Famously known as the “Star of the East,” Umm Kulthum has captivated the hearts of Arabs and North Africans with her powerful voice and artistry. Umm Kulthum has recorded more than 300 songs for over 60 years.
Her prominence as the leading Egyptian female singer is unparalleled in history because of her elegant style, distinct voice, and mesmerizing charisma on stage. You can easily recognize her voice in Cairo because taxi drivers still play her songs instead of those sung by young talents or even famous international singers.
Ask Egyptians about their choice of music, and there’s no doubt you will hear them cite Umm as the epitome of Arab musicality.
Nobody knows exactly when Umm was born. Her name Umm Kulthum is also spelled Oum Kulthoum, and she was believed to have been born on May 4, 1904, but this remains a big question mark up to now.
She was born to a poor Egyptian family in Tummay al-Zahayran, Egypt, where her father was an imam or a head of a Muslim community. Her mother stayed at home and took care of her and her two siblings. Reports said that she died on February 3, 1975 in Cairo.
Do you know that girls were not allowed to perform in public nor recite any Quranic verses during their childhood days?
She was probably destined to perform Egyptian music because from the very beginning, she was already singing at homes and entertaining families with her melodic voice.
Umm Kulthum Songs
Umm Kulthum’s songs feature an incomparable status in Arab history. She holds the highest prominence and respect when it comes to music in the entire Arab region due to her classic style, which music veterans have defined as an authentic symbol of Arab and Egyptian culture.
You may not believe how she started with her singing ability. Still, as already mentioned, she probably inherited her singing prowess from her father, who performed traditional songs at weddings for a living.
She followed her father’s footsteps to help with the finances of the family, which gave her father a chance to recognize her distinct and powerful voice. Later on, being a singer in his own right, he trained her to sing with persuasion, warmth, and power.
Those days were still very conservative in Egypt, but Umm was able to manage singing despite the typical stereotype against female singers. It was a kind of stigma that girls were not allowed to perform on stage, so her father dressed her up like a boy.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian society during her childhood deemed singing as an unpopular career, particularly for female artists. That’s why she began singing in towns and villages. You may call it a breakthrough because her voice started to be recognized in her local area, where she had been called a family star.
Her family decided to move to Cairo in 1923, which was an opportunity for her to step into the world of entertainment. To be able to establish a singing career in Cairo, she needed more polishing and improvement with her image. With a more sophisticated style she learned from her accomplished mentors, she was able to sing in gatherings of affluent families. Little by little, Umm had become a household name in wealthy villages, as well as theaters and cabarets.
She eventually mastered her singing prowess, which paved the way for her to achieve a unique singing style matching the taste of the rich and famous.
Umm was well-loved by the upper-class society, where she gained more acceptance before she hit her first recording in the mid-1920s. Time worked in her favor when she became an ultimate choice of the Arabs, giving her recognition as one of the highest-paid singers in Cairo during her time.
Umm might have been a fortunate singer because, in a short time, she was able to build a name in the country. Aside from commercial recordings, Umm also extended her fame in radio, film, and television.
She starred in her first movie, Wedad, where she played the leading role. Regarded as a total performer for the Egyptians, she used her alluring voice and style to captivate people from all walks of life to listen and celebrate her music.
Maybe you would also like to hear her religious songs sung in colloquial dialect with the accompaniment of a mini traditional orchestra. Her warmth and unique prowess influenced people. They also adored her singing talent and supported her from Persia to Egypt.
With her passionate style, captivating voice, and artistic rendition of songs, Umm has become a star for all seasons. Opportunities began pouring on her lap until she was invited to collaborate with noted artists and musicians like Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, who helped her with 10 popular songs. She was recognized for her immaculate singing of religious, sentimental, and nationalistic songs, which she perfected with impressive aura and musicality.
Her prestige in her singing career was affected by World Wars I and II. Everything became uncertain at that time because the world was at war. To make matters worse, the economy crumbled during the Great Depression in the 1930s, as well as the Egyptian Revolution in 1952.
What happened was a challenge for all musicians and artists alike, but for Umm, it was her chance to sing patriotic and religious songs for her beloved country. She rendered songs about Egyptian independence like “Nashīd al-Jāmiʿah,” “The University Anthem.”
Umm’s Love for Egyptian Music
You may say that her influence gained more prominence when she served as president of the Musician’s Union, a position that she held for seven years. Likewise, she also served in several government commissions related to the arts. As a philanthropist, Umm generously donated to civic organizations supporting Arab causes.
Egypt suffered from a defeat in the Six-Day War of June 1967, but she was a prominent figure to enlighten the people’s spirit by staging tours all across the nation, as well as in other Arab regions. All proceeds of the concerts were donated to the Egyptian government.
Her diligence and highest dream of reaching stardom paid off, but it didn’t come without a price. She suffered from several unrevealed illnesses.
People asked why she suddenly came out with huge sunglasses, and it was explained that she had to wear those heavy sunglasses to protect her ailing eyes. Being famous as she was, her sunglasses had become a classic trademark of her identity in the latter part of her career.
Umm Kulthum as a Business Manager
Her years of hard work had made her trademark as a music icon. Umm had become the most popular Arab singer of all time, but her career couldn’t have escalated to the highest pedestal without meticulous planning and management strategies. You might be surprised to know that Umm was not only a singer but also a businesswoman.
From the beginning of her career, she took charge of her projects. She even produced her shows without brokers in between. From theater rentals to advertisements, Umm was the main decision-maker.
As a businesswoman, she commanded the highest fee because she was offering her priceless talent. Since she was already famous, she collected huge fees for her shows. As a shrewd businesswoman, she negotiated the highest fee for her songs, and her diva attitude was well-known in the music industry.
Aside from her musical talents, she also acted in films portraying romantic themes, just like her songs. She made sure that her movies were spectacular and unique compared to other movies at that time. An example of her movie showcased exotic settings in Arab history or a story depicting good and evil. Umm Kulthum was incredibly famous at that time, so everything she did garnered praise and following.
To create a distinct personality, she presented herself as a dignified person in words as well as in actions. She stayed away from scandal or unworthy news that might have ruined her personality. She successfully kept her private life away from the limelight of the press or the entertainment industry, especially in the world of Egyptian music.
You might ask who the main negotiator in all of her transactions was. Surprisingly, Umm herself negotiated in her transactions, and she was successful in repackaging herself as a singer with class, elegance, and high respect.
Umm Kulthum as a Diplomat
Trained by her father, a Muslim priest, Umm has developed her talent in diplomacy as she proved to be an efficient agent of change. In 1952, Umm Kulthum requested the poet Ahmad Rami to compose a perfect national song to inspire the people during the bloody Egyptian Revolution.
The song “Egypt, Which Is in My Mind and My Blood” was devoted to the patriotic support of the people for Arab nationalism. Her genuine friendship with President Gamal Abdel Nasser was an instrument to promote her nationalistic spirit.
The mood all over the country was very low at that time, so she spearheaded her concerts that empowered the people once again. President Nasser, for his part, would broadcast his speeches right after Umm’s concert to ensure that many people were gathered to listen.
She also held a fabulous grand tour across the Arab world in 1967 to uplift the image of Egypt after its defeat in the Six-Day War. As the president of the Musician’s Union in Egypt, she represented Egypt to other Arab countries, promoting the country’s art, music, and culture.
While serving Egypt as an artist, she was treated like a diplomat. She also received a diplomatic passport in 1968 to seal her generous effort in promoting the cause of her country.
Endowed with her musical genius, she serenaded kings, queens, presidents, ministers, and a lot of elite guests in her concerts. Umm has truly won the heart of other Arab nations, such that she was invited to dinners to receive state honor comparable to that of a head of state. The Tunisians admire her so much that a street was named after her in Tunis, as well as a school in Khartoum.
Umm Kulthum’s Death
Umm Kulthum worked hard to reach the highest point of her career. She was able to establish the epitome of her life as an accomplished singer. However, she suffered from a series of health issues most of her life. Later in the 1940s, she accepted limited projects due to her failing health. She even sought medical treatment in Europe and the U.S.
She has been a pivotal part of Egyptian life and culture. That’s why her sudden demise had caused grief to millions of those who loved her. Umm Kulthum funeral was a symbol of tremendous sadness for the Egyptians.
They felt like they lost a national beacon of hope because it was Umm who single-handedly performed to inspire the Arabs toward unity and peace through her songs.
As the most popular Arab singer of her time, she received much love at her funeral. Hundreds of thousands of people joined her funeral, grieving because they lost a hero.
Umm Kulthum rose to fame because of her incomparable talent in singing. She emerged as an icon of music, art, and culture as she displayed an impressive talent no one else could surpass. As an artist, she was the epitome of Arab music that captivated the hearts of the Muslim people. Her style and personality matched her advocacy as an agent of patriotism to her beloved Egypt.
When you listen to her songs, you’ll feel that they are a celebration of life, art, and culture. She was victorious in reaching out to the poorest of the poor and the most elite in the world. Truly, Umm Kulthum is proof positive that dogged effort is rewarded by a life well-lived.