, wistfulness and unfulfilled dreams.

During the Second World War her lyrics had such a sway over the Arabs that both the Allies and Axis in their radio programs beamed to the Middle East played her songs. Late in the 1940s she became the acknowledged leader of Arabic song and her life thereafter became the story of modern Egypt.

After taking power in the 1950s, Nasser established a close relationship with Umm Kalthum. In the succeeding years she enjoyed a special status with this young Arab hero – a singular position that no other Egyptian artist ever attained. During this period, her voice became almost as important as the speeches of the charismatic Nasser. They complemented and were fond of each other and became almost equally famous in their time.

In that era, to ensure an Arab worldwide audience, important political news items were broadcast before Umm Kalthum’s concerts. Hence, the saying that, ‘in the1950s two leaders emerged in the Middle East, Jamal Abd al-Nasser and Umm Kalthum’ has a solid base. Yet even more than Nasser like the eternal Sphinx this voice of the Arabs became a national symbol of Egypt.

In the world of artistic splendour of the 1950s and 1960s Umm Kalthum became the toast of Cairo and a national heroine. At the same time, her fame and adoration also reached its zenith in the other Arab lands. Nicknamed the ‘Ambassadress of Arabic Arts’, her importance in the Arab countries was so great that she was received with the same ceremony as heads of state and taken into account when plans were made for important events. It is believed that Qaddafi delayed his Libyan revolution for two days because it would have clashed with Umm Kalthum’s monthly concert.

In her twilight years, this Arab celebrity was a black haired, composed and a modest woman. Unlike many Arab artists of our times she was proud of her Arab-Islamic heritage. In her daily life she followed Arab traditions and acted as one of the ordinary people.

This endeared her to the masses that idolized and thought of her as one of themselves. They fondly referred to her as al-sitt (the lady), even though, in her later years, she became one of the richest women in Egypt. A dedicated humanist, she distributed much of the millions she made to the poor. It is said that during her lifetime she supported at least 200 peasant families.

When Umm Kalthum died during a winter day on February 4, 1975, at the age of 71, her funeral was led by the presidential court and followed by over a mile long procession of loving worshipers. Film stars, poets, business men, ambassadors and ministers walked shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of her ordinary fans, forming a phalanx of mass grievers. From the front of the mass column to the last the chant, ‘good-bye, good-bye our beloved songstress echoed amid the sobs of the mourners. The massive turnout of grieving people was second only to Nasser’s final farewell – the largest funeral in Egyptian history.

Strange as it may seem, death did not end her sway over the masses in the Arab world. More than four decades after her death, her records can be heard almost daily, and millions of people are still enchanted with her songs. The passing years have not withered away her aura to any appreciable degree. Recordings of her concerts broadcast over Radio Cairo are a living legacy that are still looked forward to by hundreds of thousands.

Her love songs throbbing endlessly from the radio are today, as they were in the past, enticing many to be her willing slaves.   A classical artist and a voice from the illustrious Arab past, she represents the epitome of Arabic singing. Her phenomenally powerful and captivating beautiful voice still stirs the hearts of millions.

Four decades after her death the legend of Umm Kalthum lives on among the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East. It appears that the magic of the voice that made her audience euphoric, begging her to repeat the same words again and again, has not diminished with the years. The saying in Egypt that ‘two things never change, the Pyramids and the voice of Umm Kalthum are perhaps more true today than when this nightingale of the Arabs walked the earth.

In January of 2002, in her memory, a museum was opened in Cairo’s 19th century Manastirli Palace. For her many admirers, it is a nostalgic event to walk through this museum and gaze upon the red scarf that she clutched while singing, the ornamented sunglasses that she often wore, and the many gifts given her by foreign states and important dignitaries – the trademarks of her career. The museum is apparently an apologetic gift for her home, which was demolished after her death – a belated recognition of Egypt’s greatest singing star, and who many consider to be Egypt itself.