Umm Kulthoum, the fourth pyramid
A new exhibition on the life of Umm Kulthoum is bringing the Egyptian singer's work to new audiences, writes David Tresilian in Paris
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Clockwise from left: Egypt's Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni and Dominique Baudis (L), President of the Institut du monde arabe posing next to a portrait of Umm Kulthoum by Egyptian painter Adel El-Siwi at the opening of the Paris exhibition last Monday; Umm Kulthoum at the Pyramids plateau, photo by Antoune Albert; Star of the East, Umm Kalthoum, portrait by Egyptian artist Chant Avedissian; Umm Kalthoum in 1945 (Georges Mikaelian collection)
INSTALLED IN A TEMPORARY BUILDING usually set aside as a performance space or to host visiting trade shows, the Institut du monde arabe's current exhibition on the life of Umm Kulthoum is an opportunity for those already familiar with the Egyptian singer's career to renew their acquaintance with the work of a performer who became something of a legend even in her own lifetime.
However, the Paris exhibition, entitled "Oum Kalsoum" in the French fashion, is also a fine opportunity for those not so familiar to learn something about the life of a woman whose career, running from the 1920s through to the 1970s, took her from occasional private performances in the houses of pashas to public spectacles in which she came close to incarnating the Egyptian and possibly also the Arab nation.
Judging by the audiences that turned out last week for the opening days of the new exhibition, interest in Umm Kulthoum seems as great as ever, with nostalgia having given her work an added charm. In addition to elderly couples poring over the photographs and documents on display, a way, perhaps, of rekindling memories of days gone by, there were also many younger Arab and Franco-Arab families, introducing their children to the work of a singer who reveled in the title of "the Star of the East" or "the Lady of Arab Song".
Umm Kulthoum's later public performances, some extracts of which are shown at the exhibition, famously lasted six hours or more, with some of her best-known numbers, such as Inta Omri or Al-Atlal, taking several hours to perform. All this is rather a long way from contemporary Arab song, and Umm Kulthoum's favoured performing style -- standing almost motionless surrounded by her sober-suited and entirely male orchestra, trademark handkerchief in the hand -- is also distant from contemporary tastes.
Yet, a lot of young people were nevertheless in evidence at the Paris exhibition during its opening days, not all of them accompanying their parents. Umm Kulthoum herself was famously attentive to her public image, having honed her stalwart, four-square look as early as the 1920s when singing was seen as a rather disreputable occupation for women. She was always quick to make use of the possibilities offered by the technologies of her time, from 78 records in the 1920s to film in the 1930s and 40s and then the vast international audiences offered by radio.
Entering the final sections of the present exhibition, visitors are introduced to an Umm Kulthoum for the digital age, with contemporary artists reinterpreting and multiplying her image in media as distinct from traditional painting as cartoon strips, art installations and fashion items. Umm Kulthoum DVDs and CDs are on sale, and there are also Umm Kulthoum ring-tones for portable phones, an indication, perhaps, of Umm Kulthoum's continuing popularity with new audiences and her impressive international afterlife.
Organised chronologically and punctuated by audiovisual material drawn from Umm Kulthoum's films and public performances, the exhibition starts with a timeline presenting the landmarks of her career.
Photographs, manuscript materials and other documents, many of them lent by the Umm Kulthoum Museum at the Manesterly Palace in Cairo, are used to tell the story of Fatima Ibrahim al-Sayed al-Beltagui, who later adopted the professional name "Umm Kulthoum", from her childhood in the Egyptian Delta village of Tamay al-Zahayra to the extraordinary successes of her later career.
Umm Kulthoum's father performed traditional religious songs in order to supplement his income, and these singing skills he passed on to his daughter, who began to entertain guests at wedding parties and other local festivals. Once Umm Kulthoum's name had become known throughout her home province of Daqahliyya, the time had come for her to go to Cairo.
Umm Kulthoum's conservative background and the sometimes louche reputation of the theatres and music halls in Cairo's Ezbekiyya district at the time meant that she traveled to the capital chaperoned by her father and disguised as a boy. Once there, her repertoire remained conservative, as did her style of dress and performance. Her big break came when the poet Ahmed Rami noticed the still very young singer and invited her to collaborate with him on new repertoire.
Soon, she was working with the leading composers and songwriters of the time, and in addition to her public concerts she was invited to sing at private events held in the houses of the leading families. By 1923, Umm Kulthoum has abandoned her country clothes for the kind of glamorous reinterpretations of the Egyptian gallabiyya she later made her own, and the characteristic Umm Kulthoum look and public persona had begun to take shape.
It was at this time, too, that Umm Kulthoum's well-honed commercial sense began to show itself, the singer being one of the first Egyptian entertainers to see the possibilities offered by the gramophone. Her first recordings appeared in 1923 in the early days of the Egyptian recording industry, and by 1926 she was earning 200 Egyptian pounds a month from her performances and 80 for a recording, very large sums by the standards of the time.
Over the decades that followed, Cairo was often swept by rumours about the scale of Umm Kulthoum's wealth, as well as about the allegedly miserly amounts she paid her musicians. There was a succession of court cases, with a stream of composers and musicians suing her for what they said were unpaid fees and royalties.
Umm Kulthoum also showed herself to be an artistic innovator in these early years, and one who had a keen sense of her position in the song market and the threats represented by her competitors. Sensing, perhaps, that she could not compete on conventional glamour with some other female singers, she adopted her trademark look of severe coiffure, high necklines, long sleeves and diamonds, later refining this by the addition of the handkerchief -- speculation flourished about its meaning -- and then, after the Second World War, of the turban-like chignon and glasses.
She also developed the traditional five-man takht orchestra that had accompanied singers up until this time, adding violins, cellos and other instruments to make up the kind of large ensembles familiar from later performances of Arabic music and from Umm Kulthoum's own performances. She worked with composers such as Mohamed al-Qasabji and then Riyad al-Sonbati, and she sang material written for her by no lesser figure than "prince of poets" Ahmed Shawqi in classical form and idiom, as well as songs written by others in the Egyptian dialect.
By the 1930s, Umm Kalthoum was prepared to take on the challenge of film. Her four-square film presence was an extension of her public performing style, and though she made six films between 1936 and 1947, all but one of them directed by Ahmed Badrakhan, she never pretended she could act, any more than Badrakhan pretended that his films were anything other than vehicles for her talents.
These were films that drew their inspiration from the popular musical comedies of the time, Umm Kulthoum typically playing a country girl and ingénue, as she did in Nashid al-Amal (1937), a film set in contemporary Cairo, or a singing servant girl, as in her films set during different periods from Arab history, such as Widad and Dananir. Fatma (1947), set in contemporary Egypt, features Umm Kalthoum as a virtuous nurse who is poorly treated by a wealthy pasha. In Ayidah (1942), she plays a poor country girl bent on singing in a Cairo Opera House production of Verdi's Aida.
PERHAPS INEVITABLY the present exhibition passes over much of this material rather quickly, indicating Umm Kulthoum's relationship with the recording industry through a display of His Master's Voice records from the 1920s and her film career through projections of extracts from her films. There is an installation representing a Cairo sitting room, complete with a radio around which families and friends might be imagined gathering to listen to her famous Thursday night concerts.
Having passed through these sections, the visitor enters the part of the exhibition dedicated to what is perhaps the best-known period of Umm Kulthoum's long career: her involvement with the Nasser regime of the 1950s and 1960s and the politics of Egyptian and Arab nationalism.
While Umm Kulthoum began making international tours comparatively early in her career from the 1930s onwards, when she was already singing in Damascus, Baghdad and Tripoli, it was only in the 1950s and 60s that these tours took on political connotations thanks to her association with Arab nationalism and what seems to have been her personal friendship with Nasser. Following Egypt's1952 revolution, Umm Kulthoum put her royalist past behind her -- she had sung at various royal events at the king's command -- and her songs took on more pronounced nationalist overtones.
In 1954 she sang to celebrate the failure of an assassination attempt on Nasser, and in 1956 she celebrated the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and subsequent defeat of the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt by Israel, Britain and France. She was on hand to celebrate the building of the Aswan High Dam, and she sang in support of Egyptian troops in the build-up to the 1967 War. Following the Arab defeat, she led a campaign to rebuild a shattered country, going on an international tour to help raise money that took her outside the Arab world for the first and only time in her career when she gave two concerts in Paris in November 1967.
These years also saw her collaboration with Egypt's leading male singer and song composer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, whom she had known, but had apparently been wary of, since the 1920s. Brought together by Nasser, the pair enjoyed great success with the song Inta Omri (You are my Life), the music of which is by Abdel-Wahab. This song, together with al-Sonbati's setting of Ibrahim Nagi's poem Al-Atlal (Ruins), became a trademark piece of Umm Kulthoum's later years, and the Paris exhibition makes the most of Umm Kulthoum's sometimes controversial involvement both with Abdel-Wahab and with Nasser.
As befits Umm Kulthoum's diva status, all sorts of stories made the rounds of the Arab world during her long career. There were stories of her meanness, as well as of her great generosity, and of her professional jealousies, as well as of her support for younger singers. It was even said that she was involved in the death of her rival Asmahan, the sister of the singer Farid al-Atrache, in a car accident.
She was known for her wit and for her barbed tongue, as well as for the punishing schedules she set for herself and for those who worked for her. Apparently she did not suffer fools gladly. Rehearsals of new material could take weeks or months, and she supervised every aspect of her performances and recordings. There were stories of her romantic involvements, dampened down by her marriage to a Cairo doctor in 1954.
While the Paris exhibition does not go very far in explaining the sources of Umm Kulthoum's appeal, or even her music and the structure of her career, it does present primary documents rarely seen outside Egypt and some enchanting extracts from her films. There is also a very good range of photographs.
The exhibition has no catalogue, but curators at the Institut du monde arabe have produced accompanying material that includes a piece by Frédéric Lagrange of the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne, a specialist on Egyptian music. Lagrange offers a "six-step" approach to Umm Kulthoum, aimed at those having little or no previous knowledge to those who have attained "addict" status.
For beginners, Lagrange recommends Fakkarouni ("They have spoken to me about you again; they have reminded me of you," 1966), described as "the most successful of Abdel-Wahab's compositions for Umm Kulthoum," as well as compositions by Baligh Hamdi, including El-hubb kullu (All the Love, 1971) -- "the musical introduction is brilliant and the song will haunt the listener."
For confirmed listeners, he recommends the al-Sonbati repertoire of the 1940s and the soundtracks of the same period's films. For those wanting an overview of Umm Kulthoum's singing career, Lagrange writes, there is the five-volume "Diva" collection of recordings put out by EMI.
Oum Kalsoum, la quatrième pyramide, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, 17 June to 2 November 2008.