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Umm Kulthum

 

 

Umm Kulthum (Arabic: √„ ŖŠňś„ other English spellings include: Om Kalthoum, Oum Kalsoum, Oum Kalthum, Omm Kolsoum, Umm Kolthoum, Um Kalthoom) (c. 4 May 1904 Ė 3 February 1975) was an Egyptian singer and musician. One of the best known and most beloved of all singers in the Arab world, her albums still outsell many others in the Arabic language.

Biography

Early life

Umm Kulthum was born in Tamay-az-Zahayra, Ad Daqahliyah Governorate, Egypt. Her exact date of birth is unknown, although it was likely the fourth of May. At a young age, she showed exceptional singing talents. Her father, an Imam, taught her to recite the Qur'an, and at the age of twelve, 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 modestly famous singer, and by the famous lutist Zakaria Ahmed who asked her to accompany them to Cairo. However, she waited until she was 23 before taking up 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, and this undoubtedly added to her allure.

At this point, she was introduced to the famous poet Ahmed Rami who would write 137 songs for her. Rami also introduced her to French literature which he greatly admired from his studies at the Sorbonne, Paris. Furthermore, she was introduced to the renowned lute virtuoso and composer Mohamed El Kasabji. El Kasabji introduced Umm Kulthum to the Arabian Theatre Palace, where she would experience her first real public success. In 1932, she became famous enough to begin a large tour of the Middle East, touring such cities as Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, and Tripoli.

Fame

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 was a part of rejected her since she had sung for the then deposed king. Nasser did not hide his admiration for her. When he discovered that she had no longer been 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 Nasserís 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 Nasserís political agenda. For example, Nasserís speeches and other government messages were frequently broadcasted immediately after Umm Kulthum's monthly radio concerts. Umm Kulthumís 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 a single song that would usually last for six hours or frequently longer. The songs themselves are in some ways reminiscent of Western Opera, consisting of short orchestral interludes interspersed among long vocal passages.

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 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. Thus, while the official recorded length of a song such as Enta Omri (You Are My Life) is approximately 40 minutes, in live performance this could extend to many hours due to the singer and her audience feeding off each other's emotional energy. This intense, highly personalised creative relationship was undoubtedly one of the reasons for Umm Kulthum's tremendous success as an artist.

Acting & Marriage

In parallel to her singing career, Umm Kulthum at one point pursued an acting career; however, she quickly gave it up because of the lack of personal and emotional contact with the audience. In 1953, she married a medical doctor 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, and some commentators have controversially suggested that it may have been a sham marriage to disguise Kulthum's same-sex interests Ė although no proof of this has ever been produced. The fact that Kulthum also had an intense personal relationship with one of the uncles of King Farouk in the 1940s also seems to belie the claim; the singer was reportedly devastated when the king forbade their planned marriage.

Death

In 1967 she was diagnosed with a severe case of nephritis. Umm Kulthum gave her last concert at the Palace of the Nile in 1972. Tests at that time indicated that her illness was inoperable. She moved to the United States, where she benefited for some time from the advanced medical technology, but in 1975, while re-entering her home country, her hospitalisation was necessitated due to declining health. Umm Kulthum died in a Cairo hospital on 3 February 1975.

Her funeral was attended by over four 4 million mourners Ė one of the largest gatherings in history Ė and descended into pandemonium when the crowd seized control of her coffin and carried it to a mosque that they considered her favourite, 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. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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