Print this Page

African Legends

Umm Kulthum

By Chris Nickson
Published November 21, 2006

When Umm Kulthum (also sometimes spelled Oum, Um or any of a number of other variations) died, four million people lined the streets of Cairo for her funeral. She was the greatest Arabic singer of the 20th century.

Born in Tamy Al-Zahayrah, Egypt in 1904, she absorbed music almost by accident. Her father was the iman at the village mosque, and also performed at weddings and festivals, singing religious songs. He was training his son to follow in his footsteps but Umm memorized the songs and began singing them. She began to perform with the family, but it was soon apparent that her talent outstripped them all. She became a major attraction throughout the region (during a time and place when women rarely sang in public), and her father decided to move to Cairo to help her career.

Kulthum found a mentor, and studied with several teachers, including Ahmad Rami, who schooled her in poetry and Arabic literature, almost a necessity for anyone wanting to be taken seriously as a singer.

She made her first recordings in 1926, and from there her star rapidly rose. While she didn’t have a huge vocal range, her command of the Arab melodic system was far ahead of anyone else’s.

When Egyptian radio began broadcasting in 1934, she was one of the first artists on the air, and a year later she made her debut on film. In 1937 she arranged for radio to broadcast her monthly concerts live. Soon the entire Middle East was able to hear her, and her Thursday concerts became an event.

During the 1940s, at the height of her artistic powers, she became more political, with some of her songs offering subtle overtones of Egyptian self-rule and political justice. Unlike most singers, especially females, she had a huge amount of control over her career, choosing her material, her accompanists, and even the actors and technicians for the movies she continued to make. The word diva might well have been invented for her.

By the ’70s, age and ill health were telling on her, and she died of heart failure on February 4, 1975.

Recommended Recordings

The Mother Of The Arabs (EMI)
Oum Kalsoum—Anthologie (Next Music/Sono)
El Atlaal (Sono Cairo)