Her Majesty: Voice of the East

Written by Hisham Jabrah

Her story sounds like a fairytale from the Arabian Nights. It starts in a poor Egyptian village, where a family’s youngest child is born blessed with a mesmerizing voice. Disguised as a boy, she sings at weddings and festivals. Wherever she goes, her fame grows. After conquering the provinces, she moves to the capital. The village girl, who is barely twenty, transforms into a sophisticated princess. Records and radio waves spread her voice far and wide. She is no longer a star of Cairo, but the Star of the East, the most magnificent singer of the Arab world. And she is no longer just a voice, but a presence on the silver screen. If this was really a fairytale, she would live happily ever after. But, eventually, she dies. And millions of people pour on the streets to say farewell at her funeral. This is the story of Umm Kulthum.

A Child Prodigy

It is uncertain when Umm Kulthum was born, but the most probable date is May 4, 1904. Umm Kulthum’s father was an imam and her mother was a housewife. Umm and her older sister and brother were raised in a small village in the Nile Delta. The family was poor, so her father sang religious songs at various celebrations in the neighboring villages to overcome his financial challenges. Umm Kulthum overheard her father’s music lessons to her brother and learned all the songs herself. When he realized that she had a great memory and an unusually strong voice, her father decided to teach her too.

When Umm Kulthum started singing in the neighboring villages, she became a minor sensation. Everyone was impressed by this child who sang with a powerful and beautiful voice. Sometimes she had to pretend she was a boy, as girls were not allowed to sing religious verses in public. As years went by, the family toured the entire Delta, singing at various local celebrations and often traveling on foot. The inhabitants of the Delta would remain her most ardent followers throughout her life.

As Umm Kulthum’s fame rose, the family fortunes increased. They were able to earn the equivalent of 50 dollars in a single evening. It was time to think bigger. After several years, her father was finally persuaded by his friends to move to Cairo, where a booming new entertainment industry was taking shape.

Conquering the Capital

When the family arrived to Cairo, Umm Kulthum was introduced to theater agents and composers who would help her make a name for herself. Her vibrant and powerful voice attracted the attention of the media. But she was a country girl without the sophisticated control of voice and melody that marked accomplished singers and top performers.

To help her develop, her father hired well-known singers and poets to give her lessons. For her part, Umm Kulthum adopted the etiquette and elegance of the rich houses where she sang. After a while, she was much sought after both in wealthy families and in theaters and performing venues of Cairo. But she was still denied national fame.

Until 1926, Umm Kulthum performed together with her family. But they eventually realized that their choir, well-liked in the countryside, was seen as old-fashioned and awkward in the capital. She needed professional musicians, so she hired a small traditional orchestra called takht, consisting of skillful and talented players. It allowed her to change her repertoire. The traditional and religious songs were increasingly replaced by modern romantic songs written especially for her.

1926 was also the year when she started recording her songs. Gramophone Records gave her annual payments and royalties, which meant she didn’t have to worry about money any more. It was just the beginning of her spectacular career in the media.

The Star of the East

The crucial vehicle for Umm Kulthum’s fame was the radio. Egyptian National Radio was founded in 1934, when she sang for the first broadcast. Three years later, Umm Kulthum began holding monthly concerts that were broadcast on the radio. The first Thursday of every month, she sang popular songs that were written and arranged by the greatest names of the music business of the time.

When Umm Kulthum sang, her interpretation was passionate and romantic, her execution was flawless, and her mastery of creating variations on a theme turned short pieces into hour-long performances. Everybody from Morocco to the Indian Ocean listened to her incomparable voice. Her radio concerts would go on for forty years.

Umm Kulthum’s involvement with the film industry began in 1936. Seeing it as the perfect vehicle to reach new audiences, she played the starring role in her first film, Wedad. By this time, she could afford to get rid of all the agents. Her fame was so great that she could negotiate the contract terms herself, asking for absolute control over every detail of her singing and acting performances.

This was the result of a carefully nurtured mediatic personality. After making mistakes in her early contacts with the media, Umm Kulthum started using interviews to develop the image of a deeply religious person and a passionate patriot. Throughout the reversals of the Great Depression, the Second World War and the Egyptian revolution, her reputation remained impeccable.

The Golden Age

Having achieved complete mastery over her performances and production, Umm Kulthum embarked upon what is now known as her golden age, in the 1940s and 50s. She changed her style once again. Turning away from her romantic hits of the previous decade, she asked well-known composers and poets to write songs that would sound authentically Egyptian. This new repertoire touched a chord with the Egyptian people, which embraced it enthusiastically. The trend continued later in the decade, with a young generation of composers writing songs that sounded modern while keeping the authentic Arab feeling that proved to be so successful.

It was also the period of her most successful musical movies. They were both popular and populist, depicting ordinary Egyptians triumphing over the evil schemes of rich scoundrels.

However, her triumphs were scarred by sorrow. In 1946 and 1947, Umm Kulthum went through major health problems and family tragedies. She was diagnosed with a thyroid condition that made her doubt whether she could continue her musical career at all. In a single year, she lost her mother, whom she was living with all her life, and then her brother. All this, combined with disastrous romances, resulted in a long bout of depression.

Still, Umm Kulthum became a prominent figure in the entertainment industry. It started when she joined the Listening Committee, a body that decided which music could be broadcast. Then she presided the Musicians’ Union. Finally, owing to her celebrity status and her refined manners, she socialized with the highest circles of Egyptian society.

Umm Kulthum was known for her strong character. Proud and witty, she had several romances that didn’t last long. An attempted marriage with an oud player fell through in a matter of days. One of the king’s uncles proposed to her, but the royal family didn’t want a scandal and hushed the whole thing[HJ2] . Umm Kulthum finally married in 1954. Her husband, Dr. Hasan al-Hifnawi, was one of her doctors. They shared a similar background, as both came from poor rural families and rose to the very top of their professions.

Later years and death

Umm Kulthum’s health was in a steady decline in her fifties and sixties, when she fought against various illnesses and went for treatments abroad. She had to wear sunglasses because of her ailing eyes, which eventually became a fashion statement.

At first, it didn’t prevent her from performing and producing new hits. One of her songs was the Egyptian national anthem for twenty years. In 1964, she sang what may be her most famous song, “Inta Umri” (“You Are My Life”), which has endured as a timeless masterpiece.

1967 was a dark year for Egypt, as it lost in the Six-Day War. But Umm Kulthum decided she would boost the morale of her homeland by going on a series of high-profile concerts across the Arab world. As she visited other countries, she was seen not merely as a singer, but more as an ambassador of Arab culture, which she tirelessly promoted. She donated all her concert earnings to the Egyptian government. She also performed in Paris to great acclaim. It was her first concert outside the Arab world.

Starting in 1971, her health greatly deteriorated, as she was plagued with gall bladder and kidney conditions. She performed in public for the last time in December 1972. In 1975, newspaper and radio stations provided live reports on the state of her health. Umm Kulthum died of heart failure in her home on February 3, 1975.

Her death caused massive shock across the nation. At her funeral, several million people crowded the streets of Cairo. When the procession began, the crowd took the coffin from the bearers and carried it themselves, handing it over across the city for three hours. It was as if they wouldn’t let their beloved Umm leave them.

Considered by many to be the greatest Arab singer of all time, Umm Kulthum remained hugely popular several decades after her death. Today, a museum in Cairo is dedicated to her life and work.