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Topic of the Issue
Om Kalsoum: Legendary Singer and Mother of the Egyptian Nation
Thursday, April 1 (Issue 6)
by Andrea Nader

CAIRO (youregypt.com) - 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, 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 wireless.

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 identity.

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 for it.

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.

PREVIOUS TOPICS:
. Food Habits in Egyptian Key Events (issue 1)
. Egyptian Matrimony: Man Got to Do it All (issue 2)
. The Egyptian Identity: Pharoahs, Moslems, Arabs, Africans, Middle Easterners or Mediterranean People? (issue 3)
. Egypt … Glimpse over its Society, Language and Religion (issue 4)
. Egyptian Traits - Part I: Inshallah (God Willing) (issue 5)

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