Om Kalsoum was a singer, musician, nationalist, and a woman.
Despite dancing to Om Kalsoum for many years and only knowing bits and pieces about her and her life, last year I decided to spend some time getting to know this incredible artist. I stumbled upon a book titled “The Voice of Egypt – Umm Kalthum, Arabic Song and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century” by Virginia Danielson.
This book took me on a very detailed journey of Om Kalsoum’s life from her birth, until her death in 1975. It opens with an insightful chapter touching on what is widely known about Om Kalsoum – about her monthly radio broadcasts with millions of listeners, how her funeral was bigger than President Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasr, how she was known to be the Eastern Star in the Arabic world for her music. But then the chapter gives us some background of what Egyptian culture was like during the time of Om Kalsoum – how people listened to music, the expectations of the audience during performance, how performing and singing was conducted, how people spoke about music and performances. I found this information especially interesting as these are cultural pieces that I have not read elsewhere.
The author, Virginia Danielson
, spent 5 years doing research about Om Kalsoum both in the field, in reading and speaking with musicians and through coursework on music. She manages to capture a thorough description of Om Kalsoum as the artist and also as the individual. Virginia shares Om Kalsoum’s humble beginnings and struggles to make it as an artist in Cairo amongst her fellow peers, the conflicts she faced, the eventual rise of her stardom in Cairo, personal victories and heartbreak, the nationalist and concert diva, her evolution of style, how she created and developed her music, friends and foes and her failing health. There are 7 main chapters in this book that each capture a specific timeline in Om Kalsoum’s life, and within these 7 chapters, multiple subchapters further categorize these timelines and offer information about what was happening in Egypt at this time.
What was interesting to me was learning about Om Kalsoum’s beginning of her career and how she managed to climb the social ladder from “the Bedouin” (dressing as a Bedouin boy) to elite star. I was not previously aware of her strong and passionate love and support for Egypt and how much of a nationalist she really was. I deeply appreciated Om Kalsoum as a pioneer for Egyptian women artists as she dictated how she wanted to be represented as an artist in a musical society dominated by men. I also did not know that she was a part of the process of her music from step one, and that she commissioned music based around poetry she found or had written for her. She was also a devout and very conservative women who held her values close to her heart for the entirety of her career.
I highly recommend this book as a great starting off point for getting to know this legendary artist. For me, reading this book only opened the door to more interest in learning about Om Kalsoum. She was extremely multi-faceted, and this book gives a powerful snapshot of the many roles and positions she had over her lifetime. Through her music, onstage and offstage personality and continued authenticity, it is no wonder that more than 40 years after her death we are still enraptured by her.