3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
The singer not the songNOSTALGIC REPLAY:
"Let me sing sweet tunes,
Making listeners sway in rapture,
Sending the daffodil and the jasmine into a swing,
Enticing the caravans to echo me as they trek through the desert."
These lyrics came from the lips of Umm Kulthoum in one of the six movies she made during a 50-year singing career that entranced Egypt and the entire Arab world. They are a fitting description, if not an understatement, of the impact she had on her listeners.
By Maurice Guindi
The prodigy, who rose from a peasant child chanting religious hymns in Nile Delta villages to become the queen of Arab song and rub shoulders with heads of state, first ladies and princes, died 25 years ago today. She came back to us in all her glory as we watched a recent 37-episode television series chronicling her life in the context of the artistic, political and social conditions prevailing in the better part of the 20th century.
Walking on the streets today, you may well see a verse from one of her songs painted on the trunk of a taxi, or hear her unmistakable voice coming from a coffee shop radio, or find a boy chanting a line from one of the poems she sang.
"She is a memory that renews itself endlessly," wrote Ni'maat Ahmed Fouad, Umm Kulthoum's foremost biographer, whose book was the main source for the TV series. "She is a fragrant memory that never loses its perfume." Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Egypt's top composer, who also sang in his early years, said Umm Kulthoum's voice had a royal ring that inspired "awe and respect". When she sings, he said, "you feel you are in the presence of an emperor... Her voice combined power, emotion and sensitivity." Music experts said Umm Kulthoum's voice could sweep through two octaves, up and down the musical scale with perfect ease, clarity and articulation.
Laying aside expert assessments and speaking as a fan, I can say that Umm Kulthoum gave me 25 years of bliss. From 1947 to 1972, when she ended her public performances, I regularly attended her monthly concerts organised by Radio Cairo. I did not miss even the private concerts she sometimes gave in provincial centres. This devotion had its roots in my childhood. As a primary school pupil in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, I used to sit in bed listening, on the night of the first Thursday of every month, as Radio Cairo broadcast her concerts. My mother and father used to entertain friends to dinner before clustering round the radio set for the ritual, which bordered on the religious. I was not allowed to join because I was a child.
As a Cairo University undergraduate in 1947, I came into my own and made it to the concerts in person. My first -- my initiation into a magic world -- was at the American University's Ewart Memorial Hall. After the concert ended in the small hours of the morning, I walked home -- a distance of some five kilometres -- almost in a trance as I 'chewed the cud'. I did not take a taxi because I wanted to absorb privately and peacefully what I had sampled on that memorable night.
From then on, I was a fixture at Umm Kulthoum's concerts. My Radio Cairo friends helped me secure tickets for the same seat wherever she sang -- at the Ezbekiya Theatre until the mid-'60s and at the Qasr Al-Nil cinema afterwards. Throughout those 25 years, I paid LE2 for my seat in the front stalls. Upon Umm Kulthoum's insistence, ticket prices were never increased. Some of her masterpieces were presented during that period, including 10 compositions by Abdel-Wahab in the last eight years of her career.
Umm Kulthoum's repertoire included more than 300 songs with themes ranging from love to nationalism to religion. The majority were in colloquial Arabic; some were in classical Arabic, written by famous poets. Umm Kulthoum was extremely selective in the choice of verses and frequently had the authors change words if their resonance for her was not perfect.
It was after she presented Enta Omri (You Are My Life), Abdel-Wahab's first work for her in 1964, that I interviewed the two giants at Umm Kulthoum's villa in Zamalek. That song was dubbed "the summit encounter" and had come about at the urging of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The president's eagerness to see the two artists join in a single work was vindicated by the resounding success of Enta Omri. For more than four decades of her career, Umm Kulthoum shied away from Abdel-Wahab's music. She belonged to the Oriental school and did not savour the ever-increasing Western touches and instrumentation in his music. When he eventually composed for her, his Western inclinations were kept within limits and the results were a breath-taking blend of essentially Oriental music with an occasional subtle Western tinge. The two artists complemented each other beautifully.
My two-hour interview with Umm Kulthoum and Abdel-Wahab was conducted for the international wire service I worked for at the time. The "summit encounter" had evoked much interest in many parts of the world. Dressed in a sober suit with hardly any make-up, Umm Kulthoum spoke softly -- a far cry from the stage appearances I was used to -- and chose her words carefully. I was struck by her modesty. Despite the heights of glory and self-assurance she had reached, she told me she continued to suffer from stage fright when the curtain rose and she faced her audience. Her perennial handkerchief -- initially a small white one and later a large one, close in size to a scarf, matching her dress -- was not an appendage of vanity but a simple practicality. She said she needed to dry her hands because they became clammy due to her awe of the audience.
The staggering end came in early 1972, when she gave her last concert. She started off with Abdel-Wahab's Leilet Hobb (A Night of Love), giving a sparkling two-hour rendition with numerous variations of her own that left the audience dazed. Her second song, a religious one about the holy sites, required a high pitch at many points. At one of those points, and without advance warning, her voice cracked, sounding a discordant note. She froze and the orchestra stopped playing. There was dead silence in the hall for a few seconds followed by frenzied applause from the 1,800-strong audience. The outburst seemed to reflect a mix of love, encouragement, compassion and maybe pity. I was dumbfounded, telling myself that the slip was just the result of exhaustion after the strenuous effort made in the first song and that the lady would bounce back.
But this was not to be. Umm Kulthoum retired after that concert. Like most great performers, she knew when to stop. She died on 3 February 1975, after a protracted illness during which the nation held its breath and newspapers ran headlines and editorials imploring the public to pray for her. As the bureau chief of a wire service, I was responsible for the coverage of the funeral. But I stayed away from the scene, sending an assistant to cover it. I just could not bear to be there.
I relived that beautiful period of my life as I watched the 37 episodes of the TV series with a multitude of feelings -- love, respect, admiration, nostalgia, yearning and thankfulness for having lived that long with Umm Kulthoum. I consider the TV series an outstanding success: not only did it give an honest and minute portrayal of that unique songbird and her achievements; it also projected her integrity and commitment to her art, her friends and to the nation.
Analysts say that the series, in addition to its intrinsic value, has served to nudge young Egyptians, who were not born or were just children when Umm Kulthoum died, into full awareness of her art and her sterling character.
The unbounded popularity of Umm Kulthoum, the deftness of the scriptwriter, Mahfouz Abdel-Rahman, the meticulousness of the director, In'am Mohamed Ali, and the magnificent acting by the heroine, Sabrine, and the rest of the cast all contributed to a consummate production that made headlines and drew accolades everywhere.