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Muslim Music Videos

February 16, 2011

Ben Howe here.  Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been adding hundreds of YouTube videos for the Muslim World Music Day Video channel. Here are two that I especially liked.

Given the recent events in Egypt I thought it would be appropriate to feature a video of the legendary Egyptian vocalist Umm Kulthum. Born in 1898 Kulthum was known as Kawkab El-Sharq or the Star of the East. She is still considered one of the greatest singers in the Arab world. This clip is taken from her Amal Hayati concert circa 1940.

Nass El Ghiwane is a popular Moroccan band that formed in the 60’s. The group is basically the Moroccan equivalent of the Rolling Stones. Here’s a clip of them performing to a packed stadium in the mid-70’s.

B.George here.  Thought I’d add a brief bio of Oum Kalsoum (…also Umm, Um or Om; Kulthum, Kalthum, Kulsoum, or Koulsoum)  b : Ibrahim Um Kalthum.    aka: The Nightingale of the Delta’,  ‘The Star of the Orient’,  ‘As Sett’ (‘The Lady’).    b: 1904, 1908 or 1910, Tamayel (Tammy) el Zahayra, Sinbellawein (Simballawen), d: 2/3/75)

Q: “How are things in Egypt?  A: “Fine.  Three days of football, three days of Oum Kalsoum, one day of meat.”

To fill the year with a string of such exquisite weeks – this was the dream of the Egyptian working man.  For decades Oum Kalsoum brought Egypt to a halt as millions listened to her weekly radio broadcasts.  Coups were delayed, parliamentary votes postponed, wars lulled into a cease-fire – the impossible became ordinary when “The Lady” was center stage.  Her name means ‘banner’ and she was never without her oversize scarf, her flag.   Like Piaf in France, or Judy Garland in the States, her emotional depths mined a nation’s soul, an isolated figure center stage, diminutive, vulnerable.  That a popular singer could so clearly define the national character is unparalleled.  To paraphrase the hyperbolic identification that many felt, more than a voice, she was Egypt.

Bedouin born in the Egyptian rif, Kalsoum was the daughter of a rural Qur’an reader.  Trained as a young girl in the proper pronunciation and clear enunciation of the sacred texts, she brought these highly prized skills to her performance of Egyptian classical and religious music.  Dressed as a boy – different stories say because it was less expensive, other’s, to disguise the impropriety of a woman performing religious material publicly – it was the sacred material that comprised the bulk of her repertoire.  Both novelty and prodigy, the young girl was much in demand at weddings and celebrations.  In 1922 she attracted the attention of a well known teacher Shaykkh Abu al-’lla and brought to Cairo.   Here she underwent intensive vocal training and learn more material.  By 1925 she had cut her first 78 with Victor, _____________________ and was performing regularly in a city in love with concert vocalists.  While her earliest material was performed with male vocal quartet, by 1926 she was fronting a small instrumental orchestra ( ‘takht’), a format that would be her hallmark throughout her career.  A career that within a few seasons would eclipse all others.

For many years she sang at the same theater, broadcast live over the radio the first Thursday of every month.  Her great accomplishment was not in performing popular songs like many of her peers, but in making her exclusively classical repertoire populist.  While she sang primarily in Arabic, some material was performed in the modern Egyptian dialect.  Occasionally she performed “qasa´id” – complicated poetic texts set to modern music.  Concerts were four hour passion plays before a devoted, exclusively male audience.  Kalsoum seemed the unlikely candidate for such male devotion – a bit plain, heavy set, and always wearing thick dark glassed to hide eyes disfigured by goiter.  But the audience saw her as a touchstone to their glorious past, her deep soul and rich communicating voice transporting them to an age of empire, heroes and perfumed gardens.  After an instrumental introduction, she would approach the edge of the stage, her long scarf in hand, trailing to the ground behind her.  This scarf acted as security blanket and stage prop, pulled up like a veil, crumpled to collected her tears, or undulating in rhythmic counterpoint to wave after wave of rising emotion.  By closing she was dripping with sweat under the theater lights, completely spent.

With the establishment of Egyptian National Radio in 1934, Oum found her ideal medium, one that she would forever be identified with.  From 1937 on she combined her stage and radio audience through live broadcasts from the theater.  Now she could present her full concerts over the airwaves, moving beyond radio show length and the even more restrictive three minutes on her recordings.  As her Thursday night broadcasts became more and more integrated into the life of the country, all activity ceased on “ Oum Kalsoum night”.  Even though Kalsoum only occasionally offered material in the Egyptian dialect, this was first time that the average person could hear everyday language in song on the radio. Her business acumen seemed to equal her singing skills as her increasing popularity earned her more money and power.  Unlike most of Africa, Egypt had a well developed recording industry, where money could be made from sales and royalties.  And Kalsoum had enough clout to negotiate strong contracts with record companies. As Chairman of the Board of the National radio, Kalsoum used her influence to improve equipment, facilities, and the quality of the broadcasts, and perhaps to kept younger talent at bay.  It was about this time that she also began appearing films, from 1936 – 1948 a star in this medium also.

Oum Kalsoum had been first choice to both celebrate and console the nation.  In 1952 when independence was won, she performed at a victory concert, General Neguib and Colonel Nasser in the front row.  After the loss of the Six Day War, she urged Bikbashi not to resign.  Around 1963, and at the insistence of the government, she began working with Abdel Wahab, a onetime rival and major star.  Their first collaboration, “Inta Umri”, was a hit and possibly the first classical piece to use an electric guitar.  They continued to work together until the mid-70s when they released, “Laylat Hob”.  Other well known composers who penned material for Kalsoum include, El Qassabghy, Zakariya Ahmed, and Riad El Sonbaty.

Kalsoum seldom toured outside of Egypt.  When she did it was always a mob scene and major event, as was Paris’ Olympia Concert in the winter of 1967.  Another apocryphal tale surfaced when she gave a concert in Libya in 1969.  It seems Muammar Gadaffi had to cancel his scheduled coup to overthrow King Idris, because the date conflicted with a Kalsoum appearance.  Oum gave her last performance in Cairo in 1973, and her fans sensed the end was near.  She had married late in life to a Dr. Hisnan Hifnami who had been caring for her.  When she died three years later, the nation, and the entire Arab world was visibly shaken.  The radio announced her passing with passages read from the Koran, an honor usually reserved for Heads of State.  The funeral procession brought several million people into the streets of Cairo, Egypt completely closed down for days.  Testament to Kalsoum’s enduring appeal are sales approaching a million copies with each new CD package or rerelease.

There will be an extensive discography posted on the database on Muslim World Music Day.

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