My father was uneasy. The idea that his daughter should sing in front of men he didn’t know, was difficult for him to accept, but my singing helped support the family. So he dressed me in boy’s clothes, and I sang this way for several years. I realize now that he wanted to convince himself, and the audience too, that the singer was a young boy, and not a young woman.” Umm Kalthum
Coming from a very modest family of the Delta in Egypt, when she was about five years old, 1910 or so Umm Kulthum entered the kuttab, or Qur’an school, in her village, for a singer no school could be better. Qur’anic recital would give her perfect diction of the Arabic language, which she became famous for.
Umm Kulthum learned to sing from her father. She overheard him teachings songs to her brother and started mimicking him. Umm Kulthum learned the songs by rote. When al-Shaykh Ibrahim discovered what she had learned and heard the unusual strength of her voice, he asked her to join the lessons. She began performing in her own village at the house of the mayor but dressed or disguised as a boy.
Because of her youth and exceptionally strong voice, the child became an attraction for the group and eventually its premiere singer. As their opportunities increased, the family traveled farther and farther afield, often on foot. Umm Kulthum later reflected that it seemed to her they walked the entire Delta before they ever set foot in Cairo.
A number of people encouraged Umm Kulthum and her father to consider going to Cairo to further her career in the center of the entertainment business. Her family was reluctant to do this, saying they did not know the city and had no close relatives nor any assurance of work there. The subject of Cairo remained under discussion for several years.
When Umm Kulthum began singing in Cairo, her repertory consisted in large part of that sung by her father in the Delta, augmented by a few popular songs that she had learned along the way. Her father’s repertory was customarily sung by a solo vocalist with accompaniment by a chorus of two to four men. I the Cairo of the 1920s, this style of performance was viewed as old-fashioned; new songs, and even the older repertory were accompanied by an instrumental takht, in other words a small orchestra, similar to those in the south of Spain.
Following hints in the spring of 1926 that she should not succeed in the long run accompanied by her family, she hired accomplished and prestigious instrumentalists in their place. Her repertory of religious qasa’id and tawashih gave way to new and modern love songs composed especially for her. This change, accompanied by Umm Kulthum’s increasingly elegant personal style, thrust her into direct competition with the city’s leading singers. Her trained voice, her new repertory and takht, and her more cosmopolitan demeanor enabled her to rise to the top of the ranks of Cairo’s professional singers by 1928.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Umm Kulthum began to make commercial recordings and launched her life-long involvement with mass media, essential to her long and extensive popularity. Her commitments later expanded to include radio, from the inception of Egyptian National Radio in 1934, films, which she began in 1935, and television in 1960.
Her financial success in commercial recording stabilized her income and enabled her to choose her performing opportunities with greater care than was possible for less fortunate entertainers. Radio broadcasting allowed her to count among her most devoted listeners hundreds of thousands of Egyptians and Arabs who had never seen her and would not dream of attending a public concert. While valuing the live audience as integral to her artistry, Umm Kulthum cultivated as her audience all listeners, including the vast numbers sitting in homes and coffee shops near a radio. She used broadcast interviews as well to establish rapport with the radio audience and to identify herself as a familiar figure to them.
Her command of the art of the interview, and hence the projection of a particular persona, was hard-won during the 1920s and 1930s. She began to court selected journalists to whom she would grant interviews and who would, in turn, support her in print. She guarded her private life carefully, cultivated friends who did the same, and would speak to reporters only on topics of her own choosing, promulgating carefully expressed opinions and views of herself.
Her increasing musical skill and financial stability in the 1930s allowed her to assume great control over all aspects of her performances. As sis most entertainers who were able, Umm Kulthum eliminated the theatrical agent from her professional life as soon as possible. She used her circle of carefully chosen friends as advisors and sometimes representatives and, by 1938, became the producer of her own concerts and negotiator of her own contracts. She was able to obtain extraordinary contracts that called for her approval of virtually every aspect of a performance, including selection of accompanists, and actors and technicians for her films.
During the 1930s, her repertory took the first of several specific stylistic directions. Her songs were virtuosic, as befit her newly trained and very capable voice, and romantic and modern in musical style, feeding the prevailing currents in Egyptian popular culture of the time. She worked extensively with texts by romantic poet Ahmad Rami and composer Muhammad al-Qsabji, who’s songs incorporated European instruments such as the violoncello and double bass as well as harmony.
The “Golden Age” of Umm Kulthum
In addition to her various artistic endeavors, Umm Kulthum consolidated her authority in the entertainment business during the 1940s by joining the Listening Committee, which selected the music appropriate for radio broadcasting, and by assuming presidency of the Musician’s Union. At this point Umm Kulthum was at the height of her artistic accomplishment, in control of virtually all of her endeavors, and highly influential in the critcal medium of radio broadcasting. She became known for the strength of her personality which was manifest in many ways. She was determined that her views be taken seriously and that her business proceed in a way that was satisfactory to her.
Health problems plagued Umm Kulthum every few years for much of her life beginning in the 1930s. She became ill resulting from some sort of problem with the liver and gall bladder in the late summer of 1937 at which time doctors recommended treatment in one of the countries having mineral waters. The following summer Umm Kulthum spent a month at Vichy and returned to Egypt feeling better, “although,” she said, “I am bound by the limitations of a strict diet prohibiting most kinds of food.” Related problems afflicted her throughout her life.
In 1946, personal problems thrust themselves on Umm Kulthum in such a way as to disrupt her professional activities for the first time in her career. She worked sporadically and contemplated retiring altogether. During the summer of 1946, she became afflicted with an upper respiratory inflammation that led to the diagnosis of a thyroid problem later that year. The physical symptoms of this ailment, combined with her fear for her voice and of the ramifications of treatment, caused serious depression. One of few people privy to Umm Kulthum’s personal life later said that at no other time before or since did she see Umm Kulthum in such a state of despair. “It was the only time she lost her courage.”
During the 1950s and 1960s Umm Kulthum expanded her role in Egyptian public life. She granted more interviews during which she spoke about her life, repeatedly identifying herself as a villager, a fallahah or peasant, who shared a cultural background and essential values with the majority of the Egyptian populace. Her interviews were full of stories of her family, her neighbors, and the familial qualities of village life.
She cultivated the position of spokeswoman for various causes. She advocated governmental support of Arabic music and musicians, she endowed a charitable foundation and, most importantly, after the Egyptian defeat in the 1967 war, she began a series of domestic and international concerts for Egypt. She travelled throughout Egypt and the Arab world, collecting contributions and donating the proceeds of her performances to the government of Egypt. These concerts were much publicized and took on the character of state visits. Umm Kulthum was entertained by heads of state, she toured cultural monuments, and, in interviews, repeated her views concerning the importance of support for indigenous Arab culture. More than a musician, she became “the voice and face of Egypt”.
The health problems that plagued Umm Kulthum throughout much of her adult life worsened as she aged. her eyes remained hypersensitive to light and in her later years, she wore dark glasses almost all the time. Beginning in 1971, Umm Kulthum’s health deteriorated dramatically. In March of that year, she suffered a gall bladder attack which resulted in the postponement of her March and April concerts. The following winter, she was struck with a serious kidney infection that forced the cancellation of two more concerts in February and March of 1972.
During the first concert of the following season, in December of 1972, Umm Kulthum felt faint during the program. She sang the entire concert, but it was her last. Failing health caused her to cancel the remainder of the season and, although she constantly planned to perform again, she never did so. She spent her time from the winter of 1973 through the summer of 1974 traveling to Europe and the United States to kidney specialists and suffering continually from weak health.
Her last song was scheduled for premiere in the spring of 1973. As was her custom, Umm Kulthum planned to record it before its first performance. She did so with great difficulty on March 13, 1973. The recording occupied twelve hours. For the first time, she sang while sitting in a chair, quietly brought to her by a recording engineer who saw that she was too weak to remain standing. the concert at which the song was to have been premiered was cancelled and the recording was released, never having been performed for a live audience. On January 21, 1975, she suffered the final kidney attack that led to her death on February 3. Despite years of medical treatment, she resisted hospitalization at this time, saying that “If I go to the hospital, I’ll die there.”
She died of heart failure on February 3, 1975. Her funeral was to be held at the Umar Makram mosque in central Cairo, the site of most funerals for well-known Muslims in the city. From there, the body was to be carried by pall-bearers for a short distance to a vehicle that would take it to its final resting place. When the responsible parties realized the number of mourners who planned to come from outside Egypt, the postponed the funeral for two days, contrary to Muslim preferences but not unusual for famous people.
The crowds of ordinary Egyptians far exceeded the number anticipated. literally filling the streets of Cairo, and the funeral did not proceed as planned. The millions of Egyptian mourners took the body from the shoulders of its official bearers and bore it themselves by turns, carrying it for three hours through the streets of Cairo, eventually to the mosque of al-Sayyid Husayn, believed to be one of Umm Kulthum’s favorites. There the shaykh of the mosque repeated the funerary prayers over the body and urged its bearers to take it directly to its burial place, saying that Umm Kulthum was a religious woman who would have wanted to be buried quickly in accordance with Muslim practices, and this was finally done.