Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthum (isn’t that a beautiful name?) was an Egyptian singer in the 20th century (1904-1975) and the documentary Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt, reveals this woman’s art and what she means to Egypt even today.

Umm Kulthum was named after one of the daughters of Mohammad, and though her family was poor, her father was an imam (local spiritual leader). Her family was able to send her to school, where she primarily learned how to recite the Qur’an. She was very gifted, and her father began taking her along with him on his trips so that she could sing religious songs. But because she was a girl, it made her father uncomfortable for her to sing in front of men, and for several years she had to dress as a boy to perform.

I found it very interesting that one of the the first qualities of Umm Kulthum’s singing voice that the documentary mentioned was her pronounciation. Because she was classically trained to recite the Qur’an, in her later songs she retains her quality of diction. This isn’t exactly something that seems to be emphasized in music today…in many cases it seems to me the more incomprehensible the better: nonsense words are used as filler. But Umm Kulthum didn’t just sing songs the way most modern music (at least what I’m primarily familiar with) is sung and written today.

Umm Kulthum was a classist Arabic singer. She would read poetry first, and then she would sing the poems she liked. From the presentation of the documentary, it seems that Arabic poetry is more meant to be sung…more a part of the language than poetry is here. In the US, poetry seems to be exclusively for the elite, but the poetry that Umm Kulthum chose really affected her listeners, not only could they sing her songs without any accomanyment, but they could recite the lines without the music.

After she chose a poem she wanted to sing though, other musicans would set it to music. It was a very interconnected process. Poets would write Umm Kulthum poems specifically for her to sing, then she might choose to or not, and then composers would set the poem to music. Umm Kulthum was such a classist that she insisted the musicians feel the music. They could not learn their parts from sheet music, but by ear, by hearing it alone. I can’t imagine doing that. I played the clarinet for years but was never able to play really anything by ear.

Performances of Umm Kulthum’s classist Arabic music could take hours, and she could spend mauch of it on one song, because she would reinterpret the poem as she was singing it. After she’d sung it the first time, she would restart the line, this time emphasizing a particular interpretation, feeding off the response in the audience.

Umm Kultum was probably the greatest beloved singer in Egypt. Her career lasted more than fifty years, and she sang up until she was seventy years old. When she died, her death was acknowledged to be equal to that of any public leader. Her funeral was attended by as many as four million people.

Arabic music is very different from anything that seems to be popular today. But I really enjoyed Umm Kulthum’s singing. It was different yes, but it was easy to see she had a powerful, amazing voice. I’m really glad that I found her music at last.

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