Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

The heritage of sound

The record and radio industry not only made Umm Kulthoum's fame, but ensured that her heritage lives on. Fatemah Farag listens in

Signing albums for a fan

Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthoum

For the recording industry, Umm Kulthoum was never just about good taste or preserving heritage; her music meant phenomenal profits as well. At Sono Cairo, which now owns exclusive rights to her recordings, between 40 and 50 per cent of total sales are constituted by Umm Kulthoum recordings. According to general sales manager Mohsen Zaki, the proportion is astounding, considering that Sono Cairo's latest annual sales figure was LE54 million.

Although documentation of her pre-1926 recordings is vague, by 1926, Umm Kulthoum had a contract with the Odeon record company, securing LE50 per recording. The figure was considered high; Salama Hegazi, one of the most popular singers of the time, received a mere LE20. In her book The Voice of Egypt, Virginia Danielson attributes the high rates to Umm Kulthoum's early career singing in rural areas -- and acquiring an audience most artists at the time did not have. Danielson quotes Odeon director Albert Levi as having said that over 15,000 Umm Kulthoum records were sold in three months.

Drawn by a contract offering LE80 per record -- increasing to LE100 in 1927 -- and an annual retainer of LE2,000, Umm Kulthoum moved to Gramophone Records, directed by Mansour Awad. She returned to Odeon in 1930, but by then radio was cutting into the record market. In 1934, Medhat Assem, whose music programming built Egyptian Radio, successfully recruited Umm Kulthoum at LE25 and in 1937, she contracted to have her concerts broadcast live.

Sometime in the 1940s, however, Umm Kulthoum decided to give exclusive rights to Misrphone, a company owned by the late singer Mohamed Fawzi. Nationalised in the late '50s, Misrphone would become Sono Cairo.

"Umm Kulthoum chose Misrphone not only because it was a big company, but because of the high quality of its recording facilities," says Magda Abdel-Salam, senior sound specialist at Sono Cairo, referring to the company's original recording studio in Ataba. Fawzi brought in British specialists who designed the studio to the highest specifications. "The ceilings were exactly the right height to give perfect sound quality," explains Abdel-Salam. "This was especially important because of the orchestras, which had many string instruments. Until the building was demolished [recently], artists would use the Ataba studio for the string sections of their recordings and do the rest anywhere else."

When Misrphone was nationalised, Sono Cairo inherited the Umm Kulthoum contract. "We also renegotiated another contract with her later; we were concerned with collecting her works recorded before Misrphone," says Ali Ghoneim, head of public relations at Sono Cairo. "Fawzi had started this and we continued -- the sources of Umm Kulthoum recordings are now Sono Cairo and Egyptian radio."

According to company officials, Umm Kulthoum's entire body of work has been transferred from record form to master tapes and is currently available. "There are recordings of private parties that we do not have, of course," says Zaki, "But everything else, including the very old songs, like Raq Al-Habib, are available. However, the amounts reproduced for commercial distribution are based on market demand."

Keeping up with the times, Umm Kulthoum CDs have been manufactured in Egypt for a few years now (and abroad for longer). The CDs are produced under licence from Sono Cairo by the private-sector company Optimum Media Egypt.

"Umm Kulthoum represents about 10 per cent of our total output," says Khaled Shehab, executive manager of Optimum Media, "which is approximately six million CDs per year." He explains: "Not many people in Egypt have CD players at home. Many use their computer CD players at the office -- and Umm Kulthoum is not an obvious choice for office music. Also, we are targeting a specific class which may be interested in other music."

Optimum Media has reproduced 48 CDs using the same master copy (DAT) used by Sono Cairo for tape reproduction. "We are the private sector and we are not concerned with preserving heritage and things like that. We are concerned with profit, and it is not cost-effective to produce less than 1,000 CDs at a time. I have to be sure I can sell them if I am going to undertake the cost. That is why we are not interested in replicating older songs," says Shehab.

The market may provide unexpected incentives, however. At a downtown outlet of Sono Cairo, vendors told Al-Ahram Weekly that not only was Umm Kulthoum their best-selling item, but since the TV series, they have barely been keeping up with demand. "The best sales before the series were Sirat Al-Hobb, followed by Al-Atlal and Enta Omri. However, we have noticed that people now want the older songs, like Shams Al-Asil and Raq Al-Habib. They have been reminded of the wealth of Umm Kulthoum's heritage." Back at headquarters, Mohsen Zaki concurs: "Our factory has been working three shifts to keep up with new demand."

What about the quality of the recordings? CD producers insist that Sono Cairo masters are 99 per cent error-free. "The recordings are excellent. What a listener perceives as different when comparing Umm Kulthoum to Amr Diab on CD, for example, is not a difference in the purity of the sound, but a difference in the quality and technology of the instruments."

For their part, Sono Cairo officials are proud of the efforts made to preserve Umm Kulthoum's heritage. "It was a conscious decision on our part not to change the sound," explains Abdel-Salam. "When making the masters from the records, there was a slight hissing sound made by the needle of the gramophone. Also, sometimes recordings from radio reels would have a similar sound. We decided to keep the hissing. It is part of the heritage."

Abdel-Salam is clear about the purity of that heritage. "Maybe people do not realise the rich quality of the old recordings. We would lose that quality if we tampered too much with the original," she says. When a German company proposed to keep Umm Kulthoum's voice and re-record the music to get better sound quality, "we listened to the experiment and refused," says Abdel-Salam. "Anyone can play around with sound now. I can sit and make a recording of your voice and then with a computer make you sound just like Umm Kulthoum. Then what would make her special? We want to preserve Umm Kulthoum as she was, not recreate her," she concludes adamantly.

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