360 Mall honors ‘Voice of the Arab World’; Umm Kulthoum, an eternal musical icon
“My father was uneasy. The idea that his daughter should sing in front of men he didn’t know, was difficult for him to accept, but my singing helped support the family. So he dressed me in boy’s clothes, and I sang this way for several years. I realize now that he wanted to convince himself, and the audience too, that the singer was a young boy, and not a young woman.” “She is reborn again every morning in the hearts of millions. In the East, a day without Umm Kulthoum would have no colour.”
By Rima A. Mneimneh
Special to the Arab Times
When sentimental verses written by prominent poets are composed by talented composers and thereafter sung and performed regularly on stage as one musical hit song after another conducted at the heart of one of the most influential Arab capitals in the Arab world for two decades non-stop and not waning or weakening, all that performed amidst tumultuous times that pummeled the region and other parts of the world, that no doubt would comprise a phenomenal and exceptional musical legacy.
She was a diva extraordinaire, blessed with an exceptionally strong voice and charismatic presence acknowledged wherever she appeared in the world. Her meticulous choice of the verses she sang, the composers she collaborated with, even the vast-numbered musical band that accompanied her together with her engaging presence on stage had made her an everlasting and unrepeatable musical icon. The late Arab diva Umm Kulthoum (1904 - 1975), known as the “voice of the Arab world,” although her homeland was Egypt yet she sang for the Arab world and was unanimously loved, respected and admired during her lifetime and would remain so forever.
Her cherished and recorded visits to many Arab capitals and cities including Kuwait in the sixties were major events. She sang poems written by the renowned Kuwaiti poet, writer of the words of the current Kuwaiti national anthem Ahmed al-Odwani (1922-1990), which were entitled “Ya Darana ya Dar,” meaning “O Hail our Land, our Homeland” and Ard al-Judoud” meaning “The Land of the Forefathers.” In the first poem the opening lines read “O hail our land, our Homeland/ The land of the free/ Its sea has pearls/ And its land has gold/ O Hail the land, our homeland.” In a unique compilation of English-language biography about Umm Kulthoum, Virginia Danielson from Harvard University, chronicles the diva’s life, her amazing musical career and her enormous and opulent Arabic musical legacy. Many Web sites cover the singer’s life and her musical legacy extensively.
In Kuwait, and collaborating with the Arab World Institute in Paris — a foundation established to promote Arabic language and the Arab world’s cultural heritage and spiritual values worldwide — an exhibition, entitled “Umm Kulthoum: The Fourth Pyramid,” is being held from July 8th until November 8th 2009 at the 360 Mall showcasing a diversity of multimedia captions and video clips from her illustrious life and her outstanding accomplishments, selected personal belongings, archived documents and more.
A brief glimpse into the life of Umm Kulthoum based on Danielson’s biography of the diva of over 250 pages commences with the earliest years of her life until her demise. Umm Kulthoum, or Fatima Ibrahim al-Baltaji, the youngest of three children, was born in a small rural village to a poor family. Her father Sheikh Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Baltaji was the imam of the local mosque, and her mother, Fatimah al-Maliji was a housewife. Her date of birth is not confirmed for certain, but the most reliable date was 1904 based on her birth records obtained from her birthplace of Tammay al-Zahayrah. She sang in the neighboring villages, all of which were small, “The family house was a small one made of mud brick; they owned no other property.” When she was about five years old, Umm Kulthoum entered Al-Kuttab, or Qur’an school, in her village then sent to Izbat al-Hawwal, several kilometers away. Umm Kulthuom remained a student there for three years. In the rural school, Umm Kulthoum memorized sections of the Qur’an and also may have acquired basic skills in reading and writing.
Umm Kulthoum learned to sing from her father. She overheard him teaching songs to her brother who accompanied his father at the celebrations for which Sheikh Ibrahim sang. Umm Kulthoum learned the songs by rote. When Sheikh Ibrahim discovered what she had learned and heard the unusual strength of her voice, he asked her to join the lessons. Because of her youth and exceptionally strong voice, the child became an attraction for the group and eventually its premiere singer. “My father was uneasy. The idea that his daughter should sing in front of men he didn’t know, was difficult for him to accept, but my singing helped support the family. So he dressed me in boy’s clothes, and I sang this way for several years. I realize now that he wanted to convince himself, and the audience too, that the singer was a young boy, and not a young woman,” she was quoted in an interview.
The family travelled afield, often on foot. A number of people encouraged Umm Kulthoum and her father to consider going to Cairo to further her career.
The family finally moved to Cairo in the early twenties of last century. Umm Kalthoum’s voice was quickly identified as exceptionally strong, unique and had attracted the attention of the press. Yet her talent was considered ungroomed and lacking the professional command of the vocal subtlety and melodic finesse of first-rank singers of her time. Her father hired numerous music teachers for his daughter to nurture her talent. Umm Kulthoum’s musical repertoire in the 1940s and early 1950s and her mature performing style caused this period to be popularly called the “golden age” in Umm Kulthoum’s career. Later years brought her more fame and popularity across the Arab world.
Among the many distinguished Arab composers who worked with the diva was Abdul Wahab, a highly esteemed Arab singer and composer, who had “evinced extensive interest in new instruments and commanded a wide variety of styles, Arab and Western” and had composed unforgettable tunes for her.
Umm Kulthoum died of heart failure in early February 1975 after enriching the Arab musical world with enormous and diverse melodies that still resonate incomparably with excellence and professionalism in its verses, tunes and performance. Her funeral was held at the Umar Makram Mosque in Central Cairo, where most funerals for well-known dignitaries were held.
The overwhelming thousands of mourners of ordinary Egyptians far exceeded the number anticipated: they were flooding the streets of Cairo, and the funeral did not proceed as planned. The millions of Egyptian mourners took the body from the shoulders of its official bearers and bore it themselves by turns, carrying it for three hours through the streets of Cairo, eventually to the mosque of al-Sayyid Husayn, believed to be one of Umm Kulthoum’s favorites. Millions of mourners across the world were devastated by her demise.
Virginia Danielson, author of the biography of Umm Kulthoum has held the Richard F. French Librarianship of Harvard College Library Loeb Music Library. A curator of the Archive of World Music and oversees Harvard College Library Audio Preservation Services. Trained as an ethnomusicologist, she is the author of the book “The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthoum, Arabic Song and Egyptian Society in the 20th Century,” which won the Alan P. Merriam Prize for best English-language monograph in 1997. She also co-edited “The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: The Middle East.” A quotation by the famous actor Omar Shariff describing the influence of Umm Kulthoum reads “She is reborn again every morning in the hearts of millions. In the East, a day without Umm Kulthoum would have no colour.”
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