Oum Kulthoum and her army of archivists

Oum Kulthoum and her army of archivists
Comment: The early music of the great Egyptian singer is not only being kept alive by a dedicated international fanbase. It is being archived and digitized for new generations.
4 min read
05 February, 2015
Umm Khatoum began her career reciting the Quran in the 1920s [Getty]
Oum Kulthoum has long been the subject of discussion and debate. It is 40 years since the death of "the Lady", who is whose voice was worshipped by millions in the Arab world.

This musical phenomenon began as a peasant girl reciting the Quran during the 1920s: Oum Kulthoum rose to become the most celebrated female singer in Egypt and across the Arab world, with a voice that captured the feelings, hearts and souls of millions.

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But as time marches on it has come to the stage where the legacy of Oum Kulthoum has been lost – or is at least on the verge of disappearing.

The articles we see everywhere reminiscing about the "Star of the East" lack the necessary background knowledge to enhance her legend with a timeless and objective quality.

How else do we explain the absence of any scholarly biographies about her, or the scarcity of any critical studies of her songs and musical career? All we have are threadbare reflective articles about her life that make a seasonal appearance in the media.

A collection of Umm Khultoum songs
This musical icon has not only been overlooked in the field of artistic criticism. Her legacy has suffered from an overwhelming emphasis on songs and concerts from the last stage in her life, allowing gems from her early musical career to be overlooked in this never-ending stream of praise.

In Egypt, Oum Kulthoum has been placed on a pedestal. Tribute is paid on big public occasions, such as national celebrations and football matches. However, these occasions only draw attention to the aspects of her career that cemented her iconic status.

If Oum Kulthoum's memories are stowed away in her museum on Zamalek island in Cairo. But amid the photographs, clothes, and her trademark glasses, the question lingers: What about her musical legacy? Who is taking care of that?

The greater concern Egypt has shown for her photographs and prestigious value to the country rather than the tracks that furrowed her musical legacy, has spurred her fans to take action.

They have become the custodians of her musical archive, especially as the internet has created a space for the recording and categorising of her legacy. They have also taken it upon themselves to rid Oum Kulthoum's archive of the impurities of former half-hearted attempts to preserve it.

These devotees, many from the younger generations, have taken on an enormous organisational task. They prefer listening to Oum Kulthoum's early music and her work with composers al-Najridi, Zakariyya Ahmad, El Qasbaji and al-Sunbati, than her later songs that have been hallowed by the media.

Perhaps one of the first results of all this work is the internet forum Samay ["Sounded"], which provides a database of Arabic songs and tries to open up this heritage to debate.

     Independent fans and archivists have done more to preserve her legacy  than the country where her inheritance endures in everyday life.

Significant space is given to Oum Kulthoum on the internet. On a page entitled The Kulthoum Woods, prominent archivists have helped organise and preserve her musical legacy.

They have set up a virtual museum for the mistress of Arabic song. It lists her concerts by location (Azbakeya, Qasr El Nil Bridge, Cinema Rivoli in Beirut, Cairo University, the Officers Club in Zamalek and so on) and date. Then it gives details of all her songs and radio broadcasts, photos of her concerts and printed material - including articles written about her in the Egyptian, Arab and international media.

Issa Mitri, a Palestinian living in Mexico is one of Oum Kulthoum's most ardent followers. He does not feel distance has severed his connection with "Touma" (another of her nicknames), especially as the Samay forum provides a space for him to connect with other devoted followers.

Mitri does not claim to be a music critic or historian, but he prides himself on being an archivist. He has created a radio application for Oum Kulthoum and Egyptian singer and composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab (1902-1991), which can be downloaded on all modern mobile devices.

Mitri's colleague, archivist Ismat al-Nimr, classifies Oum Kulthoum's songs according to composer before uploading them onto an internet radio station. This gives easy access to the musical wonders of The Lady and Abdel Wahab, amongst others. The radio station is named after one of the big record companies from the turn of the century: Misrfone.

There is no hiding that these independent fans and archivists have done far more to preserve and open up the musical legacy of the Lady of Arabic song than the country where her inheritance endures in everyday life.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.