"Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt"This is a featured page



Kulthum's funeral in 1975.


Video collage of Umm Kulthum's photos, featuring her song "Egypt speaks about itself".


Umm Kulthum (1904-1975) is known as "the Star of the East". She mastered the heightened "expressioness" of voice, becoming the Arab world's most famous and distinguished singer of the 20th century. The documentary traces her rise to stardom and her influences over the Arab world.

Kulthum grew up in a poor village in Egypt, which was at that time under the British rule. She went to a local village school where most of the lesson time was spent on reciting the Qur'an. It was said that it was through the daily recital of the Qur'an that she acquired her splendid diction and Arabic pronounciation.
"At first I was like a parrot", she commented. Furthermore, she followed her father, an imam with formal training in Islam, to neighbours' homes where he recited the Qur'an for them.

In 1919, Kulthum started to sing to help support the family financially. With her father as company to the city (Cairo?), Kulthum sang in front of an audience dressed up as a boy, not as a young woman as her father feared for her safety. At that time, she sang for religious festivals, during which people all over Egypt would come to the city to join the religious singing. Kulthum took pride in her singing, believing that "she sang for the whole people". In 1920, she moved to Cairo, which is increasingly becoming the largest city in the Middle East.


Kulthum rose in popularity together with the spread of the mass media in the form of the gramophone. Even today, mass media continued to infiltrate her singing into the Arab society. In Egypt, radio plays her songs every day in the morning and at night. Streets are empty at night as people leave to listen to the broadcast of her voice, returning the next day to recite the poetry that she sang. People heard their own stories in her songs.

Such connection between Kulthum and her audience exists in her ideology of what music meant to her. For Kulthum, music represents the Eastern spirit. The objective of Arabic songs is "tarab" - the closest English translation "ecstasy" - achieved sometimes through poetry. Knowledge of the Western, she believes, is useful but can never become "ours". Working with the best poet and composer of her day, Kulthum adapted traditional melody (of the Arabic scales) to the new medium of TV, using imported technology to promote traditional music. She also gets her musicians to learn music by ear, even as they pick up Western instruments such as the cello.


As a celebrity,
Kulthum fiercely guarded her privacy, living in a villa on an isolated island (now populated by the wealthiest of Cairo). According to the documentary, "people must see her only as she stands in the theater".

Kulthum had a powerful political position in Egypt, even if she never associated herself as a politican. When the new government after the British left took over, they initially wanted to remove her from the media due to her close relationships with Farouk, the fallen young prince of Egypt. The president quickly admonished the government's plan with a sharp comment "do you want the people to turn against you [by removing Umm Kulthum]?". Throughout her career, her concerts had been regularly attended by important political figures of the Arab world.

When Egypt was defeated by the Israels around 1967, Egyptians lost not only land but also lives and faith.
Kulthum approached Arab communities beyond the Egyptian border to rally the Arabs to help Egypt; among other places, she traveled to Morocco, Paris, Libya, Sudan, the Gulf States, and Tunisia. She even restored Egypt's diplomatic ties with Tunisia by winning fans of high positions over.

Kulthum's death on 4 February 1975 was deeply mourned by the Arab communities around the world. As gypsy8522 wrote on her video caption, "Singer Om Kalthoum's funeral in 1975, the largest funeral in history of the Middle East. Like the pyramids, Om Kalthoum is also considered one of Egypt's landmarks." Through listening to her songs regularly, habit has turned into tradition. Even today, Umm Kulthum is part of the Arab culture.
Comments:
As I watched Umm Kulthum in the film, I could feel goosebumps all over me. Perhaps thats what it means when the people said Umm Kulthum had the ability to connect with the masses. Although I couldn't understand what she was singing, her songs embedded universal themes that would stir, motivate and inspire many. Umm Kulthum had reached such a stage in her career that she was no longer just a singer, but had become an instrument of music herself. Through the means of music, she could gather crowds, move and create social change and leave a lasting legacy behind. She stayed true to her art and her deliberate practice of it made her so successful, gaining her wide acclaim all over the Arab world. One thing that can explain her ability to connect with the audience besides her flawless vocals was her ability to innounciate every word so clearly. Contrast this to our modern day Jay Chou. He also has the ability to move people and connect with them, despite the starkingly difference in the way that they sing. Besides the language and genre of music, Jay Chou deploys a murmuring style of singing unlike Umm Kulthum. What then is that quality within the performance of them both that can create such a following in their own respective countries? I would say that it's how people are able to relax and enjoy a performance and yet hear about another's apirations, hopes, desires, feelings, contemplations and reflections on life and larger social issues. Everyone feels these issues and it affects them. Knowing that it is not just them, one particular individual striving hard in this pursuit gives them great consolation and encouragement. It is indeed remarkable how policies were changed and diplomatic relations restored because of Umm Kulthum and her voice. Culture in this sense besides just being able to convey sentiments and emotions but is actually very functional. This could then encourage the government to pay more attention to how culture and forms of art are being used in society.


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