Umm Khaltoum (1898 – 1975) is with little doubt the most beloved Arabic vocalist of all time. Kalthoum’s most popular songs were passionate sagas that address universal themes like love and the loss of love. Her performances were also epic: in weekly Thursday concerts 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 Kalthoum singing between lavish instrumental passages. When Kalthoum died two million fans attended her funeral.
In Khaltoum’s weekly performances she took audiences on a riveting journey, ably bringing them to the point of Tarab, a trance-like state of “musical ecstasy.” To serve this goal she would lead her orchestra in improvisation–sometimes a song would last 45 minutes, sometimes, if the mood required, it could last two hours. Kalthoum could take a single line of a song, sing it simply at first, then repeat it with increasing vocal expression and intensity until she, her orchestra and all listeners entered a shared state of emotion.