Umm Kulthum is an internationally famous Egyptian singer and has two of her classic works reissued by Souma Records this month.
Ubiquitous across the Arab World as a singer-songwriter and film actor of the 1930s to the 1970s, she has had many accolades and tributes paid – known as ‘Kawkab al-Sharq’ (‘Star of the East’) for example – and is widely regarded as the greatest Arabic female singers in history. Variations on her name also include Oum Kalthoum (and others) and for the two latest releases on Souma: Om Kalsoum.
Also known as the ‘Voice of Egypt’ or ‘Egypt’s Fourth Pyramid’, Kultham’s voice has been one of the few daily constants across the Arab world over the past century, along with the Call To Prayer. The albums out this week are entitled Wa Maret El Ayam and Hakam Aleena El Hawa.
Liner notes to Wa Maret El Ayam, written by Muhammad Al-Najjar, explain:
“From Aleppo to Alexandria, Baghdad to Beirut and Cairo to Casablanca, in 1934 and for the following 40 years her live broadcasts on the first Thursday of each month would see streets and workplaces deserted as millions rushed home to tune in; Umm Kulthum triumphantly became the beating pulse of a new post-colonial Arab world order, and the embodiment of Egypt’s cultural renaissance.
“Perhaps most remarkably, she spearheaded the remoulding of gender norms across the Middle East by setting an example of what dignified, perseverant and unabashedly Arab women can go onto achieve – she was incredibly business-savvy, actively engaged in public circles at the highest levels, and firmly devoted to her career over traditional family life.
“Her formidable presence extended to her fervent voice – being a contralto and in all her glory, she would stand at least three feet away from a microphone when singing. Her exalted tone and mastery of Maqaamat (Arabic melodic scales) allowed her to sing intricately layered Arabic poetry while evoking in listeners, be they peasants or aristocrats, a trance-like state of Tarab or rapturous enchantment where time and space dissolved into the music.”
Wa Maret El Ayam captured a long-awaited collaboration with the godfather of contemporary Arabic music, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, around 1965 after requests from the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The ‘Clouds’ Rendevouz’ as it came to be known, yielded cult-classics such as Enta Omri, Amal Hayaty and the title track from the album.
Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz compares Kulthum to a “preacher who becomes inspired by his congregation…..when [she] sees what reaches them [she] gives them more of it, [she] works it, [she] refines it, [she] embellishes it”.
Over a 60-year trailblazing career, her ability to rise above the grandeur of instrumentation and reincarnate melody was renowned, as well as perfecting the diction and pronunciation of Classical Arabic. Five-hour long performances would rapture listeners into feeling wistful melancholy, warming jubilation and fierce trans-nationalistic pride, all at once.
Prolific Eygptian composer Baligh Hamdy crafts Hakam Aleena El Hawa with the legendary singer, the pair were romantically linked throughout their careers. This was Kulthum’s parting ode before her death.
In a hauntingly beautiful ballad, she speaks of the overwhelming nature of love and sincere affection, over a delicately formulated Maqam Nahawand on the Arabic melodic scale. Hany Mehanna – Egyptian King of the Farfisa organ and pioneer of the oriental synth – features on the album.
“Souma Records proudly present a remastering of the original studio version for ‘The Voice of Egypt’ to live on. High-quality pressing housed in delicately handmade natural paper jackets.”