The legacy of Umm Kulthum: Egypt's 'star of the east' continues to shine even decades after her death
There’s a famous photo of Umm Kulthum’s funeral procession that I once saw on a poster in a friend’s home. A sea of people crowded into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, flags and photos of the late Egyptian singer hoisted above their heads, their collective grief palpable in the grainy black-and-white image. Across the top, the words Goodbye to the Lady.
While it may seem strange to hang the photo of a death parade on the wall, Umm Kulthum was not your run of the mill pop star.
Almost a half century after her passing, the songs she performed still drift out of cafes and alleyways across Egypt and the Arab world.
Her prodigious voice and popular acclaim earned her nicknames such as the “Star of the East” and “Egypt’s Fourth Pyramid.” Erected this year into Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest singers of all time, she has been admired by musicians and critics from across the world and praised by the likes of Bob Dylan and Robert Plant.
But she is most beloved among the Arab masses, for whom she has long represented a culture both ancient and present. In the songs of love and longing that she performed over the course of her 60-year career, ordinary people could recognise themselves.
“Umm Kulthum's voice was something mixed with the air, mixed with the atmosphere,” said an interviewee in A Voice Like Egypt, a 1996 documentary about Umm Kulthum’s life and legacy.
"She was a virtuoso talent, a contralto with a sweeping vocal range that she wielded with expert ease. The strength of her voice was unparalleled: She often sang without a microphone, and when she did use one, stood several feet away"
Her origin story is almost folkloric. Born to an imam in a village north of Cairo at the turn of the 20th century, she was introduced to music through Quranic recitation.
She eventually joined the family ensemble, but her father insisted that she disguise herself as a boy while singing due to social taboos against female performance.
In her teenage years, renowned musicians began to recognise her talent and convinced her to move to Cairo with her family in 1923. It was there that she learned to play oud and met Ahmed Rami, an acclaimed poet who would become her closest collaborator, writing over 130 songs for her over the course of her career.
She was a virtuoso talent, a contralto with a sweeping vocal range that she wielded with expert ease. The strength of her voice was unparalleled: She often sang without a microphone, and when she did use one, stood several feet away. But it was more than the raw power of her voice that set her apart.
Though she was never formally schooled, Umm Kulthum developed a deep love of the Arabic language and studied its literary canon alongside the writers with whom she collaborated. Her detailed understanding of the poems she sang enabled her to manipulate the lyrics along with her voice, rephrasing verses and drawing out words and phrases on the spot, rendering music and meaning inseparable.
This improvisation could often stretch 20 minute songs into an hour and a half long performances, the crowd growing increasingly fervent with each turn of phrase. These shows were said to elicit among audiences a collective state of tarab – an Arabic word that refers to a trance-like sensation of ecstasy.
The acclaimed Egyptian author Naghib Mahfouz compared her stage presence to a preacher responding to the energy of his congregation.
“When he sees what reaches them he gives them more of it, he works it, he refines it, embellishes it,” he said.
In these epic performances, she donned glittering gowns and cat-eye sunglasses to protect her eyes from the harsh theatre lights, her dark hair pinned back in a slick chignon. Despite the frequency with which she performed, she suffered from stage fright, and often clutched a handkerchief during shows to keep her sweaty palms dry.
Though she is thought to represent the traditional canon of Arabic music, it is modern technology that enabled Umm Kulthum to reach such wide audiences. She entered the spotlight just as the region’s cinema industry took off, and astutely elected to participate in numerous films over the years.
At that time, gramophones were growing in popularity and radios were becoming common fixtures in peoples’ homes. Beginning in 1934, she performed a live concert on the radio the first Thursday of every month for forty years. During those highly anticipated shows, congested streets across the Arab world emptied as people rushed to their homes or to local coffee shops to tune in.
Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser famously reprimanded the country’s musician’s guild for banning her from the airwaves after the 1952 revolution due to the friendly relationship she once had with the overthrown monarch.
“What, are they crazy? Do you want Egypt to turn against us?” he said.
Indeed, Umm Kulthum used to perform for King Farouk and his family in the early years of her career, but reversed her political leanings in the aftermath of the revolution, embracing Nasser’s populist rule and growing close to him over the years.
While they shared common ideals, theirs was a mutually beneficial bond: he extended the broadcast signal of Radio Cairo to encompass most of the Arab world, winning her fans from Baghdad to Tunis. Nasser would often deliver speeches after these performances, when millions across the region were already tuned in.
“When she sings, I feel I’m in the presence of a great leader,” declared the famous Egyptian composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Once a fierce rival who believed Umm Kulthum should modernise her musical style, the two eventually became collaborators, with Abdel Wahab writing one of her most famous songs, Enta Omri, in 1964.
Umm Kulthum’s unmatched popularity was even more impressive for its longevity. To this day, she is treasured as the premier musical voice of the Arab World.
It is no surprise then that her death is thought to have been among the darkest days of Egypt’s long history. It was the cry of millions, the poster in my friend’s home read. A quick glimpse into the events of her remarkable life reveals why.
Lylla Younes is an investigative data and environmental reporter at ProPublica, a commissioning editor and writer at Newlines Magazine, and an adjunct professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.
Follow her on Twitter: @lyllayounes