Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan And U2, How Umm Kulthum's Influence Transcended The Middle East

By Ali Khaled
14 November 2018
Umm Kulthum, Middle East, Egypt, Paris
On the anniversary of a legendary concert at the Olympia in Paris, we look at the seismic impact Umm Kulthum had on popular culture

Take Aretha Franklin. Add a bit of Elvis. And then sprinkle with the Beatles. You might, just might get close to an Umm Kulthum.

The Middle East’s greatest ever singer was to her fans barely of this planet, her nickname “Kawkab Al Sharq”, literally meaning “Planet” or “Star of the East”.

Her voice, perhaps apocryphally, was said to be so powerful as to shatter glass.

In the West, her influence on popular music surpasses her fame among the general public. But those who knew, knew; she’s variously been acknowledged by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and U2, as well as, surreally, Salvador Dali.

She’s often referred to as a diva, an unfortunate description as, for modern audiences, that might conjure up spectres of a Maria Carey or a Kanye West.
Her popularity across the Arab world and Egypt, where she was also known as the “Fourth Pyramid”, remains unsurpassed. And yet she only ever performed once outside the Middle East.

Today marks the 51st anniversary of Umm Kulthum’s legendary performance at the Olympia in Paris on November 14, 1967.

The event, much like Umm Kulthum’s career and life, is now woven into the fabric of Middle Eastern, and in particular Egyptian, cultural and political life.

 

The Olympia show was part of a series of concerts Umm Kulthum had embarked on to raise support, and funds, for beleaguered Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s regime following the devastating six-day war with Israel.

In the years since, as Umm Kulthum’s legend continues to grow, the Olympia show ended up being one of her most fabled concerts, perhaps catching her at her iconic best before ill health began to curtail her career.

It certainly wasn’t the first time she had become associated with her country’s leadership.

More than four decades before singing at Olympia, Umm Kulthum, a rising star in her 20s, was part of King Farouk’s inner circle, a dalliance that would cause her grief later in her life when Gamal Abdul Nasser’s came to power.

It was no surprise that even the powerful sought her companionship. People, from kings and presidents to humble taxi drivers, simply gravitated towards the “Kawkab” who, in her trademark shades, often conveyed an ultra-cool persona in public.

She had come a long way from humble beginnings.

Umm Kulthum’s birth date is disputed but fell sometime between 1898 and 1905. Fatima Ibrahim As-Sayyid Al Biltagi’s talent was blindingly obvious from a very young age, her father quickly realising he had a phenomenon on his hands.

She began singing as a 12-year-old in family circles, and when, after moving to Cairo in the early 1920s she was introduced to the composer Mohamed El Qasabgi, her career took off.

She was accosted by some of greatest Arab songwriters of the time, including the poet Ahmed Ramy in the 1930s and 40s, and Mohamed Abdul Wahab and Baleegh Hamdi later in her career, and the results were never less than spectacular.

“Enta Omri”, "Amal Hayati" and "Fakkarouni", with Abdel Wahab, where particular crowd pleasers, as was El Qasabji collaboration "Raq el Habib", and the Hamdi-penned “Al Leila w Leila”. There were many, many others and, like the Beatles, her body of work is considered peerless by experts and fans alike.

Her concerts became major happenings around the Middle East, the devotion of her fans more akin to what you witness at football matches than musical shows. Millions would gather around the radio as her shows were broadcast every Thursday evening at the height of her powers and fame in the 40s, 50s and 60s.

Though  the style and tempo of her songs did not lend themselves to the manic energy that led to say, Beatlemania, her audience’s reactions were no less emotional, the fans seemingly in a trance from what is known in Arabic as “tarab”, aural euphoria.

Often her shows would last for over five or six hours on end, a concert being composed of two or three epic songs.

The official recorded length of arguably her greatest song "Enta Omri" ("You Are My Life") is almost an hour but could go on for several more once Umm Kulthum got into her groove in front of an enchanted crowd.

When Umm Kulthum sang, she was said to empty the streets of the most congested of Arab cities, even Cairo.

Footage from Olympia, as much as from any of her concerts around the Middle East, bears  testament to adoring, mesmerised audience.

Umm Kulthum transcended mere music and the sheer power of her personality made her a favourite for hangers on, from celebrities, politicians, members of high society and.

When Abdul Nasser swept into power in 1952, her links to the quashed monarchy did not sit well with the new socialist regime. Her shows were briefly banned from radio, before being restored by the new president himself, perhaps wary of another swift revolt by her army of devoted followers. When it came to Umm Kulthum, Nasser knew that the public gets what the public wants.

Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthum's funeral in 1975

Above all, her legend rests on her extraordinary voice. When Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant heard her sing for the first time on a trip to Marrakesh in 1970, he confessed to being “driven to distraction”.

"I was intrigued by the scales, initially, and obviously the vocal work," Plant told the independent newspaper in 2010. "The way she sang, the way she could hold a note, you could feel the tension, you could tell that everybody, the whole orchestra, would hold a note until she wanted to change. 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.”

Bob Dylan, more laconically, remarked in 1978: “She is great, she really is. She is really great”.

The same year of her triumphant show in Paris, Umm Kulthum was diagnosed with nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys, and as her health deteriorated in the following years she became increasingly loath to be seen in public.

For a while she carried on, the concerts becoming shorter, though at three hours hardly fleeting by modern day standards. Her star quality never waned, and her fans never abandoned her. She gave her last concert at the Palace of the Nile in 1973.

Umm Kulthum finally fell silent on 1975, losing her battle to illness.  In more ways than one the Middle East had lost its voice.

Tahrir Square, no stranger to mighty revolutions and the funeral of Nasser two year earlier, was said to have been flooded with four million people hoping to get a last glimpse of her as she was laid to rest. As ever, truth and legend collide when it comes to Umm Kulthum.

One thing is beyond debate. From Cairo to Paris, Umm Kulthum’s impact on popular culture remains unrivalled. At least on this planet.