(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
On a recent Monday evening, hundreds of Londoners, including many from the city’s Arab diaspora, lined up outside the famed Palladium Theater, eager to attend the world premiere of Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era: A Musical Tribune, a Western-style musical based on the life and music of the late Egyptian musical legend.
Many in the crowd were probably as curious as I was as to whether any musical adaptation of Umm Kulthum’s life and music could succeed in relaying a smidgen of the late singer’s magnetism and musical appeal. This was a woman, after all, whose concerts on the first Thursday of each month would cause the Arab world’s streets and squares to empty out as people gathered around radios to hear her.
The play’s narrative was gripping, relaying the struggles and obstacles Umm Kulthum overcame to develop her career. Most successfully, the musical humanizes her life story, and it is perhaps this that might help it succeed with non-Arab audiences, should this one-night performance travel to New York or be programmed for a longer run in London.
Written and produced by Mona Khashoggi, a London-based Saudi patron of the arts in the Arab world, the musical attempts to bridge classical Arab music and contemporary storytelling, and aspires to make Umm Kulthum’s music relevant to a younger audience. From personal observations that night, Khashoggi’s musical may succeed in creating a new fan base of many–like myself–who were aware of the history and music of Umm Kulthum but had failed to grasp what made it particularly special. Songs written and sung years before I was born were captivating, their lyrics of loss, love and hope still relevant.
A Rise from Humble Origins
Umm Kulthum, born in 1898 in a small town in the Nile Delta, became a regional phenomenon. Dubbed Egypt’s “fourth pyramid,” she not only played a role in President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s war efforts against Israel in 1967, but also became one of the few individuals who would climb Egypt’s strict social ranks and be considered equal to members of the country’s aristocracy before the military coup of 1952.
Beloved by common folk and the elite alike, her popularity derived from her unique contralto voice, and the manner in which she imbued her performances with an intensity of emotion for the entire duration of a song, which could last from 45 minutes to three hours. Her unique style of repetitively singing the same lyric but giving it a different musical character each time meant that a song was never a simple act of repetition but instead a constantly varying performance, changing and adapting to the singer’s own emotional circumstances. She sang not only about love, but about national politics, societal affairs, and hope for the future of Egypt and the Arab world at large. That her politics were encased in metaphor and lyrical insinuation meant that her music was not just about Egypt, but about topics more encompassing and universal.
Khashoggi’s musical narrates the rise of Umm Kulthum from her early years when she was disguised as a boy and taken by her father, a religious sheikh, to the surrounding villages to perform religious songs and chants. So powerful and beautiful was her voice, she was encouraged to head to Cairo to sing at a time when a singing career for a woman was frowned upon. The musical details the emotional struggle of Umm Kulthum’s father, Sheikh Ibrahim, to accept such a proposition for his daughter. His character personifies the great changes that were to affect Egypt in accepting a woman like Umm Kulthum to not only sing, but to play a role as a thought leader in Arab politics and society, especially regarding the issue of Palestine.
Elevating Arabic Language and Identity
It was not simply her voice that caused her to stand out, but also the songs she selected to sing. She collaborated with some of Egypt’s most renowned poets and lyricists. The musical highlights her relationship with one of them, the poet Ahmed Rami. Umm Kulthum’s oeuvre was an ever-evolving relationship of music, language and poetry, and she brought classical Arabic to the fore for many at a time when illiteracy was a rampant problem in Egypt. She helped elevate the stature of Arabic as the Arab world entered a postcolonial era and the language became a means by which to assert national identity and thus, the personal self.
The musical highlights performances Umm Kulthum gave abroad, most notably a concert in Paris in 1967 where she demanded to be paid twice what Edith Piaf was paid and donated the money to the Egyptian army after the 1967 defeat. Patriotic references like these inspired approving hoots and applause from the London audience.
As the evening wound on, the performance became a nostalgic reminder of pan-Arab sentiment that had once united her audiences, and it dawned on me that, trite as it may be to say, not since Umm Kulthum has the Arab world unequivocally adored such a figure. Arguably, Mo Salah has become a regional hero for climbing the ranks of the football world–but aren’t matters of the heart more universal than a love for skillful football?
Khashoggi’s musical narrates the rise of Umm Kulthum from her early years when she was disguised as a boy and taken by her father, a religious sheikh, to the surrounding villages to perform religious songs and chants.
Three actresses play the role of Umm Kulthum at various stages of her life. Lubna Al Quntar, a Syrian opera singer, plays Umm Kulthum in her later years; Yasmeen Audi plays the young Umm Kulthum as she moves from the countryside to Cairo; and the most exciting performance is that by the 17-year-old Sanaa Nabil, a great-grandniece of Umm Kulthum who rose to prominence during her performance on Arabs Got Talent two years ago.
Al Quntar closed the show singing the much-beloved song “Alf Leila We Leila” note for note as Umm Kulthum had, and throughout gave incredible renditions of Umm Kulthum’s songs and a skillful performance of Umm Kulthum the woman.
Her artistry, however, could not overshadow that of Nabil, who managed to sing several numbers not only with the vocal range and notational accuracy of her great-aunt, but with an air of modesty and sweetness that endeared her to the audience.
I couldn’t help recalling something the late Egyptian journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal once told me about Umm Kulthum’s personality. Despite her fame and public air of confidence, Heikal described her as “unbearably shy, with stage fright that paralyzed her before a performance.” Nabil managed to evoke some of that modest shyness.
Nabil’s performance was surreal to watch. How close to history can one get? Very close, in fact. Audience members appeared to sit in awe as they tried to make sense of what was happening; it was as if Umm Kulthum had risen from the dead. There’s a powerfulness to a performance that isn’t reliant on pyrotechnics or large ensembles of dancers. With the attention focused purely on the music, every note sung had the audience waiting to see how long it would carry on for—and in Nabil’s case, each phrase was sung to just the right moment, building an emotional tension with an unwavering, confident vocal color until one thought it couldn’t be carried any longer. Yet this wasn’t a case of unimaginative imitation but rather, an homage where Nabil’s own personality also carried through.
The rest of the cast was composed of Arab actors and singers with experience in both Europe and the Middle East. Dazzling performances that night included those by Osama Kiwan, a Syrian singer who performed some of the songs, perhaps to alleviate vocal strain on the lead singers but also perhaps to highlight the breadth of Umm Kulthum’s musical output and portray how the songs are able to lend themselves to other interpretations and voices.
It has been said that you cannot appreciate the music of Umm Kulthum until you have fallen in love. I think you can’t appreciate her music unless you’ve been disappointed—and there’s much to be disappointed about today in the Arab world. At a time when the state of political and economic affairs is bleak, it’s perhaps this reminder of Umm Kulthum and a period seen as a golden era of leadership and potential that the audience was charged by. Undoubtedly, it was also the excellent music and entertainment. I hope this show succeeds in traveling to theaters elsewhere.