Oum kelthoum: A singer, a songwriter and an actress

At a time when women can hardly have a career, Oum Kelthoum, known as the forth pyramid of Egypt, mesmerized audiences arround the world for half a century.

Oum Kelthoum is widely regarded as the greatest Arabic female singer in history. She was born in 1904 to an Egyptian Imam and his wife. Her father supplemented his income by singing traditional religious songs at weddings and holidays. She learned to sing from him, and when he noticed her strong voice, he started to take her with him, dressed as a boy to avoid accusing him of displaying a young daughter onstage.

Oum kelthoum and the Sphenix, 1967. ©Tour Egypt

Around 1923, Oum Kelthoum moved with her family to Cairo which was the center of the world of entertainment and mass media production. Coming from a small village, she was perceived there as old-fashioned. To improve her image, she studied music and poetry and learned the manners of the wealthy ladies.

You take Elvis and the Beatles and add a little bit of every other singer who ever existed and that’s how you get close to how famous oum kelthoum is in the Arab world.

-Stated one of her fans

Arabs loved poetry. Oum kelthoum understood this well and made a very good use of it. From her beginnings, she used poetry as a vehicle to strengthen her music. Throughout her career, she worked with 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 « Prince of Poets ».

Making her first recordings in the beginning of 1920s, she succeeded to create her own personal style. By the end of 1920s, she became one of the best-paid musicians in Cairo, overtaking several highly famous male musicians. Her successful career in commercial recording eventually extended to radio, film, and television. In 1936, she made her first motion picture, Wedad, in which she played the title role. She made 5 more other motion pictures later on.

Oum Kelthoum appearing in the cover of Wedad’s songs, 1936. ©Discogs

Despite the fact that she was singing intricate Arabic poetry, she influnced some of the west’s biggest singers such as Bob Dylan for isntance. Moreover, Shakira and Beyoncé have performed dance routines to her music while Maria Callas called her “the incomparable voice”. 

When I first heard the way she would dance down through the scale to land on a beautiful note that I couldn’t even imagine singing, it was huge: somebody had blown a hole in the wall of my understanding of vocals.

Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant

Oum Kelthoum recorded about 300 songs over a 60-year career on diverse themes: love, patriotism, nature, religion in both classical and colloquial Arabic. This selection includes 5 of her top songs. 

In concerts, the duration of her songs were never fixed. The length varies depending on the emotional interactions between her and the audience.  The official recorded length of one of her famous songs « Enta Oumri » is about sixty minutes. In this specific song, a guitar appears for the first time even though critics advised her against it and this is precisely what makes the song great and the singer greater.

The Diva knew how to deal with modernity. Even today, her albums are still selling well in Arab countries. Her music is very familiar to the ear and speaks even to the young generations.

Imane Adouay

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