Dubbed Egypt’s “fourth pyramid,” Oum Kulthum (1904-1975) started singing, dressed as a boy, in the mosque of a small village on the Nile. Today, she is still one of the most celebrated and best-selling singers in the Middle East, selling over 80 million records worldwide (1). She wooed the Arabic world with her strong presence, magnetising voice and deeply emotional songs for almost 50 years. When her concerts were broadcast every Thursday on the radio the whole Arab world would stop and listen. Incredibly, her concerts lasted four to six hours, during which she sang only two to three songs. Throughout her performances, she improvised and interacted with her audience in a way that had never been done before. Her songs were monologues covering universal themes of love, longing and loss. She sang some of them over the course of five years, each time introducing a different rendition (2). It’s been said that she never sang a line the same way twice (3).
Throughout her career, Kulthum never lost sight of her humble origins, but she also displayed her own brand of feminism. Unlike members of the main feminist movement in Cairo, who limited their activism to the upper classes of society, Kulthum presented a strong female role model, with high moral standards, to all social classes. She was also a feminist in her approach to the music business. Kulthum was her own manager and though she worked with songwriters, she made all decisions regarding her songs and controlled their composition (4). She was also a pan-Arab nationalist who evoked pride in the Arabic and Egyptian identity through her work. She soon became the most recognizable cultural symbol of the Arab world (2).
Although her music is now considered to be traditional, it was revolutionary at the time. She hired modern composers and lyricists to write songs in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, but she maintained traditional musical elements (3,4). Oum Kulthum was in no way conservative through her work. She constantly ensured that she used new mediums, both technological and social, to reach a wider audience. Through recordings, radio and films her career was amplified and spread throughout Egypt and the Arabic world.
Here we’ve gathered various remixes of her songs from genres as diverse as electronic, disco, trap, house and jazz. Being such a strong woman, who had full control over her music, do you think Oum Kulthum would disapprove? Or, as a business-savvy woman who made sure her music was dynamic, would she be delighted by these new interpretations?
- Umm Kulthum, Wikipedia, viewed 8 January 2020, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umm_Kulthum>
- Neda Ulaby 2010, Umm Kulthum: ‘The Lady’ Of Cairo, NPR 24 Hour Program Stream, viewed 8 January 2020 <https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124612595>
- Spencer C. Tucker 2010, The Encyclopedia of Middle East Wars – Volume I , ABC CLIO, LLC, Page 862
- Sandra N. Mokalled 2016, Faces of Feminism in Early Twentieth Century Egypt, Clemson University TigerPrints <https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3378&context=all_theses>