You say Umm Kulthum, I say Om Kalsoum

15 Apr

The are a handful of ladies whose voices and lives lend themselves to a glorification that fall’s under the loose rubric diva — Aretha, Celia Cruz, Lady Day, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, Mercedes Sosa and the great Egyptian singer Uum Kulthum. Dead for nearly forty years, Kuklthum achieved an unparalleled stature ( a street in Cairo was named after her in her country equaling that of Gamal Abdel Nasser the national hero who was key in overthrowing the monarchy in 1952. Now comes’s scholarly but accessible monograph on the legendary chanteuse Umm Kulthum Artistic Agency and the Shaping of an Arab Legend, 1967–2007 (Wesleyan University Press).

Much like the best biographies of musical figures ( I am thinking of Peter Guralnick books on Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke and Nick Tosches’s books on Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin ) Professor Lohman’s profile is especially attentive to Kulthum’s place in the Middle Eastern cultural constellation and in fact she argues that the singer played a critical role in Egypt after the it decisive defeat in the 1967 Six Day’s War. Lohman concludes

A source of both political utility and continued interest even for younger listeners born after her death, Uum Kulthum’s image and music remain vital parts of Egyptian and Arab culture. With her iconic image so powerful and her art deemed a repository of “Arab soul and Arab authenticity”, the singer is likely to remain a rich source for contemporary appropriations. Having made herself newly relevant for her national and regional audiences in a time of …crises,she sustained her career and shaped much of the way she would be remembered after her death. As she did.she ensured her lasting presence as part of an evolving national and regional and ultimately diasporic heritage.

Kulthum had an impressive vocal range of some five or six octaves reportedly forcing her to stand stand a good distance from any microphone she used. Musicians from Bob Dylan to Youssou N’Dour to Maria Callas were known to be admirers. Today contemporary DJs remix her music for current dance audiences all over the MIddle East (including Israel).

Here, have a listen:


One Response to “You say Umm Kulthum, I say Om Kalsoum”


  1. My Embarrassment of Riches « ourmaninboston - May 12, 2011

    […] Umm Kulthum Artistic Agency and the Shaping of an Arab Legend, 1967–2007</em>- Laura Lohman (Wesleyan University Press) […]

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