World Music »

Umm Kulthum – Star of the East

Egypt’s greatest singer and a legend throughout the Arabic world.

Umm Kulthumm is probably the most famous person in the Arabic world outside of the personages of the Koran. A legendary singer of a humble background, her voice still permeates the air in Cairo, Beirut and Damascus, refrains of her songs known by almost anyone who speaks Arabic.

Born around the turn of the 20th century, Umm Kulthumm died in 1975 but still sells half a million records a year. To get an idea of her status in the Arabic world, Virgina Danielson of Harvard suggested that one should imagine a singer with the talents of Ella Fitzgerald, the public image of Elanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis.

Umm Kultumm sang of love, longing and loss and would often repeat the same line, playing with the delivery and phrasing so as to elicit an emotional response from the crowd, a dynamic that grew and intensified until the crowd entered an ecstatic state.

The songs of Umm Kulthumm (also spelt Om Koultoum, Om Kalthoum, Oumme Kalsoum, and Umm Kolthoum, no one can decide..) often lasted an hour or more and a single concert might be composed of only 3 songs. She had a vast vocal range and her monthly radio concerts cleared the streets of Cairo.

Umm Kulthumm, the Star of the East, has inspired artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Bono to Jah Wobble. But as important a figure as Umm Kulthumm was in the history of world music, only those who speak Arabic will be able to feel her songs as they were meant to be heard. When she died 4 million Egyptians followed her coffin and even seized it at one point, carrying it off to her favourite mosque.

Umm Kulthumm in a BBC documentary

Plus check out this BBC radio show about Umm Kulthumm