Born c. 1904 (some sources say 1898) in Al Mansura, Egypt; died on February 3, 1975, in Cairo, Egypt; also known as Ibrahim Um Kalthum.

Labeled "indisputably the Arab world's greatest singer" by World Music: The Rough Guide, Egyptian singer Umm Kalthum (alternately spelled Kulthum or Kalthoum) is regarded as a treasure of Middle Eastern culture. In a career that lasted more than 50 years she became known as "the voice and face of Egypt" with a voice powerful enough to shatter glass but that was used more often to capture the emotional depth of the poems she set to music. Her importance to Egyptian music in particular and Middle Eastern music in general prompted her biographer, Virginia Danielson, to write on the All Music Guide website: "Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Umm Kulthum, the most accomplished singer of her century in the Arab world." Kalthum's voice was expressive--some critics say melodramatic--and her performances would alternately hold her audiences in thrall and bring them to emotional paroxysms. She performed with a red handkerchief that was rumored to be drenched with opium, and was also said to have smoked copious amounts of hashish before going onstage. Regardless the veracity of these accounts, she appeared to perform as if in a trance. Her voice was equally powerful over a wide range and could shift resonance in an extremely nuanced fashion. She was once challenged, apocryphally, to sing the same line 52 different ways. Not only was she able to do so, she was also able to advance a melody upon each rendering. Such virtuosity allowed Kalthum to adapt longer poems to the musical idiom for performances of a single composition that sometimes lasted longer than one hour.

Kalthum's official birth year is listed as 1904, although her birth certificate reads 1898. She was born in relative poverty in the rural village of Tammy al-Zahayrah. Her father, al-Shaykh Ibrahim al-Baltaji, was an imam who also sang religious songs and recited the history of the Prophet Muhammad at weddings and special occasions for extra family income. Upon discovering that his daughter had been listening intently and memorizing the songs he was teaching her older brother, Kalthum's father included her in his instruction. Her vocal skills increased, and her father eventually included her in family and public performances. Her appearances in public however, were conducted with Kalthum disguised as a young boy so as not to anger or shock the local religious authorities who would disapprove of a father encouraging his daughter to perform onstage.

Eventually, Kalthum's talent was recognized as a phenomenon, and her father followed the promptings of other performers to move his daughter to Cairo in 1923. Her lack of technical voice schooling, however, caused Cairo music purists to disparage her voice and musical selections. Her father helped her alter this perception by hiring music teacher and mentor al-Shaykh Abu al-Ila Muhammed, as well as the poet Ahmad Rami (also spelled Ramy), who instructed her in poetry and classical Arabic. Of the nearly 300 songs recorded by Kalthum during her career, 132 were written by Rami.

Upon first arriving in Cairo, Kalthum relied on the songs taught her by her father. She later added popular songs and Arabic poems and adopted a more upscale, European style of dress. She also replaced the vocal accompaniment of her brother and father with a takht, an ensemble of musicians, who played oud, (a stringed instrument resembling an acoustic bass), as well as a violin, qanun (a flat zither-like instrument), and riqq (a small tambourine). In 1924 she recorded several songs for the Odeon label, which became successful throughout Egypt. For the remainder of the decade her recordings were played extensively all over the country. In the meantime, she continued to perform at concert venues in Cairo and, by 1928, had become one of the most popular and successful entertainers in Egypt. In 1934 she was asked to perform on the first broadcast of Egypt's state-run radio station. Her subsequent radio performances were to catapult her to the pinnacle of Egyptian stardom. In the late 1930s, she began broadcasting a weekly Thursday-night concert over the radio, a tradition that she maintained until 1973.

As her popularity increased, Kalthum began commissioning songs from Egypt's best composers that were based on poems she selected. Among the composers she employed were Riyad al-Sunbati, Muhammad al-Qasabji, and Zakariyyah Ahmad. She appeared in five films between 1935 and 1948, and was named a member of the Listening Committee, a group that chose the music played on Egyptian radio. She was elected president of the Egyptian musician's union in the 1940s. She was also an outspoken advocate of the Gamel Abdel Nasser regime in Egypt, following the 1952 Egyptian Revolution. Following Egypt's defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, Kalthum conducted an international tour beginning in Paris, France, to raise funds for Egypt.

During the 1970s, Kalthum's health began to deteriorate. She postponed concerts in 1971 and 1972, and retired from performing after she felt faint during a December of 1972 concert. She subsequently sought medical help for a kidney condition in Europe and the United States, and, in 1974, planned to premiere a new musical piece entitled "Hakam Alayna al-Hawa." She recorded the piece in a 12-hour session on March 13, 1974, but was unable to perform the piece in concert. After suffering from such physical ailments as kidney and gall bladder problems and light-sensitive eyes for much of her life, Kalthum finally succumbed to a kidney attack in February of 1975. Her funeral was a national event, which was attended by more than three million mourners. While her remains were carried along a three-hour route to the mosque of al-Sayyid Husayn, mourners took her body from the official pallbearers and passed it from one to another for the duration of the journey.

Kalthum's musical legacy continues to thrive in the Middle East, largely due to Egyptian radio's continued broadcasts of her music on the first Thursday of every month, as well as continuous airplay on Israeli radio broadcasts for Palestinian audiences. In 1997 a documentary on Kalthum narrated by actor Omar Sharif, Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt, was released. In December of 2001 Cairo's Star of the Orient Museum opened a permanent exhibit entitled "Memorabilia of Umm Kalthoum" in the 150-year-old Manistirli pavilion, a palace overlooking the Nile River. The exhibit includes stage costumes, an engraved oud, government commendations and awards, and a collection of Kalthum's red handkerchiefs.

by Bruce Walker

Umm Kalthum's Career

Began performing disguised as a boy, 1910s; moved with family to Cairo, 1923; recorded first songs for Odeon, 1924-25; recognized as one of Cairo's most successful singers, 1928; performed for the inaugural broadcast of Egyptian state radio station, 1934; appeared in first film Widad, 1935; conducted seasonal live Thursday-night radio broadcasts, late 1930s-1973; appeared in fifth and last film, Fatma,1948; conducted international series of concerts to raise money for Egypt, 1967-68; subject of documentary Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt, 1997; permanent exhibit, "Memorabilia of Umm Kalthoum," opened at Star of the Orient Museum, Cairo, Egypt, 2001.

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