Oum Kalthoum - Biography



Nicknamed kawkab el-sharq (planet of the east), Oum Kolthoum was an enormously famous Egyptian singer, songwriter and actress. Her shortened stage name, ? ??????, is frequently translated in a variety of spellings including Oum Kalthoum, Om Kalsoum, Om Kolsoum, Omm Kolthoum, Oum Kalsom, Oum Kaltsoum, Oum Kolsoum, Oum Koulsoum, Oumkhalthoum, Um Kulsum, Umm Kulthum and others.

Born around 1900 (between 1898 and 1904) as ?? ????? ??????? ???????? in Tamay ez-Zahayra, Egypt, Kolthoum was exposed to religious music by her father, a local imam, who also performed at weddings. Whilst learning to recite the Qu'ran, the young Oum showed considerable vocal ability and, disguised as a boy, her father included her in a performing troupe that he happened to direct. At sixteen, Oum was noticed by singer Abol Ela Mohamed who subsequently introduced her the classical repertoire. After meeting Zakariyya Ahmad, who suggested her family come to Cairo, they relocated to the capital in 1923. There, the young country girl was seen as rather unrefined. Under the tutelage of Amin al-Mahdi, she learned oud and, under Ahmad Rami, she was taught poetry, literary Arabic and French literature. One other figure that entered her sphere was Mohamed al-Qsabji, who formed a takht (small ensemble) to back her at performances in the Arabic Theatre Palace where, unlike most of her peers, she performed for the general public rather than just the elite.

In the 1930s, Kolthoum largely abandoned the religious material she'd learned from her father and began singing romantic songs that showcased her virtuosity and improvisational skills. Rami and al-Qsabji's compositions incorporated European elements and instruments including the cello and double bass. In 1932, she embarked on a tour abroad with stops in Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Tripoli, Lebanon. By 1934, she was the most famous singer in the country and was picked to inaugurate Radio Cairo that May. After that, on the first Thursday of each month between October and June, her performances were broadcast over the airwaves. In 1936, she starred in her first musical, Wedad. It was followed by Nashid al-Amal (1937), Dananir (1940) and Aydah (1942). Never considered a great actress, Kolthoum nonetheless placed the blame for Aydah's failure with the film's scorer and her longtime collaborator, al-Qsabji.

After parting ways with al-Qsabjim, Kolthoum approached Zakariya Ahmad and Bayram al-Tunisi to compose more traditionally Egyptian songs for her. In 1944, King Farouk I honored her with the nishan el kamal, an order traditionally reserved for politicians and royalty. Nonetheless, after her proposed marriage to Farouk's uncle was rejected, she began to distance herself from the ruling family. In 1945, she acted in Salamah. It was followed by Fatmah in 1948, which proved to be her last film. That year, besieged Egyptian forces defending al-Falujah requested Kolthoum broadcast a song for them, which she did. One of the pinned-down soldiers was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who three years later ousted Egypt's king. When Kolthoum was rejected from the Egyptian musicians' guild for her associations with the deposed monarch, Nasser's support helped change their minds and she ultimately became the group's president.

In 1964, she began collaborating with Muhammad al-Wahab and made her first appearance on television. With her advancing age, her voice began to weaken and she shortened her concerts from four hours to three. After her recording of Riad al-Sombati's "Al-Atlal," she relied mostly on al-Wahab's less demanding, European-influenced songs. As her health worsened, concerts in 1971 and '72 were postponed. When she performed on January 3, 1973, she felt faint but completed the performance. After receiving treatment in Europe and the US by kidney specialist, she planned to return to performing the following year. On March 13, she recorded a new piece, "Hakam Alayna al-Hawa" in one, twelve hour session. After suffering more kidney ailments, however, the concert was canceled. After being readmitted to the hospital in January 21, 1975, she died on February 3rd. An estimated three million people flooded the streets and passed her body from person to person in her final, three hour journey to Cairo's Al-Hussein mosque.

Kolthoum's stature remains enormously popular, especially in Israel and the Arab world. In 1996, she was the subject of a documentary film, Umm Kulthum - A Voice like Egypt. In 2001, the Egyptian government opened the Kawkab al-Sharq Museum on the grounds of Cairo's Manesterly Palace, which houses archival material, recordings and a number of her possessions, including, of course, her trademark big sunglasses.

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