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Oum Kalthoum, a star still shining bright

Latest update : 2008-06-17

Thirty years after her death, legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum continues to inspire generations of people from the Arab World. As an exhibition at the Paris Arab World Institute pays tribute to her life and career, we met some of her fans.

Aabed has never ceased succumbing to her charms. “I am crazy about Oum Kalthoum. Not only because of her musical talents, but because she symbolises a happy past,” he says. An aeronautic engineer in Toulouse for the last 25 years, Aabed Souda still thrills to the sound of the diva’s albums. Listening to the songs of “The Star of the East”, this Syrian music-lover plunges back into his most cherished memories. Oum Kalthoum has become a “vital” part of his life.


Wadee Torbey, 29, also swears by Kalthoum. When listening to her, he is “intoxicated”. Like Aabed, his days are also lulled by the melodies of “Al-Atlal,” (The ruins) and of “Inta Kalbi,” (You, my heart), two of Oum Kalthoum’s many successful albums. “She makes you love life,” says the young Syrian, a hotel professional.


Though he never saw her in his lifetime, Torbey is not the only young fan of Kalthoum. Like him, there are plenty of young fans who still remember the star who died 30 years ago, at dawn on February 3, 1975. Two days later, some four million Egyptians of all ages followed her funeral.


Today, the Institut du monde arabe (Arab World Institute) in Paris pays homage to the greatest diva of the Arab world with an exhibition running from June 17 until November 2, 2008. It is fitting, perhaps, given that the French capital is the only city outside the Arab world in which Kalthoum sang, during a 1967 performance at the Olympia music hall.


Kalthoum’s voice always reached beyond the borders of Egypt. In her lifetime, she sang in most capitals of the Arab world - and, in doing so, she nourished the musical souls of many young Arabs. “I was used to listening to Oum Kalthoum in my childhood, especially at my grandparents’ home,” remembers Aabed. “She was always a presence during our evenings, like an element you cannot do without.”


‘The Star of the East’


Nicknamed “The Star of the East,” Kalthoum was born sometime around 1904 – the exact date remains uncertain, some biographies suggesting it was December 31 – in the small village of Tmaïe al-Zahayira (in the Nile’s delta). The daughter of an Imam, she began to sing as a child, interpreting Muslim religious chants. In 1923, she settled in Cairo to launch a singing career befitting her vocal talent.


Egyptian influences have traditionally played a strong role in Arabic culture: kings Fouad and Farouk, the 1952 revolution, the mandates of Nasser and Sadat. Deeply attached to her homeland, Kalthoum devoted a third of her songs in the 1960s to patriotic themes. She is particularly known for her unwavering support of President Nasser, who in turn admired her greatly.


From these beginnings, she chose poetry as a vehicle to give full power to her art. All along her career, she emphasized poetry from the Muslim world, interpreting everything from the verses of the Syrian 10th-century poet Abu Firas al-Hamadani, to the stanzas of Omar Khayyam and the poems of Ahmad Shawqi (1868-1932), the “prince of poets”. Through the emotion accompanying her voice, words gathered all their strength. Lebanese film-maker Georges Hatem, 39, is a faithful listener of Kalthoum. He loves the singer because “she feels incredibly deeply the words she sings, the great poetry.”


“At the first note you are transported. And then you can’t resist going all the way to the end,” says Syrian 33-year-old Ghada Naman, a doctoral student in French literature. To her, Kalthoum symbolises something she can “no longer find elsewhere: true and total artistry. That’s why young people listen to her.”


The circumstances of her rise to fame


Oum Kalthoum reached the zenith of her career in an unusual context. “She was buried with some of the greatest Oriental composers and poets”, remembers Wadee Torbey. She worked with Ahmed Rami and Zakariya Ahmed, but it was Mohammed al Kasbagi who introduced her to the lute and would become her composer. Finally, it was the special wish of President Nasser that she should work with another pillar of classical Arab music, Mohammed Abdel Wahab.


Her rise to fame was all the more impressive in that the Arab musical scene was essentially male-dominated. “Female voices were rare at the time,” remembers Georges Hatem. Her unique status earned her relentless support, as “there was no one else on stage”. Indeed, as Georges points out, “there wasn’t really room for another woman”.


Music with a universal message


Clinging throughout her career to high expectations of quality, Oum Kalthoum knew how to deal with modernity. Even today, her albums are still selling well in Arab countries. According to Georges Hatem, his generation prefers the singer’s later songs. “The music becomes more familiar to the ear.” In Enta Omri, one of her most famous songs and the fruit of her first collaboration with Mohammed Abdel Wahab, a guitar appears for the first time even though critics advised her against it. And according to Georges “that is precisely what makes the song so great”.

Oum Kalthoum reminds Georges of all the stages of his life, “the happy moments as well as the unhappy”. Indeed, “her songs still speak to young people because she knew how to talk about a suffering that is timeless”. As Aabed points out, “the funny thing is that when we see young people listening to Oum Kalthoum at night, you automatically know they’re in love!”

Date created : 2008-06-17