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Known For: The Arab World’s Most Famous Singer
Dates: Hijri 1321-1394 (AH)
Common Era 1904-1975 (CE)
Umm Kulthum is arguably the Arab world’s most famous singer. Thirty years after her death in 1975, her music still remains widely popular.
Umm Kulthum was born to a poor family from the Upper Delta in Egypt. When she was a young girl her father, an Imam, dressed her up as a boy and allowed her to perform in public.
In 1923, she moved to Cairo where her fame grew. Her songs, often hours long, centered around love and longing. She was also known for her renditions of classical poetry. After the 1952 Egyptian coup, Umm Kulthum recorded many songs in support of the new republic. After the Seven Days War, she toured extensively to raise money for Egypt.
Umm Kulthum, even at the height of her fame, identified herself as a simple girl from a rural community, reflecting the conservative and familial values of the majority of Egyptians. Her popularity, especially among Egyptians, is unrivaled. During her monthly concerts, the streets would empty as people rushed to hear her on the radio. Four million people attended her funeral in 1975, the second largest public gathering in Egypt.
In addition to transforming Egyptian music, Umm Kulthum changed the face of the middle-class. Her lyrics changed the imagery associated women: poetry was not just about the sheltered daughter of the wealthy; it was about the strong working woman. Her films Sallama and Fatma critique the wastefulness of the upper-class, and highlight the need for women to have strong wills and close friendships. Umm Kulthum was a working-class icon admired by all.
BBC Radio 4, ”Programme 6: Adhaf Soueif on Um Kulthum,” 22 November 2002, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/greatlives/soueif_kulthum.shtml
NPR Weekend Edition,“Umm Kulthum: The Voice of Egypt,” 11 May 2008, at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90326836
Danielson, Virginia. The voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthūm, Arabic song, and Egyptian society in the twentieth century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
V. Danielson, “Shaping Tradition in Arabic Song: The Career and Repertory of Umm Kulthum,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, 1991. Available from: http://almashriq.hiof.no/egypt/700/780/umKoulthoum/biography.html
National Geographic Music, ”Umm Kulthum,” available from: http://worldmusic.nationalgeographic.com/worldmusic/view/page.basic/artist/content.artist/umm_kulthum
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