Umm Kulthum: Singer of a Nation, Star of the East

historical woman

I was thinking today—if the U.S. had a “national singer,” who would it be? You know, someone iconic and quintessentially American and a part of our history? Though I don’t particularly care for either, my mind went first to Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. They conjure images of America's golden age of rock and roll and lounge singing, burgers and casinos and whatever else we're famous for. I suppose a case could also be made for Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Madonna. I don't know. It's hard to say?

Anyway. Whoever our American national singer might be—which is maybe tougher to tell when you actually live in the U.S.—I like the fact that Egypt’s is a woman.

Known as kawkab al-Sharq (Arabic for “star of the East”), Umm Kulthum is arguably the most famous Egyptian singer in history. Her life and career spanned most of the twentieth century, from circa 1900 to her death in 1975, and she was a huge influence on both her own countrymen and –women and on foreign artists as well.

She was born Fatimah Ibrahim as-Sayyid al-Bilagi in a small village in the Nile Delta. Like many successful historical women, her father treated her like she was a boy. An imam at a local mosque, young Fatimah’s father instructed her in memorizing the Quran (a mark of distinction for any young Muslim) and later disguised her in the clothes of the opposite gender so she could enter a performing troupe.

She was discovered for her singing talent early on, and by the 1920s was already one of the most famous singers in Egypt. Her music merged the stylings of classical and traditional Arabic music and the wide appeal and accessibility of popular music. Umm Kulthum songs were typically set against large orchestras, with songs that went on for hours (I’m barely exaggerating). For a very short clip of one of her songs:

The early to mid twentieth century saw an Arab world in a strange transition. Egypt itself was under British occupation from 1882 until the 1930s, and the monarchy was overthrown in 1952 with the Free Officers coup. Then Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism, took control of the country, nationalized the Suez Canal, joined Egypt with Syria, antagonized the West by being non-aligned (Cold War and all that), and finally lived out his days in disgrace after a crushing defeat by Israel’s armies in 1967. It was an exciting, and traumatizing, time for Egypt and the Arab world.

Umm Kulthum’s music didn’t stop at Egypt’s borders, just as the political turmoil described above was not particular to Egypt. She was a famous and beloved figure throughout the Arab world. Despite the Western instrumentation, her music was staunchly "Eastern," with lyrics derived from classical Arabic poetry. Most of her songs were about love and longing, though some listeners read a cultural and religious undertone in the words.

I'd like to share this funny opener from her 1975 obituary in Time magazine: "Few Westerners ever fathomed the appeal of Umm Kulthum, the buxom, handkerchief-waving Egyptian singer who was known to her Middle Eastern fans as 'the Nightingale of the Nile.' She had a stentorian contralto and a quavering wail that grated on the ears of those attuned to the trills of opera divas. But her voice was a near-perfect instrument for expressing the sinuous quarter tones of Arabic music."

What a backhanded compliment, amirite? There's definitely a qualitative difference between "Eastern" and "Western" music, and sometimes "Westerners" tend to take for granted the universality of their own chord tones and vocal stylings. "Eastern" scales and harmonies—and sometimes, "wailing," as this journalist so tactfully put it—have historically been used as symbols of difference and exoticism in Western media, and even in Western classical music. But there's no reason you shouldn't be able to appreciate it anyway, in my opinion, and not just from a "world-music" standpoint.

Throughout her illustrious career, Umm Kulthum maintained a careful self-image, espousing conservative values and emphasizing her origins in the authentic heart of Egypt—as opposed to, you know, some bourgeois city-dweller.

Her influence also extended into America and Europe. Luminaries from Bob Dylan to Bono, Maria Callas to Jean-Paul Sartre were fans. And speaking of fans—when she died in 1975, millions of people turned up for her funeral. If we’re measuring popularity by funeral attendance, she was way more popular than Egyptian national hero (though also, by that time, loser of the 1967 war) Nasser.

It’s hard to imagine that kind of love being shown for any of our singers. Maybe it’s the times—it’s hard to be a universally beloved celebrity in the age of short attention spans and exposed minutiae about celebrity’s relationships, diet habits, and up-to-the-minute Twitterized thoughts. Hence, the carefully-maintained self-image probably came in handy. Regardless, whether it was by fate or intention or some combination, Umm Kulthum became Egypt’s singer, and the Arab world’s singer, and that hasn't been forgotten to this day.