Umm Kulthum was born in Tamay ez-Zahayra village in El Senbellawein, Dakahlia Governorate, Egypt. At a young age, she showed exceptional singing talents. Her father, an Imam, taught her to recite the Qur’an, and she is said to have memorized the entire Qur’an. When she was twelve years old, her father disguised her as a young boy and entered her in a small performing troupe that he directed. At the age of sixteen she was noticed by Abu El-Ala Mohamed, a fairly well-know singer, and by the famous oudist Zakaria Ahmed who asked her to accompany them to Cairo. However, she waited until 1923 before accepting the invitation.
In Cairo, she carefully avoided succumbing to the attractions of the bohemian lifestyle, and indeed throughout her life stressed her pride in her humble origins and espousal of conservative values. She also maintained a tightly managed public image, which undoubtedly added to her allure.
At this point in her career, she was introduced to the famous poet Ahmad Rami, who wrote 137 songs for her. Rami also introduced her to French literature, which he greatly admired from his studies at the Sorbonne, Paris, and eventually became her head mentor in Arabic literature and literary analysis. Furthermore, she was introduced to the renowned lute virtuoso and composer Mohamed El Asabgi. El Asabgi introduced Umm Kulthum to the Arabian Theatre Palace, where she would experience her first real public success. In 1932, her fame increased to the point where she embarked upon a large tour of the Middle East, touring such cities as Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, and Tripoli.
By 1948 her fame had come to the attention of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who would later become the president of Egypt. At one point the Egyptian musicians guild she became a member of (and later the president of), rejected her because she had sung for the then-deposed king. Nasser did not hide his admiration for her. When he discovered that she was no longer allowed to sing, he reportedly said something to the effect of “What are they? Crazy? Do you want Egypt to turn against us?” It was his favor that made the musicians guild accept her back into the fold. In addition, as a patriot and nationalist Umm Kulthum strongly supported Nasser’s ideas of Arab Nationalism. Their relationship contributed to her later phenomenal popularity across the Arab World. However, some claim that it was more a case of Umm Kulthum’s popularity assisting Nasser’s political agenda. For example, Nasser’s speeches and other government messages were frequently broadcast immediately after Umm Kulthum’s monthly radio concerts. Umm Kulthum was also known for her continuous contributions to charity works for the Egyptian military efforts. Umm Kulthum’s monthly concerts took place on the first Thursday of every month and were renowned for their ability to clear the streets of some of the world’s most populous cities as people rushed home to tune in.
Her songs deal mostly with the universal themes of love, longing and loss. They are nothing short of epic in scale, with durations measured in hours rather than minutes. A typical Umm Kulthum concert consisted of the performance of two or three songs over a period of three to six hours. In the late 1960s, due to her age, she began to shorten her performances to two songs over a period of two and a half to three hours. These performances are in some ways reminiscent of Western Opera, consisting of long vocal passages linked by shorter orchestral interludes, yet it did not inspire Umm Kulthum in any way stylistically.
The duration of Umm Kulthum’s songs in performance was not fixed, but varied based on the level of emotive interaction between the singer and her audience. A typical improvisatory technique of hers was to repeat a single phrase or sentence of a song’s lyrics over and over, subtly altering the emotive emphasis and intensity each time to bring her audiences into a euphoric and ecstatic state, and was considered to “have never sang a line the same way twice”. Thus, while the official recorded length of a song such as Enta Omri (You Are My Life) is approximately sixty minutes, a live performance could extend to many hours as the singer and her audience fed off each other’s emotional energy. This intense, highly personalized creative relationship, was undoubtedly one of the reasons for Umm Kulthum’s tremendous success as an artist.
In parallel to her singing career, Umm Kulthum at one point pursued an acting career starring in six films; however, she quickly gave it up because of the lack of personal and emotional contact with the audience. Umm Kulthum also had an intense personal relationship with one of the uncles of King Farouk in the 1940s; the singer was reportedly devastated when the king forbade their planned marriage. In 1955, she married a dermatologist named Hassen El Hafnaoui, taking care to include a clause that would allow her to initiate a divorce if necessary. The couple had no children.
In 1967, Umm Kulthum was diagnosed with a severe case of nephritis. She gave her last concert at the Palace of the Nile in 1973. Tests at that time indicated that her illness was incurable. She moved to the United States, where she benefited for some time from the advanced medical technology, but in 1975, upon re-entering her home country, she required hospitalisation due to declining health. Umm Kulthum died in a Cairo hospital on 3rd February 1975.
Her funeral was attended by over 4 million mourners – one of the largest gatherings in history – and descended into pandemonium when the crowd seized control of her coffin and carried it to a mosque that they considered her favorite, before later releasing it for burial.
Umm Kulthum has been a significant influence on a number of musicians, both in the Arab world and beyond. Among others, Jah Wobble has claimed her as a significant influence on his work. Bob Dylan, Maria Callas, Marie Laforêt, Nico, Bono and Led Zeppelin are also known to be admirers of Kulthum’s music. One of her best known songs, Enta Omri, has been the basis of many reinterpretations, including one 2005 collaborative project involving Israeli and Egyptian artists.
She had been referred to as “The Lady” by Charles de Gaulle, and is regarded as “The Incomparable Voice” by Maria Callas, Umm Kulthum is remembered in the Arab world as one of the greatest singers and musicians who have ever lived. It is hard to accurately measure her vocal range at its peak, since most of her songs are recorded live, and she was aware not to strain her voice too much due to the extended rendition of her songs. Even today, she has retained a near mythical status amongst young Arabs. She is also notably popular in Israel among Jews and Arabs alike, and her records continue to sell around a million records a year. In 2001, the government of Egypt opened the Kawkab al-Sharq (Star of the East) Museum in the singer’s memory. Housed in a pavilion on the grounds of Cairo’s Manesterly Palace, the collection includes a range of Umm Kulthum’s personal possessions, including her trademark sunglasses and scarves, along with photographs, recordings, and other archival material.
Edited by Grosseteste on 27 Aug 2011, 18:48
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