The Voice of Egypt
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.
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.
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
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.