Soon after you arrive in Egypt, you will become aware of a distinctive voice that can be heard playing from the radio, a tape-deck, an ancient record player, on television…. in taxi’s, in coffee shops, in restaurants and in homes. Usually these songs have lengthy periods of Egyptian classical instrumental music, and then this deep, rich, powerfully haunting voice will emerge….. usually followed by tumultuous applause from an unseen audience. But, it will seem like the song goes on and on and on……. because they do!
Ask about who this is! You will usually see the person you ask sigh, get a sparkle in their eye, a gentle smile on their face, shake their head and ask how it is possible that you do not know this woman. Her name is Om Khalthoum, singer, song-writer and actress, and has been ascribed many titles in her life:
- The Voice of Egypt
- Mother of all Arabs
- The Queen
- The Lady
- Nightingale of the East
- Most well known singer of the Middle East
- Most influential woman of her time
She was born in a small village in the Nile Delta, her day of birth uncertain, as in those days, in the villages, it was not considered a law, nor vital to register births. She grew up near the Nile, at home with the seasonal planting and harvest that is part of Delta life: the River, the Land and the “fellaheen” (farming people) moulded her thinking.
Her father was an “Imam” (leader in the Mosque), and from very young taught her to “sing” recitations from the Quran, and soon recognized that his daughter was gifted with a rich and powerful voice. It was not “allowed” or considered appropriate for girls/women to sing in public, to strange men, so from the age of about 7, her father dressed her up as a young Bedouin boy (with long jacket and headdress) and she joined a team of singers, singing Islamic ballads at village celebrations and feasts, directed by her father. News of her incredible talent started to spread, and people were drawn to her voice…. eventually some came even from Cairo. They recognized her talent and some gifted musicians and poets began to partner and train her for the fame and success that was unfolding before their eyes.
THE MOVE TO CAIRO:
Later she moved to Cairo with her parents, and lived the rest of her life there, but she never forgot her childhood in the Delta. She gained in popularity and was invited to perform in many distinguished parties and gatherings. She left behind her Bedouin-boy outfit in exchange for elegant yet modest gowns. What she became famous for was her legendary “1st-Thursday-of-every-month” concerts. These were broadcast live from Cairo and could last 3-4 hours, and yet she only sung 2 – 3 songs!! It is said that for the first of these concerts, feeling a little overwhelmed, she reached out for a scarf, and although she was no longer covering her head, from that day on, holding a scarf in her hand became a symbol of her identity, her past, her faith, and she used them to highlight emotions in her song…. the scarves, her sunglasses and her modestly glamorous gowns became her trademarks.
HER MUSICAL STYLE:
Her origins were in Religious recitations, but then she moved on to the Classic Arabic Poetic tradition, finally including Arab popular music. But her partnering with talented and respected musicians and poets of the time, writing for her and guiding her, added a profound richness to her music. Her voice is legendary: strong, rich and emotionally powerful. It is believed that she often had to stand away from the microphone as her voice was too much for the microphone!
But she won the nation over with her unique improvisation: each time she sang a song, it would be different, and she could repeat even a one or two line phrase over a 5 minute period, getting more and more emotional and leading her audiences into a musical ecstasy of feeling and emotion. So a song could vary from 45 minutes to almost 2 hours, depending on the connection and flow between her and the audience.
Her musical ensemble included violins, the “oud”, “kanun”, tambourine, accordion, various Egyptian wind instruments and the traditional drums.
Most of her songs contain the heart wrenching themes centering around relationships:
LOVE, LONGING….. and LOSS
between a man and woman, parent and child, and of course the love of the land of Egypt.
She sings with strength and passion about these relationships, articulating for her audience the loves, disappointments, difficulties and deep passion of matters of the heart, helping the audiences flow with her as she navigates the highs and lows of these rich relationships.
WHO LISTENS TO HER?
Everyone!! If you ask almost any Egyptian, any age, they can tell you stories of how their parents or grandparents listened (and still listen) to her music! One friend of mine, who also grew up in a Delta village, tells of how as a child, on Thursday evenings when they broadcast those performances live, she and others would run to a nearby house (one of the few who owned) a radio, and they would sit under the open window-sill outside the house, and listen for hours as the rich voice of Om Khalthoum touched their hearts…and the hearts of most of Egypt! This singer touches deep into the hearts and heritage of this nation, reminding them of their roots, their loves, their despair, their pain and their loves. She lifts up the spirits, calms people when they are despondent…. and makes people feel that everything will work out…. her music stirs their emotions yet calms their souls.
Om Khalthoum died in 1975 at approximately 74 years of age. She recorded 300 songs in a career that spanned 60 years.
You can find LP records still in many homes today, hear her programs repeated on the TV, many radio broadcasts, CDs, tapes and of course the new generation is downloading and buying her music off i-tunes.
HER MOST POPULAR SONG:
Most people can tell you their favorite song of hers straight away, and will argue vociferously the reasons why! But usually it is because her authentic sound and depth of lyrics echo some emotional turmoil they were going through, or remind them of the childhood, or stir up feelings of longing and pride for their county: hypnotic and melancholic!
But the song that most people mention as the favorite is:
Inta Omri: You are my life.
You might want to take a listen…. but beware, depending on which recording you listen to, it will be at least 40 minutes long… possibly even up to 2 hours!