Jul 252012

It’s a Wednesday summer afternoon in my home. We’re in the first week of Ramadan. I’m sitting at the dining room table where I have my computer equipment set up, doing my work (I am a writer and web developer and I work from home).

Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthum

My daughter Salma is in the kitchen with my mother. They are making cheese rolls with za’tar, for iftaar.

Afterwards I will have Salma sit beside me and work on her lessons. Even though it’s summer, I like for her to spend a few hours each day practicing reading and writing. She just turned six, so she’ll be going to first grade in a few months.

My father is in his office, watching the classic Umm Kulthum video below. The sound of Arabic music echoes through the house. It’s a video of Umm Kulthum in Rabat, Morocco in 1968, singing and improvising. The song itself is called “Howa Saheeh” – “He is right.”

These are the sounds I grew up with.

Sometimes this house is chaotic. Sometimes we argue, or we’re grumpy. But on a day like today, with the smell of food cooking, my daughter enjoying herself, and the classic sounds of Umm Kulthum in the air, it feels like home.

Jul 262007

The Life and Music of Umm Kulthum

The Star of the East. The Diva of Arabic Song. The Voice and Face of Egypt. Who else could these titles describe but Umm Kulthum, possibly the most famous and influential Arabic singer of all time?

Umm Kulthum’s Youth

Umm Kulthum Ibrahim (her full name) always called herself a fallah, or peasant farmer, even when she reached the heights of her fame. She was born in a small rural village in the Nile River Delta, most likely in 1904. Her father was a religious man who augmented his small income from the town’s mosque by singing religious songs at weddings and other celebrations.

Umm Kulthum in front of the pyramids in Egypt

Umm Kulthum learned to sing from her father, and soon began travelling with him to neighboring villages to perform. She had an exceptionally strong voice and she and her father were soon much in demand. Umm Kulthum later reflected that they walked so much, it seemed to her they walked the entire Delta before they ever set foot in Cairo.

The Move to Cairo

Many people encouraged Umm Kulthum and her father to move to Cairo, where she would have much greater opportunities as an entertainer. Her father was reluctant to make the move, not knowing anyone in Cairo, but in 1923, when Umm Kulthum was about 19 years old, they chanced it. The musical community and the Cairo press took note of her vibrant voice, but her talent was viewed as unschooled, and the religious songs she sang were not fashionable enough for the big city.

Her father hired musical teachers who taught her vocal sublety, stage presence techniques, and even poetry. Umm Kulthum learned to emulate the dress and behavior of the elite women of Cairo in whose homes she sang.

Stylistic Evolution

All this time she had been performing with her father and other family members, singing the old Arabic religious songs of the Nile River Delta that she had learned as a child. In Cairo of the 1920’s this was viewed as old fashioned. Umm Kulthum knew that if she wanted to rise to the top – she never lacked ambition – she would have to adopt a more modern style of Arabic music.

In 1926 Umm Kulthum hired a group of experienced and prestigious musicians who together composed what was called a takht, or Arabic style orchestra. She began singing new love songs that had been written especially for her. These changes, along with her now trained voice and elegant style, thrust her into the forefront of the Egyptian musical scene.

A Brilliant Businesswoman

Every time a new medium of entertainment or communication was introduced in Egypt, Umm Kulthum was there. By the 1930’s she was making commercial recordings, and with the advent of Egyptian National Radio in 1934 her audience expanded to include Egyptians all through the nation.

Umm Kulthum was a brilliant woman who managed her career with foresight and finesse. She negotiated her own contracts, produced her own concerts, and carefully managed her relationship with the press. She guarded her privacy closely but gave exclusive interviews to journalists who would write favorably about her. In radio interviews she spoke of her humble roots, imagining that she was speaking directly to the simple people sitting around the radios in their homes and coffee shops. She began appearing in Arabic films in 1935, and starred in six films.

Umm Kulthum’s “Golden Age”

The 1940’s and the early 1950’s are considered Umm Kulthum’s “golden age.” Working with composer Zakariya Ahmad and poet Bayram al-Tunisi, Umm Kulthum created a more populist repertory that appealed to a wide Egyptian audience. Later in the 1940’s, she began collaborating with composer Riyad al-Sunbati. While the results were stylistically different, they were still considered authentically Arab and were very well received.

In addition to her artistic achievements, Umm Kulthum was an established presence within the entertainment business. She joined the Listening Committee, which selected the music appropriate for radio broadcasting, and assumed the presidency of the Musician’s Union.

Health Problems

During this time, she also became known for the strength of her personality, her sharp wit, and her pointed sense of humor. Unfortunately, beginning in the 1930’s, Umm Kulthum developed various health problems that continued to pain her throughout her life. She received treatments for her liver and gall bladder, and in 1946 was afflicted with an upper respiratory inflammation that was later diagnosed as a thyroid disorder. She also required treatment for the inflammation of her eyes, due to the harsh lights of the stage. By the mid 1950’s her health had improved significantly, however, and she was able to resume a normal schedule of appearances.

Marriage to Dr. Hasan al-Hifnawi

In 1954, Umm Kulthum married Dr. Hasan al-Hifnawi, a highly successful skin specialist who was also one of her personal physicians. Like Umm Kulthum, he was raised by a religious family and was familiar with the norms and mores of rural Egypt. Her audience was accepting of her marriage, as they perceived her as a human being with human needs similar to their own, instead of as an immutable star.

A More Public Role: Umm Kulthum becomes the Voice and Face of Egypt

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Umm Kulthum expanded her public role. She began granting more interviews and cultivated the position of spokeswoman for a number of causes. She advocated the increase of governmental support for Arabic music and musicians, and endowed a charitable foundation. After the Egyptians were defeated in the 1967 war, Umm Kulthum began a rigorous domestic and international touring schedule in which she donated the proceeds of her performances to the Egyptian government. Her concerts were highly publicized, and she soon came to be known around the world as “the voice and face of Egypt.”

Her Death

By 1971, Umm Kulthum’s health began to deteriorate dramatically. That year she suffered a gall bladder attack, along with a serious kidney infection the following winter. Her last concert was in December 1972, despite her intentions to perform again. On January 21, 1975, she was stricken by a kidney ailment, leading to the heart failure that ended her life February 3, just a few weeks later. The number of mourners at her funeral was in the millions, and it took over three hours to move her body to the mosque of al-Sayyid Husayn, believed to be one of Umm Kulthum’s favorites. After the shaykh of the mosque repeated the funerary prayers, her body was taken directly to its burial place and quickly buried in accordance with Muslim practices.

Jul 182007

Abdel Halim Hafez is considered one of the four greats of Arabic song, along with Umm Kalthoum, Farid Al Attrach and Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

Hafez was one of the most influential Egyptian musicians of the twentieth century, despite his fairly short career. He was most prominent during the 1950’s and 60’s.

Today, more than thirty years after his death in 1977, his music is still played daily on the radio in Egypt and the Arab world.

Abdel Halim Hafez, a great Egytian singerAbdel Halim Hafez, One of the Four Greats of Arabic Music

Abdel Halim Hafez is sometimes known as el-Andaleeb el-Asmar, The Dark Nightingale, because of the combination of his dark skin and resonant voice. The nickname is perhaps doubly appropriate because of the difficult and painful life that he lived.

Abdel Halim Hafez’s Youth and Early Career

Born in 1929, Abdel Halim Hafez lost both parents at a young age, and was subsequently raised by his aunt and uncle. At the age of eleven his eldest brother enrolled him in the Arabic Music Institute, where he developed his talent by singing the songs of Mohammed Abdel Wahab, a prominent 20th century Egyptian singer and composer.

Hafez later studied at the Higher Institute for Theatre Music, from which he graduated as a classical oboe player. He began his professional musical career as an oboe player, before setting his sights on becoming a singer.

He soon became known for his resonant but mellow voice, subtle vocal style and clean intonation, along with his long, moving vocal phrases. A blogger recently described his voice as “nectar and honeydew”, and it fits.

Abdel Halim had his first hit in 1951 and subsequently became a staple on Egyptian radio. He also appeared in many popular Egyptian films.

In 1961 Abdel Halim Hafez partnered with Mohammed Abdel Wahab (whose songs he had grown up listening to) and Magdi el-Amroussi to found an Egyptian recording company called Soutelphan (Voice of the Artist), which continues to operate today under the umbrella of EMI Arabia.

Abdel Halim’s Illness, Death and Funeral

Abdel Halim had contracted a parasitic water-borne disease called bilharzia when he was eleven years old, and it plagued him periodically and painfully througout his life. He finally died of the disease in 1977, a few months short of his 48th birthday, while receiving treatment in London.

His body was taken back to Cairo for his funeral, which was attended by thousands of people, more than another other funeral in Egyptian history aside from those of President Nasser in 1970 and Umm Kulthoum (another great Egyptian singer) in 1975. He is buried in Al Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo.

Abdel Halim Hafez is considered by some to be the most popular Arab singer of the twentieth century, as he has reportedly sold more discs since his death than any other Arab musician, even Umm Kulthoum.

Highlights of Abdel Halim’s Career

His most famous songs include Ahwak (“I love you”), Khosara (“A pity”), Gana El Hawa (“Love came to us”), Sawah (“Wanderer”), Zay el Hawa (“It feels like love”), and El Massih (“The Christ”), among the 260 songs that he recorded. His last, and perhaps most famous song, Qariat el-Fingan (“The fortune-teller”), featured lyrics by Nizar Qabbani and music by Mohammed Al-Mougy. He starred in sixteen films, including “Dalilah”, which was Egypt’s first colored motion picture.

In 2006 a feature film about Abdel Halim Hafez’s life, called “Halim”, was released. It starred the immensely popular (and now late) actor Ahmad Zaki in the title role. The film provides an accurate rendition of Abdel Halim’s life, but is hampered by poor production values.

 Posted by at 10:18 pm