Gilded Serpent presents...
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
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
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.
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
- 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
- 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.
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