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 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.
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.
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.”
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.