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Om Kalthoum
The Voice of Egypt
Taken from the liner notes of the Sands of Time album Cry to the Moon

She was called the “Voice of Egypt”. She was without contest the most well-known singer of the Arab world. She was also the most influential woman of her time in the Middle East.

Through her songs she helped bring about Egypt’s liberation from British colonial rule and open the door to Egyptian self-governance.

Nothing in Om Kalthoum’s poor rural roots would have predicted such a fate - unless you consider that her maternal bloodline is said to trace back to the Prophet Mohammed himself. Perhaps this was why her father named his third child after the Prophet’s third daughter.

Her extraordinary talent did not take long to manifest itself. By the age of seven she was already singing religious songs with her male relatives for local village gatherings. She dressed as a bedouin boy, complete with headress and coat, in the name of modesty, so that she could perform in public.

By age thirteen, word of “Thuma’s” tremendous voice had spread to the music greats in Cairo. A few traveled to her home in the Delta to hear her sing. None were disappointed. Several became her mentors and teachers. They guided her when she moved to Cairo to further her career, and they wrote poetry and composed music for her so that her songs would be as beautiful as her voice.

Om Kalthoum’s religious schooling and her ability to chant the Quran set her aside from the other popular singers of her time. True to classical Arabic music tradition, she set a high importance on interpreting the underlying meaning of her songs, not only with clear diction and proper phrasing, but also with vocal coloring that gave her words emotion. She became known as a traditional artist, one that upheld and practiced pure Arabic musicality. This was at a time when upholding Arabic tradition was a statement against the overbearing British colonial forces. Om Kalthoum’s audiences looked up to her for her patriotism and she did not disappoint them.

The development of mass media during the 1900s greatly affected Om Kalthoum’s notoriety. She was as intelligent as she was gifted and used each new media to her best advantage.

From records, to radio, to cinema and then to television, she entered each new media on the ground floor and used it to increase access to her fans. Radio was especially kind to her. Her monthly “first Thursday” broadcasts are remembered fondly, even today, as a time when the Arabic speaking world came to a halt, and every man, woman and child  listened to Om Kalthoum sing.

Sadly her personal life was not as rich as her professional one. Although she had many offers of marriage, she did not choose a husband until late in life. She wed the first, a musician, as a reflex reaction when the royal family rejected her engagement to King Faruk’s uncle. Her union with this musician lasted only days. Her second husband was one of her doctors, whom she relied upon heavily as her health deteriorated in her fifties. She did not have any children. It is curious that the Prophet’s third daughter also had two husbands and no children.

Om Kalthoum dedicated her life to her art. Music was her true love and the songs she created were her offspring. When she passed away they inherited her soul for safe keeping.

Timeline of her Life

  • 1904 : Born May 4 in the Delta town of Tammay al-Zahayra
  • 1909 - 1912 : Studied at the Quranic school
  • 1911 : First public performance
  • 1919 : First performance in Cairo
  • 1920 : She moved to Cairo
  • 1923 : First recording contract with Odeon Records
  • 1926 : A Year of Great ChangeChanged recording companies to Gramaphone Records
    - Changed her style of dress, from bedouin coat and headdress to elegant but modest gowns.
    - Replaced her family back-up chorus to a takht ensemble of musicians.
    - Added popular (vs. religious and classical) songs to her repertoire.
    - Purchased land and improved her family’s social standing.
  • 1934 : Began singing every other Thursday on the radio.
  • 1935 : Filmed Widad, the first of her 6 films.
  • 1937 : Began live broadcasts of her concerts on the radio, her famous monthly “First Thursday” concerts that brought life in Egypt to a halt.
    - Fell ill with the first of her health problems; liver and gall bladder ailments.
  • 1942 : A Year of Great Pain
    - Diagnosis of a thyroid problem. She was treated at Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington DC for this, at the suggestion of the American Ambassador to Egypt. Her prolonged stay in the United States and the possibility that she might have to retire, plus the events below, sent her into a severe depression.
    - Chronic inflammation of the eyes.
    - Sharif Sabri Pasha, uncle to King Farouk, proposed marriage to her, but the union was forbidden by the royal family.
    - Hasty marriage to a fellow musician which was annulled within days.
  • 1947 : Her mother and only brother Khalid died.
  • 1949 - 1952 : Goiter ailment and treatment. She drastically cut back her work and appearances.
  • 1952 : The Egyptian Revolution. No more British rule.
  • 1954 : Married one of her doctors and long time admirers, Dr. Hassan al-Hifnawi.
  • 1956 - 1957 : A Renewal Period. After her health improved she changed composers for new songs.
    - Switched record companies to Misrophone.
  • 1960 : Participated in the opening of the new government television station.
  • 1964 : Released first song composed for her by Mohammed Abd al-Wahab, “Enta Omri.”
  • 1967 : Olympia concert in Paris, the only concert she ever gave outside the Arab world.
  • 1971 : Her health declined drastically. She suffered a gall bladder attack and a kidney infection.
  • 1973 - 1974 : Traveled to Europe and the US for medical treatments.
  • 1975 : Severe kidney attack that lead to her death.
  • 3 February 1975 : Om Kalthoum died of heart failure at the age of seventy.

Om Kalthoum was honored with an enormous state funeral. Her bereaved fans overcame the pall bearers at one point and carried her casket themselves through Cairo’s mourning streets. She was after all the Voice of Egypt. She recorded over 300 songs during her sixty year career. Her First Thursday concerts halted presidents and ditch diggers alike. She was asil, authentic, a daughter of the countryside, and the true sound of the Gift of the Nile.