Greetings from Cairo part XXIII
Published in Ishtar 3/2013

The One and Only

Translated from Finnish by Anu Toivonen

For the Egyptians - as well as other Arabs - there is only one Lady, whom you will meet everywhere in the most unexpected places in the mornings, evenings and the dark hours of the night. Beloved by all, she gathers the nation together irrespective of class, and her magic has charmed people for decades showing no signs of diminishing.

The very first Umm Kalsoum was the third daughter of the Prophet Mohammed and his first wife Khadija. The name means "the round-faced one" - literally "the mother of the round-faced one". Both of these renowned Umm Kalsoums married twice and, contrary to their names never had any children. However, the rounded face of the artist redeemed the suggestion of her name.

Country Girl Conquers the World

Umm Kalsoum (nee Fatima Ibrahim El-Saied El-Beltagi) was born in a country village in the Nile Delta over a hundred years ago, most likely in 1904. Her father, the local Imam, taught her Quran recitation and later took her with him to perform dressed as a boy. Her talent was discovered early, but despite several requests to move to Cairo, she only did so in 1923. During the following decades this girl from a poor background became unimaginably popular, and she was admired, for example, by Gamal Abdel Nasser who later became the president of Egypt.

Just Among Friends

Throughout the Arab world, especially among musicians and music lovers, Umm Kalsoum is known as El-Sitt, the Lady. In restaurants and nightclubs the musicians are frequently asked to "play something from the Lady". Everyone knows who this refers to and soon you'll be able to hear the first notes of a famous Umm Kalsoum song.

A dancer's repertoire must include at least a couple of Umm Kalsoum songs, otherwise it will be very easy to question her professionalism and musical expertise. Furthermore, these songs are in a class of their own as regards the interpretation - it is easy for any dancer to groove with pop music whereas an Umm Kalsoum song will really show a dancer's quality.

The Language of Love

Even though Umm Kalsoum sung of love, performed with a male orchestra, negotiated her own contracts and travelled for performances to several countries, she nonetheless retained an image of purity and respect in the eyes of the people. Her costumes were covering with long sleeves and hems and with relatively modest decorations.

For the Egyptians, Umm Kalsoum's songs bring to mind their youth and love. While listening to El Hob Kullu (All the Love), one person may remember the time he was courting his wife, while another may find similar memories when listening to Siret El Hob (Love Story) and a third may embrace his memories of being wakeful and thinking of his loved one with the notes of Ya Msaharni (You Keep Me Awake All Night).

One Cairene man returns to his student years with Daret El Ayam (The Days Past) which reminds him of an attraction to his first love. He sinks into the music and his memories although a long time has passed since those days. He suspects that his wife does not wholeheartedly approve of his listening to this song, as she is not quite as enthusiastic about it - after all, she was not the first love in question. This man thinks that Umm Kalsoum's songs remind everyone of their first love, and judging from other people's opinions this is true. Anyone who has felt true love becomes emotional and can identify with the lyrics. Furthermore, this man thinks that while the young people do not listen to Umm Kalsoum's songs now, later when they grow older and fall in love they too will understand and experience the power of these lyrics.

Virtuoso Improvisation

The songs composed for Umm Kalsoum and several of her colleagues were long, lasting up to an hour. When singing, Umm Kalsoum used to improvise and she would repeat a single verse again and again, slightly changing it every time so that the feeling of each repetition of lyrics was different. She was famous for not repeating any verse identically twice.

Sometimes she used to simplify the verse into an unadorned melody an basic rhythm and this provided her with an opportunity to change and arrange the whole section anew. She not only performed the songs - she created new things while improvising thus stretching an original hour-long song up to two or three hours. At the beginning of her concert, the audience would never be able to predict when it would actually end.

One Cairene man told he always listened to Umm Kalsoum while driving his car. In his opinion the long songs make time fly: for him, listening to a couple of Umm Kalsoum songs during a two-hour-drive makes time go fast and the miles seem short while shorter songs are not as entertaining.

Thursday-Night Special

The Umm Kalsoum concerts she used to give the first Thursday of every month became a tradition. The concerts were broadcast on the radio and the streets emptied of people as all of Egypt calmed down to hear her sing. People gathered around the radios at home, at their neighbours house or at the cafés thus making it a social event as they ate, drank, met with their friends and discussed current events.

In her heydays, these concerts could last for five or six hours, the broadcast beginning at approximately 10 p.m. and lasting until three a.m. During these concerts Umm Kalsoum would usually sing three songs. At the end of the 1960s, while growing older and more infirm she usually sang two songs, the concert lasting from two and a half to three hours.

Anwar Sadat, the then president of Egypt refused to go on air with his weekly news speech at the same time when Umm Kalsoum was singing for he knew that no-one would listen to his speech then. At a later date, the national notifications as well as the speeches of Gamal Abdel Nasser were broadcast immediately after Umm Kalsoum's concerts.

For 36 years, Umm Kalsoum sang in these concerts, and the last one took place in December 1972. In her last concert, Umm Kalsoum gloriously sang Abdel Wahab's Laylat Hob (Night of Love) and following this, a religious song telling about the holy places and containing several very high notes. During one of these her voice broke, she froze and the orchestra stopped playing. After a stunned silence of a few seconds the audience started applauding thus braking the tension.

The Star Dims but Will Not Die

In 1967, Umm Kalsoum was diagnosed with nephritis, which was incurable at the time. In 1973, she moved to the USA where she received the best possible treatment. Unfortunately, soon after her return to Egypt in 1975 she was hospitalised.

While she was in hospital, people started to gather in front of her house. All over the Arab world her state of health was followed in both the papers and on the radio. She died on 3rd February 1975.

Her funeral was a massive event, the largest in the Arab world: four million mourners - people from all walks of life, both men and women - gathered to follow her coffin from the mosque to her last resting place. All of Egypt was in mourning.

Her funeral service was held in a highly esteemed mosque near the Tahrir Square but the mourners abducted her coffin from the cortege, carrying it to another mosque where a new service was held; these people thought Umm Kalsoum had preferred this more modest mosque. After this second service the coffin was delivered for the burial.

Umm Kalsoum's house in Zamalek was demolished soon after her death and today, the space is occupied by a hotel carrying her name as well as a block of flats. On Abu El-Fida Street, with her back to the location of her former home, stands a statue of Umm Kalsoum - one of the few statues ever raised for a woman in the Middle-East.

When in Cairo, you can now visit the Umm Kalsoum museum, open since 2001, and admire music clips and video recordings from her career as well as photos, awards and other exhibits. Some of her possessions are also on display, including a pair of her jewel-encrusted sunglasses, some costumes and a silk scarf - her signature item without which she never performed.

The museum and her statue are only a tiny part of the present reality, however, as her voice still reaches your ears when walking in the street, shopping in the stores and browsing the selection in the music stores where her recordings are available for everyone. If the café TV-set is not broadcasting an important football match or the best soap opera, you may catch an old Umm Kalsoum concert. After all these decades, Umm Kalsoum is still very much a part of everyday life.

Ya Lelit El Eid

As I'm writing this, we're in Ramadan, and the mind easily turns to the coming Eid El Fitr, the celebration at the end of the month of fasting. For many Egyptians Ya Lelit El Eid, an Umm Kalsoum song playing on many radio channels, is an integral part of the celebration.

For one Cairene man, the voice of Umm Kalsoum is connected to the evening before the Eid; as a lad, he used to bathe, there were new clothes waiting for the joys of the next day and there was even a new outfit for the night. While this was happening, Umm Kalsoum was singing on the radio and even now, when he is older, the music makes it easy for him to return to his childhood and the joyful atmosphere of Eid.

A Glimpse of the Future

Although Umm Kalsoum's concerts are still broadcast in the television, she is not quite as popular as she used to be a couple of decades ago, and her concerts are not attractive for the young. Life has grown faster and a black-and-white and hours-long concert is not as interesting to follow as the modern hectic music videos. It may also be boring for many young people to listen to a song lasting for an hour, with any one verse being repeated again and again - they want greater variety. However, Umm Kalsoum's songs still reach out to a large part of the population. Modern singers still record her songs, although the new versions are shorter, lasting only for a few minutes instead of an hour. Some artists even turn the melodic music into techno-versions, thus hitting the target for some of the young. A part of the young population find Umm Kalsoum's music at the threshold of adulthood when they begin to find the lyrics meaningful.

Many Egyptians find modern music to be empty of meaning and they admire Umm Kalsoum for both her incredibly magnificent voice as well as the contents of her music saying that she was a real artist compared to the modern starlets who find ample publicity by other means. Modern songs may also be perceived as superficial as they only talk of love and outward appearance whereas Umm Kalsoum and her contemporaries also sang of feelings and relationships.

Umm Kalsoum, her voice and her songs will continue to be a part of the everyday life both in fact and feeling in the Arab world for a very long time to come. Still, after nearly 30 years after her death, her star shines brightly in the musical firmament.

Further information on her life and songs is easy to find in the Internet as well as in the many books written about her.




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