Oum Kalthoum for Non-Arab Ears:
An Incomplete Guide
by Rudy MeixellSome of you may have noticed the name Oum Kalthoum, in one of its many possible transliterations from the Arabic, haunting the periphery of your musical awareness. Performers as diverse as Bob Dylan [see http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/play78.htm], Diamanda Galas [see http://www.brainwashed.com/diamanda/press/mix.html], and Michael Doucet (of Beausoleil) have expressed admiration for her music. She is mentioned in the WIRE from time to time, but you aren't likely to find much more there beyond vague allusions to Oum Kalthoum, "the legendary Egyptian singer," accompanied by speculations that she smoked a lot of hashish. Maybe you have begun to nod your head when you see it, but nevertheless have little or no idea what her music sounds like.
Oum Kalthoum's recording career began in the 1920's and ended in the '70's. Not all of her authorized recordings are currently in print. Most of her work is known primarily through live recordings, and in fact only a small number of her songs appear to be readily available in studio versions, though a studio version was recorded and broadcast before her live debut of most songs, starting in the mid-1950's. Since Arabic singing is traditionally an improvisatory art in which the singer responds to the audience's reactions, including requests to repeat certain passages, the live recordings generally provide the most complete and satisfying realizations of her songs. In some cases, hearing the audience's responses is part of the enjoyment of listening to these recordings. Usually the audiences captured on these live recordings knew how to go wild without ruining the concert, so you don't typically get the Oum fan equivalent of some idiot on a live Psychic TV album repeatedly yelling out a request for "Zyklon B Zombies" just when Genesis P-Orridge finally seems to be reaching some actual Shamanic breakthrough and not just demonstrating his complete inability to sing or even recite, or the inevitable wasted fan who appears on Neil Young bootlegs, shouting for him to rock and roll when he is on his quiet acoustic trip. These audiences are more like a good jazz audience, which comments appreciatively after a vocalist renders a line especially expressively ("Yeah, Lady. . ."), waits until the punch-line to laugh, or applauds a particularly powerful instrumental solo. I will often write here of "the" live recording, as opposed to the studio recording, for a particular song. In the case of the songs discussed, I am only aware of one standard live recording per song, though I have seen other songs for which more than one authorized live recording is currently available. Most of the songs mentioned here are long enough to be released as separate CD's, or are combined with one or two other songs at most.
While many of her songs are sad, something which is obvious even without a glance at translations of the lyrics, one of the main goals of her performances was to bring her audience into a state of tarab, a state of musical ecstasy. Habib Hassan Touma explains: "The intensity of tarab depends primarily on the voice and performance style of the singer, as exemplified by Umm Kulthum. Her performances often only approximately followed the fixed rhythmic-temporal organization of the melody. She would strip some melodic passages of their strict rhythmic form in order to repeat, vary, and paraphrase individual sections in an improvisatory way or transform the musical material more dramatically within the framework of traditional modal principles. Her presentation thus hovered between that which she performed and that which she created herself. The musical contrast between the familiar and fixed on the one side and the new, freely structured though related on the other creates, in general, a tension whose up and down evokes tarab in the listener. The emphasis of this contrast represents the most striking stylistic element of Umm Kulthum's artistry." (Music of the Arabs, p.149)
The earliest work, from 1924 to some point in the 1930's, while worthy of attention, is not the work for which she is best known, and probably not the best entree into her career. Mohammed el-Qasabji, who also wrote for the singer Asmahan (Oum Kalthoum's most serious artistic competition until her untimely death in the 1940's under mysterious circumstances) is said to be the most important composer from this period. These early years have been documented in an eight-volume series put out by Club du Disque Arabe, in France. Curiously, Elvis Costello lists this set in his "500 albums essential to a happy life" ("Costello's 500," Vanity Fair, November 2000), but fails to mention any of her other recordings, the ones primarily responsible for her reputation. Does this mean his taste in Arabic music is particularly refined, since the work form this period is considered particularly difficult, or does it mean that he is not terribly familiar with Oum Kalthoum's opus? At any rate, for the curious, a more condensed, digitally remastered collection from the early years is now available from EMI Music Arabia.
Riad el-Sounbatti began writing for Oum Kalthoum in the 1930's. He wrote more of her songs than any other composer, and was able to reliably provide her with quality material from the time he began writing for her through the end of her career. In his "Salo Koos" (1938), Kalthoum's voice immediately takes off, reaching a sort of intensity that often does not come quite so early in her songs. Her voice is full-bodied and three-dimensional: drill-like, but in a way which is somehow pleasing. The song concludes with an introspective passage during which the percussion takes more of a back-seat than earlier in the song, while the remaining instruments draw the listener more deeply into the world the singer is creating. There are classic examples here of Kalthoum's characteristic (though not overused) sustaining of the phoneme "m," only to complete the phrase she is singing with particular force.
The 1940's was one of the strongest periods in Oum Kalthoum's career. Much of her work at this time was written by Zakariya Ahmed who composed for a traditional small ensemble, or takht. His compositions tend to be relatively simple, allowing ample space for improvisation by both Oum Kalthoum and her instrumentalists. One of the most breathtaking recordings from this period is "Ana Fe Entazarak." The beginning of this live recording is not particularly attention-grabbing (aside from the haunting melody), but by the middle it builds into an intense structured improvisation between the singer and her musicians. The musicians seem to drift apart only to lock back together with a jolt, which lends the music a sort of time-bending quality. The ensemble's playing is exceptionally crisp, especially the oudist's. As for the singing (Ya salam!), it is not easily described. Oum Kalthoum must have been at the height of her vocal prowess at this point in her career. But this is no mere display of virtuosity: this is singing that can push the listener over into a state of tarab. I have sometimes put this on as background music, only to find myself compelled to stop what I am doing and sit in front of the stereo listening with rapt attention. Another great recording from this period is "Habibi Yessaied" (also by Zakariya Ahmed). The sound is intimate; the pace is luxuriously slow, as is typical of her songs. The song is repetitive, but the variations conjured up by the singer are enthralling, and her voice is exquisite. The very catchy song "Ghanni li Shwayya Shwayya" was written by Ahmed for the film Sallama, in which the singer starred as the main character. There is a brief, but amusing, clip from that film in the Oum Kalthoum documentary A Voice Like Egypt, which features people romping across the country-side while that song is sung (other songs by Ahmed include: "Al Ahat," "Al Amal," and "Holm.").
El-Sounbatti was also writing for Kalthoum in the 1940's. "Ya Toul Azabi" (1946) slows down, grows introspective, then builds up momentum, periodically punctuated by the cries of an appreciative audience. This is another fine example of Kalthoum's ability to deliver the same line repeatedly, with artful variations. Noteworthy here is a certain breathiness in the delivery of some lines, something I had not heard elsewhere in her recordings when I first listened to this one. The recording quality is poor, giving the recording a dated sound; yet it is possible to pick out a surprising amount of detail in the ensemble work. "Ha Ablou Bokra" (1947), an unusually short and fast-paced song, nevertheless, demonstrates Kalthoum's abilities, her voice diving and soaring like a bird flying. (These two songs are packaged together with el-Sounbatti's "Faker Lamma Kont Ganbi" from 1939, an excellent song in its own right.) From around the same time "Oulida Elhouda" and "Nahj Elborda" are good songs, though they are not among her most accessible works. They were considered difficult songs at the time they were released, but nevertheless achieved popular success.
"Robaiyat el Khayam" (1949/1950), a somewhat bowdlerized Arabic translation of the Persian poem, with music composed by Riad el Sounbatti, is a good introduction to Kalthoum's music. It's structured in a way that is more easily discernible to non-Arab ears than many other songs by el-Sounbatti, but the inventiveness of Kalthoum's singing is still very much in the foreground. The instrumental beginning is immediately appealing, with a striking upward rising passage on the always otherworldly sounding kanun. I found something oddly familiar about it, which I still can't put my finger on.) This performance is strong from start to finish.
There is something particularly raw and wounded in much of the singing in el-Sounbatti's "Ya Zalamny" (1951), yet at times the vocals stretch out in a way that is even more reminiscent of Qur'anic recitation (an amazing form of vocal art in its own right, and one of the foundations of Kalthoum's technique) than her singing typically is. Though I'm not sure what this song is about, but it has nevertheless gotten me through some hard times.
In the 1960's, Riad el-Sounbatti was still writing songs such as "A'qllak Eih" (1961), which is full of Kalthoum's virtuosic, inventive, variations on the same line or phrase. The second half, at first, sounds as though it is a new song. It contains passages of exquisite vulnerability, her voice plaintive while violin, kanun, and ney drift around it as sea-gulls do above the ocean. "El Hob Kedah," also from 1961, is another strong contribution from el-Sounbatti. "Al Atlal" (1966) is a particularly famous work from this period. The text is a love poem, but the words were commonly given other interpretations. Virginia Danielson writes: "Several of the climactic lines took on political meaning: 'Give me my freedom, set free my hands! I have given freely, I have held back nothing. Ah, how your chains have made my wrist bleed. . . .' In 1966, these lines were perceived by some as addressed to the repressive measures of 'Abd al-Nasir's government. After the Egyptian defeat of 1967, they took on a wider meaning, suggestive of the bondage in which many Egyptians felt the entire Arab world to be held." (Voice of Egypt, p. 180) The title itself translates as "The Ruins" or "The Traces." The piece draws heavily on Western classical music, but long stretches of it rock or swing with Arabic rhythms. Instrumentation includes a violin section, a prominently featured upright bass, and kanun. Though late in her career, Kalthoum's singing is quite powerful throughout this work, which is extremely dramatic even by her standards. Kalthoum's vocal delivery is relatively straight, with few obvious improvisatory digressions.
"Inta Omry" (1964) was the first piece Mohammed Abdel Wahab composed for Oum Kalthoum, and is also the first she sang in which an electric guitar was used. That's not a coincidence: Abdel Wahab is sometimes referred to as a "modernist" in the sense that he embraced new instruments and foreign, particularly European classical, influences. This is one of the only times when I would recommend listening to the studio version rather than the live recording. A great deal of attention was given to the studio production of this song: "Sayyid al-Masri [who was directly involved] estimated that the editing of 'Inta Umri' occupied two hundred hours." (Shaping Tradition, p. 263)
While Abdel Wahab restrained himself in "Inta Omry," some of his later pieces for Oum Kalthoum indulge in whimsical juxtapositions of disparate styles. He has a perverse penchant for including waltz passages out of the blue. "We Marat El Marat" (1970) which contains some remarkable, more or less purely Arabic instrumental passages, bogs down in a waltz section for no apparent musical reason. Yet some of Abdel Wahab's late works for Kalthoum should have appeal to listeners who are in the mood for wild contrasts. Some of his material for her from the late '60's and early '70's, "Laylat Hob" for example, is colored by a vaguely camp/psychedelic quality which might be interesting to fans of Nino Rota's sound-tracks (the same is true, with even more extreme examples, in other recordings of that era, and later in the '70's, by singers such as Abdel Halim Hafez and Warda). Incidentally, el-Sounbatti himself got into the act, composing a piece, "Mein Agle Ainak" (1972), which features electric organ, though his compositional approach does not mimic Abdel Wahab's or that of younger composers such as Baligh Hamdi. While the electric organ coloring, or strange juxtapositions, are sometimes amusing, possibly unintentionally at times, the musicianship nevertheless remains first-rate, and even Abdel Wahab's wildest concoctions typically contain passages of great beauty or intensity. The upbeat "Hazihi Leylati" (1968) is actually quite charming, with segments that skip along with an irrepressible, if sometimes goofy, joy. It is among Abdel Wahab's more successful compositions for the singer.
Baligh Hamdi, a young composer at the time, also began composing for Oum Kalthoum in the 1960's. The live recording of Baligh Hamdi's "Baid Anak" (1965) strikingly demonstrates Kalthoum's uncanny hold over her audience. An enthusiastic audience member shouts out very loudly shortly after Kalthoum begins to sing. Kalthoum simply weaves her singing around his cry, shadowed by her kanunist's improvised runs, and asserts full control over the audience. (I am reminded of the first time I saw a video of Oum Kalthoum performing. Her relationship with her audience was utterly magical, a small gesture with her hands sending them into a frenzy.) This is quite a lengthy recording, and to some extent the energy slackens about two thirds of the way through, but the earlier portion is essential listening. "Alf Lyla wa Lyla" (1969) is a satisfying example of the growing emphasis on solely instrumental sections in popular songs at the time. The more established small orchestra is augmented by a saxophone, the slightest hint of an electric guitar (playing some odd sort of bent notes), and accordion played with the typical brilliance that Arab musicians bring to that instrument. The piece is for the most part rhythmically upbeat, but there are some quieter moments as well. While this recording doesn't consistently shows Oum Kalthoum's singing at its best--not surprising considering her age at the time--there are moments here when she really shines. But in "El Hob Kolloh" (1971), the singer frankly sounds tired and out of place next to the particularly strange coloring of the electric organ, as though she were forced to share the stage with some sort of alien intelligence. Regardless of what the song is actually about, I hear it as being "about" the end of her career, and ultimately her own mortality.
Whatever the continuing popularity in the Arab world of her late songs, particularly those by Abdel Wahab, these are not the recordings which best justify a claim for her greatness as a singer, at least to my ears. Some Arab critics would concur. On the other hand, just as some of us like, or even prefer, Billie Holiday's late recordings for a certain hard to describe expressiveness, despite the singer's reduced vocal capabilities, perhaps some Arab listeners find that Kalthoum's reduced vocal range and flexibility, as she aged, is compensated for by a deepening soulfulness. Of course, whereas Billie Holiday's singing was never about technical virtuosity, even early in her career, in Kalthoum's case virtuosity and perfection was part of her power. Still, Kalthoum was just as well known for doing something that is reminiscent of what jazz vocalists are often praised for: she sang in a way that brought out the meaning and emotional tone of the song, even if she used an vastly different set of techniques from those used by jazz vocalists. Without understanding the language, it is impossible to judge the relationship between the delivery and the meaning of the text; I can only say that I find recordings from the middle of her career more enchanting than most of the very late ones.
All quibbling aside, Oum Kalthoum's recorded legacy is without a doubt among the greatest of the 20th Century. Those of us for whom it is an acquired taste sometimes find ourselves quite addicted in the end.
Danielson, Virginia Louise. "Shaping Tradition in Arabic Song: The Career and Repertory of Umm Kulthum." Ph.D. diss, University of Illinois, 1991.
Danielson, Virginia. The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Much of the factual information in this article is drawn from this work, along with the dissertation, listed above, on which it was based. Any mistakes are almost certainly mine. By all means, I recommend that interested readers consult Danielson's work, which is concerned not just with technical musical matters, but also with the larger social context of Oum Kalthoum's achievement.
Touma, Habib Hassan. The Music of the Arabs. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1996.
Special thanks to Gazi for continuing to send me home with Oum Kalthoum tapes, offering spontaneous translations of her lyrics, catching me up on the gossip of a past era of Arabic music, and sharing his enthusiasm for this music with me, when I was more interested in listening to Amro Diab and Mustapha Amar. (Hey, did you hear the one about the Amro Diab hair-cut?)
Radio Casablanca at www.maroc.net/rc contains an enormous sampling of Oum Kalthoum songs in Real Audio, along with songs by many other singer from the Arabic world. Select Sound Bank, then Sharki, in order to make your way to an option to listen to Oum Kalthoum recordings.
Aramausic at www.aramusic.com is a reliable online distributor of Arabic music.
Oum Kalthoum site: http://www.sis.gov.eg/umm/html/umm2.htm
Qur'anic recitation: http://islaam.com/audio/quran/
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