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Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptain Society in the Twentieth Century

Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptain Society in the Twentieth Century

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Umm Kulthum, the "voice of Egypt," was the most celebrated musical performer of the century in the Arab world. More than twenty years after her death, her devoted audience, drawn from all strata of Arab society, still numbers in the millions. Thanks to her skillful and pioneering use of mass media, her songs still permeate the international airwaves. In the first English-language biography of Umm Kulthum, Virginia Danielson chronicles the life of a major musical figure and the confluence of artistry, society, and creativity that characterized her remarkable career.

Danielson examines the careful construction of Umm Kulthum's phenomenal popularity and success in a society that discouraged women from public performance. From childhood, her mentors honed her exceptional abilities to accord with Arab and Muslim practice, and as her stature grew, she remained attentive to her audience and the public reception of her work. Ultimately, she created from local precendents and traditions her own unique idiom and developed original song styles from both populist and neo-classical inspirations. These were enthusiastically received, heralded as crowning examples of a new, yet authentically Arab-Egyptian, culture. Danielson shows how Umm Kulthum's music and public personality helped form popular culture and contributed to the broader artistic, societal, and political forces that surrounded her.

This richly descriptive account joins biography with social theory to explore the impact of the individual virtuoso on both music and society at large while telling the compelling story of one of the most famous musicians of all time.

"She is born again every morning in the heart of 120 million beings. In the East a day without Umm Kulthum would have no color."—Omar Sharif

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226136127
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/28/1998
Series: Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology Series , #1997
Edition description: 1
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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The Voice of Egypt

Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century

By Virginia Danielson, Philip V. Bohlman, Bruno Nettl

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1997 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-13612-7


"The Voice and Face of Egypt"

Umm Kulthum was unquestionably the most famous singer in the twentieth-century Arab world. Her performing career lasted over fifty years, from about 1910, when she sang with her father at weddings and special occasions in villages and towns in the eastern Delta of Egypt, until her final illness in Cairo in 1973. She recorded about three hundred songs. For almost forty years her monthly, Thursday night concerts were broadcast live over the powerful Egyptian radio waves. As a result, her audience consisted of millions, reaching far beyond the concert-going public of Cairo to households all over the Middle East where people gathered to listen to the broadcasts. Many who could well afford tickets preferred sitting with friends and family in coffeehouses and homes. Part of listening to Umm Kulthum was a long evening of tea and camaraderie. Listeners remember this entire experience along with the sound.

By way of describing the impact of her Thursday concerts, many stories circulated: "Such-and-such a military leader postponed a manoeuvre because Umm Kulthum was singing." "Life in the Arab world came to a stop." Detractors complained that "You couldn't read about anything else in the newspaper that day except the color of Umm Kulthum's dress and what jewelry she would wear." On those Thursdays, "we lived in her world all day."

She was a cultural leader in a general sense, as a public personality, seven-year president of the Musicians' Union, member of governmental committees on the arts, and cultural emissary of Egypt to other Arab nations. When she died in 1975, her funeral was described as bigger than that of President Jamal Abd al-Nasir. She was, for many years, "the voice and face of Egypt." She remains today an inescapable figure in Arab musical life.

Umm Kulthum's story is that of a successful musician in a complex society: it is multifaceted. It is the story of a village girl who grew up to become the cultural symbol of a nation. It is also that of a competent professional woman, whose career depended negotiating a demanding and difficult path through the institutions of musical performance in Cairo. She sought and found ways to influence and even control the institutions and processes that affected her career. And her story is that of the development of a wonderfully accomplished musician whose singing was and still is viewed as a contemporary exemplar of an old and deeply valued Arab art.

In all aspects of her public life she asserted values considered to be indigenous. She helped to constitute Egyptian cultural and social life and to advance an ideology of Egyptianness. Her most powerful medium of expression was her musical style. She developed a personal idiom from antecedents considered to be Arab and Muslim. Umm Kulthum and her repertory are widely viewed as asil, authentically Egyptian and Arab. She helped to constitute several different styles, and her performances contributed to two important formations in contemporary Egyptian expressive culture—one neoclassical, the other populist. That this repertory may be justly viewed as her own, and not the result of independent creations of poets, composers, and technicians, results from her extensive involvement in the selection and composition of the poetry and music she sang, as well as the conditions of her performances.

Her thousands of performances over a long period of time were the subject of much reportage, criticism, and ordinary talk. She produced musical culture in a general sense. And, over the course of years, she herself was created by the fame she attained. Listeners evaluated her style and those of other performers and responded to changes she and others made in the musical practices they had learned. Her musical choices, and ultimately her place in Egyptian society, depended on the society's reception of her art. She was a participant in the society that she affected with her performances; she experienced and responded to her audience and to the artistic, social, and political forces surrounding her. Her career, artistry, and dominant presence in the culture offer an impressive entrée into Arab expressive culture.

Some Questions

Knowing a few facts about her life, I approached the study of Umm Kulthum with the simple questions of why and how an individual could sustain such popularity for so long. Why was this individual, among many other entertainers, so important? My view, of course, was and is that of an outsider: unlike my Egyptian friends and colleagues, I did not grow up loving the voice of Umm Kulthum, nor did I harbor the fatigue or even resentment some of them felt toward her pervasive presence. Unlike many ethnomusicologists, I did not approach Umm Kulthum's repertory from instinctive love of the music. In fact, like many Western listeners, I did not understand it. I came into the society of musicians in Cairo as one who had to be taught why Umm Kulthum's singing was good singing. I did not become, in the course of my years in Egypt, an objective observer of cultural expression: my story, and the language of my interpretation of Umm Kulthum's story, is that of a Western musician and academic who learned to love and value Arabic singing.

I began, in the early 1980s, with lessons and conversations with musicians. In answer to my fundamental questions about why Umm Kulthum was so important, why audiences thought her performances were so good, and why she was so much more highly regarded than anyone else, they talked predominantly about her musical style, her vocal skills, her habits and preferences in rehearsals and performances, and her treatment of others. As my circle of acquaintances widened I spoke with critics and writers, journalists, teachers, Umm Kulthum's friends and family, and her associates, as well as personal friends and casual acquaintances of my own. My women friends in al-Minya and the surrounding villages, their husbands and children and their large extended families; my acquaintances among professionals, shopkeepers, and students there; intellectuals from Alexandria; friends and neighbors in Cairo; in short, the people who constituted my experience of daily life in Cairo and provincial Egypt over the years all talked about Umm Kulthum and vastly broadened the understanding I developed from her musicians and colleagues.

My questions about a single person quickly led to larger questions about Egyptian and Arab culture and society. What were the material circumstances of a commercial singer's life? How did she make her way? In what respects was Umm Kulthum's career typical? How was she affected by the operations of institutions such as record companies and theaters? What was her effect on musical life and in what ways were her actions informed or constrained by precedents? Where were her performances situated in the larger processes of social life?

Umm Kulthum's career unfolded during two world wars, the Egyptian Revolutions of 1919 and 1952, the Great Depression and the momentous sociopolitical changes of the 1950s and 1960s—events that affected her as a citizen of Egypt and as a working musician, just as they commanded the attention of her listeners. She was constantly identified as a truly Egyptian artist—she was asil, "authentic." In this larger realm why did Umm Kulthum and her emblematic authenticity, her asala, become so important? Why did this category emerge in musical expression and the surrounding discourse?

Initially, I found the explanations and evaluations attached to Umm Kulthum's repertory redundant to the point of seeming incomprehensible: it was as though listeners had learned the talk along with the tunes. When Egyptians talked about Umm Kulthum they often said, "She was good because she could recite the Qur'an," leaving me to wonder what exactly that meant. "She never sang a line the same way twice"; but they sounded remarkably similar to me at the time, especially when compared to the florid melodic invention in instrumental improvisations. "She sang naturally," people repeated, "not like Europeans," or "she sang naturally because she could read the Qur'an." And when she performed, "she depicted the state [hal] of the people exactly." "Her voice was full of our everyday life."

"She does not just sing the 'Ruba'iyyat," a violinist commented about a translation of Umar Khayyam's famous poem that Umm Kulthum recorded, "she infuses it with meaning." "You must understand the words. You can't like this music if you don't understand the words." But, I thought, instrumental improvisation is a high art in Arab music—why can't I hear Umm Kulthum's music the same way—melodically?

I was told that this well-spoken, richly bejeweled woman was "really a country woman." "She was a daughter of the Egyptian village," "a bint il-riif."

"It wasn't only her voice—her character was the reason for her success." "Egyptians not only like her voice, we respect her.... We look at her, we see fifty years of Egypt's history. She is not only a singer." Then who is she? What role did musical sound play in the construction of her persona and in public perceptions of her? And is it possible that "fifty years" in Arab societies, where women appear to outsiders to be oppressed, silent, and veiled, could be represented by the life and work of a woman?

My questions multiplied. More sophisticated listeners made more extensive and complex comments, but the essential points they made were usually the same and were points that would not be relevant to many other artists.

Speech about Music

"We have much to learn," Stephen Blum writes,

about the ways in which people talk about the dialogues in which musicians and listeners are engaged. All of the talk relies on tropes, as Goethe recognized: "We think we are speaking in pure prose and we are already speaking in tropes; one person employs the tropes differently than another, takes them farther in a related sense, and thus the debate becomes interminable and the riddle insoluble."

People talked to me readily, repeating, elaborating, and embellishing their tropes. "Talking," an anthropologist friend observed, "is a national pastime in Egypt." All sorts of topics are subject to detailed discussion, evaluation, and comment. Radio and television broadcasts, for example, are not merely to be absorbed, they are to be discussed. They provide a starting point for argumentation of views.

I began to pay increasing attention to speech about music in its various manifestations. Clearly this talk, this evaluation, was as much a part of musical practice as performance itself. But what did the tropes mean? I tried to find ways to hear talk about music that I "neither constrained nor controlled" and to look at the terms of the published discourse surrounding Umm Kulthum from the beginning of her career.

This task was formidable. A great deal has been written about music in twentieth-century Egypt, much of it dealing with musicians in commercial domains. Brief accounts of Umm Kulthum's career and commentary on her performances, as well as those of the other entertainers in commercial venues, appeared frequently in the relatively large number of periodicals and columns devoted to music and theater published in Cairo. Many magazines were given entirely to entertainment, music, and theater, and others contained regular articles on performances. Al-Radyu al-Misri (and its successors) published broadcasting schedules including names of performers, songs, and durations of performances. The autobiography became a popular genre for public figures of all sorts beginning during the 1920s. Stars of music and theater published memoirs, including actresses Ruz al-Yusuf, Badia Masabni, Fatma Rushdi, actor Najib al-Rihani, playwright Badi' Khayri, and musicians Muhammad 'Abd al-Wahhab and Zakariyya Ahmad. Umm Kulthum's autobiographical statements began in 1937, with a series of articles in the magazine Akhir Saa. The autobiography she published in 1971 with Mahmud Awad is similar in content to the 1937 memoir, with ancillary chapters added by 'Awad. Biographies of the most famous stars were published. Following the establishment of Egyptian National Radio in 1934, interviews with musicians were broadcast and, beginning in the 1940s, some were kept in sound archives and collected on tape by those aficionados who had the necessary equipment.

The central question here is not only what is performed alone but also what is heard. Speech (and discourses, broadly conceived to include action) constitutes the means by which musicians and listeners locate sound. Their talk helps to constitute identities of musical styles. Blum described this by saying,

The definition of stylistic norms evolves from both the actual practice of performing musicians and the verbal statements, evaluations, justifications which attach themselves to practice. Non-specialists participate in several aspects of this process: one chooses what he will listen to, what he will attempt to reproduce, and what he will say about it.... Recurrent traits or patterns which result from such procedure for music-making might be said to constitute a style.

Listeners' interpretations of similarity and difference, of transformations and contrasts, define styles. These depend, as Richard Middleton writes, on what is heard and how it is heard. Listeners' interpretations connect with their attempts "to make sense of a changing world in terms of past experience." Assuming that musical meaning is coproduced by listeners and that, as Middleton argues, "acts of 'consumption' are essential, constitutive parts of the 'material circuits' through which musical practice exists—listening, too, must be considered a productive force." Thus our interest properly resides in historically situated performers and listeners who produce, respond to, reproduce, and reuse music and so constitute a practice of music.

Musical practice in Egypt includes three behaviors: the performing itself, listening to performance, and speaking about music and performances. As the mass media proliferated in Egypt, beginning with commercial recording in about 1904 and radio in the 1920s, listeners could exercise greater choice in what to hear. The behavior of choosing became a part of musical practice. The discourse of listeners is constituted by listening behaviors and also by speech about music. This discourse helps to produce the musical style as a cultural conception and identifies its place in social life. Musical meaning resides in the process of the production of sound, the subsequent interpretation of the sound, and the ensuing re-production of sound and interpretation.

The character of speech about music in Egypt varies with the interests and competence of the speakers and their social situations. The discourse of experts is often technical in nature to the extent of being almost incomprehensible to the ordinary listener. The speech of musicians themselves is often opaque, vague, and contradictory, for the musician's principal mode of expression is rarely speech. The talk of ordinary listeners often depends on analogies, images, and relationships for explanation of sound or feeling. However, the general themes of the discourse about song in Egypt are remarkably consistent; patterns of thought, criticism, and association emerge as fragments of discourse that are widely shared, attached to similar musics and believed to be true.

In musical practices over time, talk, along with musical sound, operates in a transformative capacity as well. In the career of a popular star such as Umm Kulthum, speech about music affects further performances and new productions. Listening practices carried her music into new places and times. The discourse of listeners helps to create a "changing space in which certain possibilities for action emerge, are exploited, and then are abandoned."

"Archival knowledge" forms part of the discourse. Historical collections made by listeners give indications of what was important to them, what not, and, sometimes, why. Historical resources permit comparison of interpretations of events as they occurred with later reflections on the same events and offer a view of the usages of events from the past to illustrate larger ideas or trends and to explain and shape the present. One sees the role of the performer in the production of the discourse, the emergence of "attitudes" as "sentiments become habitual" and, ultimately, the construction of strong cultural formations.

As a practice, discourse is discontinuous and neither uniform nor stable. People in Egypt, whether writing, speaking, or listening, did not do so in order to advance a single goal, promote a particular result, or necessarily for similar reasons at all. Nevertheless, taken together, the printed discourse and bits of speech about music and the explanations and discussions that I continued to have during the years of my work in Egypt made sense. The talk of the 1980s took its place in a larger corpus of commentary about music having particular characteristics. What motivated this talk? and what, if we can know, did it displace?


Excerpted from The Voice of Egypt by Virginia Danielson, Philip V. Bohlman, Bruno Nettl. Copyright © 1997 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Technical Note
1: "The Voice and Face of Egypt"
2: Childhood in the Egyptian Delta
3: Beginning in Cairo
4: Media, Style, and Idiom
5: "The Golden Age of Umm Kulthum" and Two Cultural Formations
6: "The Voice of Egypt": The Artists' Work and Shared Aesthetics
7: Umm Kulthum and a New Generation
Legacies of a Performer
Sources for the Illustrations

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