| by Andrea Nader
- In today’s Egypt and for the past sixty or so years, the
one outstanding voice and image of the Egyptian music scene has
been that of Om Kalsoum, the legendary singer also called the "Star
of the Orient." It would be a rare day spent in Egypt without
one encountering her music: played in homes, coffee shops or taxi-cabs,
or hearing someone mention her name. The many coffee shops that
bear her name is a sign that she is the one female Egyptian whose
presence is immortal.
It is impossible to fully understand modern Egyptian culture without
acknowledging the influence of this magical chanteuse. No superlative
is too strong to describe how she captured Egypt’s heart.
Om Kalsoum, the Star of the Orient
Om Kalsoum's expressive, enchanting vocals and powerful stage
presence wowed the nation. Her voice, which was said to possess
more vocal chords than the usual mortal, had a phenomenal perfect
range from Baritone across to Soprano. Its strength allowed her
to perform to massive auditoriums without the aid of a microphone.
The lyrics of her songs which were largely of unrequited love,
the agony and ecstasy of a relationship and of a parents love for
a child seemed to reflect back to the audience their own confused
human emotions which they hitherto could not articulate. Grown
men would burst into tears at the poetry of the words and the way
her voice expressed them. The language of her songs was sometimes
in highly classical Arabic which would need a linguist to fully
understand, and others were written in the “ammeyya” of the street-seller,
bus-driver or boatmen. Both styles earned her scores of admirers.
The poetry of her lyrics (written by Egypt 's top lyricists) were
delivered with a sometimes celestial-sometimes-earthy voice which
firmly entered the heart of millions.
Even today when a jilted lover or someone who is pining after
a loved one wants to express themselves, it is commonly an Om Kalsoum
CD they will play. The modern digitally re-mastered versions of
her scores of songs doing great justice to her music recorded (often
live) roughly half a century ago.
Born into a humble home in the rural area known as Daqahleyya, “Thuma” (as
she was known to her loved ones), would spend her childhood playing
in the dust and riding donkeys whilst barefoot, among the lush
fields alongside the Nile . Although blissfully unaware of the
greatest she would one day achieve, she did become well-known in
her local area as a child who could recite the Qu'ran beautifully.
She would often sing Islamic ballads or long Qur'anic verses to
large gatherings in the villages, dressed as a boy, as it is against
Islamic custom for a girl to perform recitations in public.
When the family moved to Cairo she quickly began to record songs
and perform with the best Egypt had to offer, moving away from
religion to sing the romantic songs she became famous for. She
learned very quickly the words of her songs, crafted by Egypt's
finest poets, and performed with musicians who were usually not
only top class performers with their oriental instruments, but
often doctors, engineers and professors too.
Om Kalsoum's weekly performances which were broadcast on the national
radio were so popular that shops would close and towns became ghost-towns
as people rushed home to gather with their families around their
Late President Gamal Abdul Nasser, darling of the Arab nationalist
cause and the person largely responsible for removing the Colonial
British from Egypt was reportedly a huge fan. He timed his weekly
address to be broadcast just before “Thuma”. With this tactic he
could secure massive audiences, and at the same time show his allegiance
to the woman who was soon becoming the symbol of Egypt 's new national
Egypt was becoming reborn after 2000 years of foreign occupation.
Om (mother) Kalsoum was so called without ever having given birth,
but indeed she was in a sense give birth to a new nation.
Kings, Queens and foreign dignitaries requested this amazing lady
to perform for them, although she was treated as royalty herself.
Although never possessing great physical beauty she had legions
of male admirers who tired to woo her, to no avail. She was never
lucky in love and suffered great personal pain form this fact.
In deed she once remarked “the story of my songs is the story of
my life”. She wore her heart on her sleeve and Egypt loved her
At her funeral millions thronged the streets in the biggest ever
national mourning. Although dead, her music remains immortally at
the centre of Egyptian life. In an ever-changing Egypt , she is the
Queen who will never be de-throned … an ever constant cultural icon
in an Egypt that is ever-changing.