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Umm Kulthum Ranked as One of the Greatest Singers of All Time

posted on: Jan 25, 2023

Umm Kulthum Ranked as One of the Greatest Singers of All Time
Umm Kulthum. Photo: Britannica.

By: Arab America Contributing Writer / Souria Dabbousi

Umm Kulthum, Egyptian singer and world-renowned Arab music legend, was honored by the Rolling Stone magazine. She was included in the list of the 200 greatest singers of all time. Coming in at number 61 between Kate Bush, 60 and George Michael 62 She was a symbol of authentic Arab and Egyptian culture.

Who is Umm Kulthum?

Umm Kulthum Ranked as One of the Greatest Singers of All Time
Umm Kulthum, #61 on Rolling Stone’s 200 Greatest Singers of All Time. Photo: Rolling Stone

Now you may ask, who actually is Umm Kulthum? Umm Kulthum, born in Nile Delta, Egypt, was a singer, songwriter and film actress. Her date of birth isn’t actually confirmed however some say she was born on December 31, 1898 and others believe it was May, 4 1904. She was known as “The Voice of Egypt,” “Star of the East,” and “Egypt’s Fourth Pyramid.” She was and is still seen as a national icon of Egypt. From 1924-1973, Umm Kulthum’s music brought inspiration to all. Through out her 60-year career, she managed to record over 300 songs and altered the way people perceive Arab women.

How it all Began

Umm Kulthum Ranked as One of the Greatest Singers of All Time
Photo: Pinterest

She started off at the age of 12, when her father noticed her voice and the strength it carried. She joined her family’s ensemble, as a backup, repeating what everyone would sing. At the age of 16, she was taught old Classical Arabic repertoire by Mohammad Abu-Al-Ela. She later then met Zakariyaa Ahmad, who was a famous composer and oudist and initiated her into moving to Cairo.

Her career officially began when she moved to Cairo where she started off singing poems and “qasa’id.” She began performing in concerts on the first Thursday of each month as well as performing in other celebrations and ceremonies. Her popularity rose, record companies began noticing her which ultimately led to her fame.

She went from being an unknown village girl with hopes and dreams to an Egyptian star loved and adored by thousands. As she grew, her fame also rose. The 1940s and early 1950s were perceived as her “Golden Age” due to her voice and performing style having matured.

Her Performances

Umm Kulthum’s voice held enormous power. It was the lowest type of voice that a female could have, a contralto. 

Led Zeppelin vocalist, Robert Plan, was “driven to distraction” when he heard Umm Kulthum’s voice during his trip to 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.”

Umm Kulthum’s performances lasted about five hours, with three songs, and each song lasting anywhere between 45 to 90 minutes. Crowds would call out for line repetitions and she would happily oblige. 

Her only performance in Europe was in 1967 at L’Olympia in Paris. 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.”

Umm Kulthum Today

Umm Kulthum Ranked as One of the Greatest Singers of All Time
Divas exhibition at the Arab World Institute in Paris. Photo: IMA

Although its been more than 40 years since her death, Umm Kulthum is still a major icon in the Arab world. Her music is still adored by many and her legacy lives on inspiring new generations. 

Saudi playwright and arts patron, Mona Khashoggi talks about Umm Kulthum, “I left Saudi Arabia when I was young… Every time I’m sad, I listen to Umm Kulthum and I think everybody else does that. She is in every home for every age. She is timeless.” 

“The Arab World Institute (IMA) in Paris hosted an exhibition last year titled “Arab Divas: From Umm Kulthum to Dalida” to honor the ‘Star of the East’ and other renowned singers, and the show will next appear in Amsterdam in March 2023.”

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