Umm Kulthum - Am I not getting it?

Am I not getting it? I am nine years old and I am in no way happy!! It is the middle of a hot Cairo day and I am at home with my auntie helping to stuff vine leaves whilst sitting on the living room floor. It’s not this that has put a scowl on my face. It is what plays on the small TV in the corner of the room. I want to watch cartoons!? But no, because on the TV, in black and white, a female singer stands, crying out as she holds a handkerchief in her hands.  It’s no one other than the singer Umm Kulthum. Whenever her songs played, be it on the radio or TV. NO ONE is allowed to switch the channel.  At the time this seemed to happen all too often for my liking and also it seemed to occur randomly.  Her clips were always played: during commercial breaks; in-between other programs; during chat shows and in soaps.


My auntie warbles out the lyrics. She knows all of them and as Umm Kulthum continues to sing the tears begin to roll down her face. I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t. I just thought of her as crazy. It wasn’t just my auntie though; my other aunties, my uncles, my dad – ALL the adults in Egypt seemed to be the same. I knew at that very moment hundreds of children across Egypt watching the channel were going through the same thing. I didn’t understand how or why this female singer, who had died years before, was still so popular and had this hold, this power to make them all cry.

Was I not getting something?


Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian legend

 Born in 1904, as a child Umm Kulthum was taught to sing the Quran by her father, an Imam. This taught her to pronounce properly and appreciate the beauty of standard Arabic. Aged 12 and disguised as a boy she would perform in a troupe with her brother and father singing at events such as weddings, this was an extra source of income for the poor family. Her voice was very quickly noticed and admired and so her local reputation grew and grew.


Umm Kulthum's voice was amazing. The power of her voice was such that she would have to stand meters away from microphones to perform. She could sing every single Arabic scale perfectly AND with control.

Her popularity continued to grow and by the age of 19 she moved to the Hollywood of the Arabian World – Cairo. Musicians couldn't wait.  They had noticed her and had already invited her to Cairo.


Inevitably influenced by her religious, humble upbringing she had very high morals. This was strongly reflected in circles she chose to move in. She met and became very good friends with many famous musicians but one of the closest friends she made was Ahmed Rami. He was a poet that had the words and feel that went with everything that Umm Kulthum stood for and that Umm Kulthum knew would be loved by her listeners. Ahmed Rami wrote over a hundred songs for Umm Kulthum over the period of her career. 


By the 1940s Umm Kulthum was known throughout, not just Egypt but the whole Arabic nation and even the world. She performed in France and was a fan of French poetry. She would often do live T.v and radio broadcasting at which point the whole country would stop to listen.

But why? Why would the streets of Egypt literally empty to listen to a singer? Why would 4million people take to the streets of Cairo for her funeral and to mourn her death?  Why would her songs, decades later, still be played so often on TV and still stir such emotion from the listeners. There are many singers in the world that have amazing voices, why was umm Kulthum so special?   

The reason, I believe, was her honest emotion of what she was singing.  She put meaning into sound and her honest desire was to share it with the audience.

 She had the highest respect for her audience.  She aimed to please them; they were her focus. Her aim was to take them away, through the music through her voice; she wanted the audience to enter a higher sense of being.  She wanted to make them feel pure ecstasy - and they did!

She would always perform with a signature handkerchief/scarf in her left hand. It acted a safety blanket to her, giving her hands something to do and calmed her nerves. She would have slight nerves before a performance because she was genuinely concerned about her audience enjoying the show. This showed she was truly for the people.

 Though the general music and words of Umm Kulthum’s songs were set out and had a certain structure, all of her performance had elements of improvisation. She would ensure there was room to improvise so she could adapt the song to her feelings and the feeling of her audience. She would start a performance paying very close attention to the audience and how they reacted and then adapt the song and the  feelings to work with the audience.  Repeating lines of the song, for example, that resonated with the audience and spark strong responses. She would feed off the audience's joy. Her orchestras too, would slightly improvise. The orchestras would NEVER perform with script. Umm Kulthum ensured they were taught to play by listening to the music and also to their hearts.

Omm Kulthum, the orchestra and the audience would all become one; connected through the music; working together to achieve that ecstasy!


Am I still not getting it?

I am now 24 and as I visited my family in Egypt I asked them where the Umm Kulthum museum was. I thought it would be a nice day trip out, somewhere I had never visited in Cairo. They told me it was literally down the road. It’s less than 5 minutes from our house!!! That was it.  I was definitely  going!

The next day I headed out with my mum and a few of my girl cousins, two of whom are under the age of 12.  The museum is on a beautiful little island in the middle of the Nile. The gardens surrounding it are lovely and the atmosphere is of pure calm, a welcome escape from the busy streets of Cairo. In the museum a selection of her beautiful jewelled, yet modest dresses stand. There are countless awards and medals that were given to her lined up and of course in a glass case one of her signature handkerchiefs hangs with a pair of her favourite diamond encrusted sunglasses.

We entered an audio room where you can listen to countless numbers of her songs. We sat in there listening to them. My two young cousins had scowls on their faces, they were bored!

I knew the words and start to sing along –and as Umm Kulthum continued to sing tears began to run down my face.


I get it now!