- Published: Friday, 22 December 2017 07:07
OUM KATLHUM AND HER CHILDHOOD
She was born in a small Egyptian village called Tammay al Zaharya, by the Nile Delta. The date of her birth is still a matter of discussion, but her English language biographer, Virginia Danielson, says her date of birth was the 4th of May 1904.
Her father was an imam at the local mosque, her mother was a housekeeper. She was raised in a very religious family where she learned suras from the Koran, ever since she was a child. Her father noticed that she was talented and enrolled her into the school of Koran at the age of 5. Her father was also a sheikh, a singer of religious songs at local mulids and festivals. While practicing those songs at home, he discovered that his daughter not only remembered the lyrics, but had a strong voice, too. She learned from her father by repeating after him, without understanding the words. Her father started teaching her to sing and soon she began performing with him. The audience was always amazed to hear this young girl singing with such a strong voice. They got more and more work, as people heard of the wonder child. Her father was concerned for her reputation, as she was a woman, so he dressed her up as a boy, whenever they went to perform. Also, there were family members and relatives who accompanied her to every performance she had.
Between 1910 and 1920, her father began to take on the role of her manager and the family's economic situation soon improved.
Between 1920 and 1922, she began to perform in Cairo, and from 1922 onwards, she become a real star.
FIRST CAREER STEPS IN CAIRO
Her father arranged a private teacher to help her with singing and performing. She also began studying poetry with one of the most well-known Egyptian poets of that time – Ahmad Rami. He wrote 137 songs for her. She also studied classical Arabian music and muwashahats, and tried to learn how to keep control over her voice. They taught her how to keep the music purely Arabic, without any Turkish or gypsy influences. She was a quick learner. She could remember a melody, even after having heard it only once. She was also very disciplined; she practiced singing every day, did physical exercise, and was on a special diet. Along with training in music and poetry, she started to learn how to behave in the high society of Cairo, so that they would not notice her roots.
1926 was a very important year in her career. Her father resigned as her manager, but was still head of the family and they still received half of what she earned. Umm Katlhum was a simple, well-mannered and sophisticated lady who was capable of working with the best Egyptian musicians of that time. She also learned how to get the money she wanted and soon she became one of the most well payed singers in the whole of the Arab world. Her music at that time was something new. It was mixture of beautiful love poetry, written by Rami and sung in colloquial Arabic. It reminded of old school Arabian music.
From the 1930´s onwards, her concert career began to rise. From that year, on every first Thursday of the month, people in Egypt could listen to her concerts, broadcast live on the radio (it remained like this until her death in 1975). Each of her songs was 30 to 60 minutes long with an intermission in-between.
Her hard work, strong religious-traditional background, her studies of old classical Arabian music aesthetic, without the influence of Turkish and gipsy music, brought her the biggest success in the history of all Egyptian singers.
One of her biggest attributes was her strong voice and clean interpretation of the lyrics (clean diction). They say this clear pronunciation of words in her singing came from when she had to recite the Koran at an early age.
The other thing was, that she understood the lyrics she sang, and could interpret the words of the song so she knew exactly which word to mark, and how.
HER GOLDEN ERA
Umm Klathum´s golden era was the 1940´s. Egypt became independent in 1936, but in the 1940´s there were union worker strikes all over Egypt, demanding better social and economic conditions. At that time, Umm Klathum was their icon, with the lyrics and songs of two great men, Zakariyya Ahmad and Bayram al Tunisi. Bayram al Tunisi was a very well-known poet of that time and he was also known by his political satire. In the lyrics, he wrote for Umm Klathum, he used words from everyday life. His phrases were short. Instead of writing long romantic poems about a woman waiting all night for her lover, he just focused on one word.
The very fruitful collaboration between Ahmad, Al Tunisi and Umm Klathum was unfortunately, very short-lived. Ahmad sued the record company because he said he was not getting paid enough, in comparison with the singer). They ceased working in 1947.
So, from 1946 onward, Um Kalthum began to collaborate with the poet, Ahmad Shawqi, and the composer, Riyad al Sumbati. Ahmad Shawqi was a very well-known poet, very wealthy and very pro-Egyptian. Sumbati was a neoclassical composer. He had a Master's degree in Arabian music and was looking for inspiration in old Arabian music. His music, Shawqis text and her voice were neoclassical; they represented tradition in a new, modern way.
A WOMAN WITH A STRONG CHARACTER
Umm Kalthum was a woman of strong character. She wanted to be included in the process of the song, during all phases - from the text to music. She went through the text she got from the poet, and at one time from 71 original lines, picked only 21 she liked. Soon she became leader of the Egyptian committee for broadcasting music on radio. She got the important role and could be very unpleasant with people she did not like.
Nevertheless, she had a huge impact on people. Her songs were all written by professionally, very well-known and established poets. In this sense, her work was very important, educational-wise, as she transmitted the words of the poetry to people of different social and economic backgrounds. She was seen as a well-raised, well-educated, religious woman whom people respected a lot.
In the 1940´s, she completely took over the entire so called »creation of« lyrics and music. With the help of her dear friend and poet, Ahmad Rami, she went through the lyrics she got and changed them in the way she liked them to be, then looked for a composer and sent him the text to prepare the music for her. She always looked, for text that was elevated in meaning; high-minded in purpose and graceful in sound. She especially liked the sentences that expressed the symbols of Egyptian identity, such as: “The setting sun has gilded the leaves of the date palms.”
Poet, Bayram al Tunisi, said at one point that he wrote a poem in one day, and then spent the next 10 days talking to Umm Kalthum about it, rearranging it for her. She was very hard on composers, too. She wanted them to change certain parts, several times, until she approved them. They say that one time she was so hard on Riyad al Sumbati, that he left her house angry, saying “Go, compose it yourself then.”
She was very demanding on others, but also towards herself; as she was a perfectionist. She studied all of her songs very precisely, then demanded from her musicians to learn the music by heart, without reading it.
She wanted the music to become a part of them, as she did herself. She worked on each new text and composition for so long that it became a part of her being.
The dates of a premiere of a new song, along with the name of the poet, composer and the details of it, were usually published in an Egyptian newspaper before the concert, but the lyrics of the song were only published on the day of the concert, or perhaps even a day later.
Her concert dresses were extremely elegant. She wanted her dress to keep the basic design of a traditional Egyptian women's galabiya, but made out of fine fabrics, like silk, fur and jewels. She was an elegant daughter of the countryside. One of her trademarks was a silk scarf in her hand.
She had a lot of fans that visited every concert she had. The concerts were usually 3 to 6 hours long. They began with a musical intro, and later she began to sing. The first song of the concert was usually a song the audience already knew, but never a song older than 10 years. Afterwards, she presented her new song.
The concerts started at around 9 o clock in the evening, were usually comprised of 3 songs, each around 50 minutes long, and each followed by 50 minutes of intermission. And so, they usually lasted until the early hours of the morning. This was, again, one of the old Arabian ideas of the Tarab: the pleasure of listening to a singer´s voice, all night long until the early morning.
WHY IS SHE THE MOST POPULAR SINGER IN THE ARAB WORLD?
The elements shared by the recital of the Quran and Oum Kalthum style renditions include correct pronunciation, sensitive expression of textual meaning, attention to the unity of the textual phrase and use of vocal tone colours. Arabic composers usually have a skeletal framework that consists of text, melody and a rhythmic tone. To this – performers could add ornaments and improvise entire sections. The performer's responsibility for the sound of the performance was equal to, or even greater than, that of the composer.
Oum Katlhum´s principal contribution to Arabic song was the artistry of her renditions. Each of her renditions was believed to be unique. Her musical creativity enabled her to spontaneously produce multiple versions of a single line; “over 50 in a row” according to reports of her concerts.
Her personal life was not very well-known as she never wanted to talk about it.
She was single most of her life. There were rumours saying she had no heart, or some said that she had a broken heart and could not love again. Her life time friend, teacher and professional colleague, poet Ahmed Rami, felt very deep love for her, but she did not want him as a man, just as a friend and colleague.
In 1944, King Farouk of Egypt decorated her with highest of orders, a decoration reserved exclusively for members of the royal family and politicians. Despite this recognition, the royal family opposed her potential marriage to the king´s uncle, a rejection that deeply wounded her pride and led her to distance herself from the royal family.
In any case, in 1954, she married Dr. Hasan al-Hifnawi. She was 50 at the time. He was well respected member of Egyptian society, also raised in the countryside in a conservative environment. It was a good marriage, also from the point of view of social status. They both were good friends with Egyptian President, Abd el Naser.