Umm Kulthum is with little doubt the most beloved Arabic vocalist of all time. Fairouz, Sabah and Asmahan (who sings in this video at 1:06) all rightly have their place in the pantheon of Arabic vocalists, but compared to the mesmerizing Umm Kulthum…well, any comparison with Kalthoum is just not fair.
Kulthum was born in a rural northern Egyptian village called “El Senbellawein,” a name that means “where is the wheat?” Kulthum’s father was a Muslim religious leader who taught her to chant the Qur’an. He recognized her extraordinary talent when she was young; when she was 12 he disguised her as a boy so she could perform with a vocal group he directed. Kulthum soon began to study Arabic classical vocal styles and when she was in her early 20s she moved to Cairo to sing. In Cairo Kulthum connected with a series of classical composers who adapted ancient poetic lyrics and wrote music just for her. Musicians and music-lovers alike recognized her unique talent, and by the early ’30s she was known throughout the Arab world.
Kulthum’s songs were epic sagas, deeply passionate compositions that address universal themes like love and the loss of love. Her performances were also epic–in live concerts broadcast on Radio Cairo (every first Thursday for forty years!) she and her virtuosic orchestra would perform two, maybe three songs over the course of several hours. Structurally her songs may remind one of Western opera, with Kulthum singing between lavish instrumental passages, but unlike in Western opera, Kulthum carried each performance alone.
Besides her exceptional vocal tone, range and control, Kulthum’s primary talent was her ability to connect intimately with an audience. In her performances she took audiences on a riveting journey, ably bringing them to the point of “tarab,” a trance-like state of “musical ecstasy.” She would lead her orchestra in improvisation to serve this goal–sometimes a song would last 45 minutes, sometimes, if the mood required, it could last two hours. Kulthum was known for taking a single line of a song, singing it simply at first, then repeating it with increasing vocal expression and intensity until she, her orchestra and all listeners entered the a shared state of emotion.
Through Kulthum’s career she rarely appeared in public other than to perform and emphasized her humble upbringing and her conservative personal life. She hardly ever commented on controversies that surrounded her, such as accusations that she supported the monarchy for too long before embracing nationalist leader Nasser–Nasser himself dispelled this controversy by declaring himself a fan, the outrageous tabloid implication that her jealousy played a role in Asmahan’s death and ongoing questions about her sexual orientation. When Kulthum died in 1975 two million fans attended her funeral.