Virginia Danielson is author of “The Voice of : Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century” (University of Chicago Press. 1997). I met her in her office on June 1, 2005, at the Edna Kuhn Loeb Music Library at Harvard, where she is the Richard F. French Librarian. Our conversation offers a summary of—though certainly no substitute for—her wonderful book. After we spoke, she also dug into the stacks to find some rare, early-20th century recordings for our program. Here’s our interview in full. Most of the photographs come from “The Voice of Egypt .”
Banning Eyre : Let’s begin with Umm Kulthum’s story. Tell us about her early life, leading up to her earliest performances.
Virginia Danielson: Umm Kulthum was very much like her compatriots, or many of them. She was born in a relatively small Egyptian village in the Delta. It was an agrarian community and her father was a functionary at the local mosque. It was a very poor family. Subsistence living. And her exposure to music came in two ways. One was the singing that her father and the men in her family did at local occasions, and also the mayor of the village had a record player, and everyone came to listen to records, or brought records, and he made this available so that everyone could hear what was being produced. Normally in Cairo, even in the oughts of the century, there was a thriving recording industry, and so one can hear all kinds of things on records that were purchased in Cairo, or in major cities and then brought back to villages.
Eyre: How did she start singing?
Danielson: Her father spent some time in the house, teaching her brother to sing along. The norm for performance was for there to be a solo singer, which was her father, and then a group of men who would act as backup singers for the most part. There were usually no instruments in these performances. The repertoire was largely religious music that was appropriate to any kind of a celebratory occasion, and so he was teaching his son to be a backup singer, and she learned the songs and started to sing along, and what her father discovered was that she had an amazingly strong voice, actually a better voice that her brother did. So at one point when her brother was sick, her father asked her to come along and singing his place, and that’s how she got her start. It was basically learning to sing from her father and her brother, and then filling in, in the first instance when her brother was sick and father had to go out [and perform].
Her very earliest performances were at the kinds of special occasions that there were in agrarian communities, very often saint’s days. Marriages were very big occasions. New babies were another occasion. Basically the kind of familial a celebratory occasions that were common in villages, and she would go from one village to another in this area in the Egyptian delta near where she lived.
Eyre: Let’s talk about repertoire. What are the kinds of songs she we sang these occasions?
Danielson: Her early repertory consisted of what you might call religious hymns. They were usually quite fine poetry, in praise of the Prophet Mohammed, or other kinds of expressions of religious devotion, Muslim religious devotion. They were like hymns in so far as they were not necessarily part of a worship service, but they were well-known to communities, and they could be the bases for elaborate extemporization, vocal improvisation, points of departure for rather elaborate vocal performances that would still be familiar to the local audience. They were essentially Arabic hymns.
Eyre: Did she improvise?
Danielson: No, she didn’t, because she was a backup singer, but her father did. This would have been a familiar performance structure. What is a widely shared aesthetic in the Arab world is that of singing poetry, in other words using your voice and melody, and then improvisations, melodic improvisations, in order to really bring out the meaning of an important text. And these were important texts. It was fundamental to her career that she sang fine poetry. For the most part, she always did that. So these songs happen to be religious in nature. They were familiar to her listeners, so the application of the voice to the text and the melodies was to bring the meaning of the words closer to the listener, to really bring the impact of the words home to listeners. That’s what improvisation was for. This was a familiar kind of performance practice really throughout the Arab world, and certainly within the context of the villages where she was brought up.
Eyre: So how did she then get noticed? How did the idea of going to Cairo come about?
Danielson: Well, first of all, she was an oddity in that she was so young and had this powerful voice, and also that she was female, because this was also, for the most part but not exclusively, and male-dominated repertoire. The combination of her youth, and also her female-ness, made her an attraction, and so she developed this audience that basically existed in the eastern part of the Egyptian delta, as she was invited more and more places to sing. She probably performed for a good 10 years in that area before the family even thought of going to Cairo. What one has to remember is that at that time there was tremendous traffic from villages to Cairo as the economy changed, usually for the worse, and villagers moved to the city to seek work, but didn’t necessarily lose their connection to their villages. So villagers went back and forth, and also performers came from Cairo to the local communities, often performing for wealthy landowner families, but also performing outdoors. So if a wealthy landowner invited a singer to come, or for that matter, and entire theatrical troupe, to come, one of the normal performance contexts was outside in tents so that everyone living nearby could come. And on these occasions, musicians found each other, and of course, as Umm Kulthum’s reputation grew, and that of her family, musicians coming from Cairo were told about her, and she occasionally would ask her father to invite them to the house so that these musicians who lived in Cairo met her as they met other local musicians, and in her case, pointed out that making music in Cairo was a lot more lucrative, and that it was probably something she should try. She could do well.
Once again, given that there was already an established pattern of migration to the city, usually in search of work, it was not an uncommon idea to have. Certainly it was a risk. But it wasn’t an unusual one for a family to take. So it was basically with that impetus that she moved to the city with her entire family.
Eyre: Are there any recordings that would be appropriate to play from this era? To give a sense of what this music was like?
Danielson: Yes, actually, there is one by one man who became her teacher, whose name is Cheikh Abu Al-Ila Muhammad. The library has a CD. It’s very rare. I can find it for you. He became her teacher because she heard she heard his recordings in the village. You could hear what she was listening to, but what is key to remember is that urban musicians sang with instruments for the most part. Even sort of beginning singers had instrumental accompanists, simply because the studio provided them. They did not do much recording of the rural performance. There may have been some, but I frankly can’t think of any. I can provide you models of a group of men accompanying a male solo singer, but they wouldn’t be quite sort of things that she would have performed.
Eyre: What was Cairo like in the 1920s?
Danielson: Cairo in the 1920s was, as many places in the world were at that time, relatively prosperous, in the postwar years. It was a very cosmopolitan city, and one indication of that is that theatrical magazines often had profiles of such people as Richard Wagner. Sarah Bernhardt performed in the city. There were routinely operatic, symphonic performances. Josephine Baker performed in the city. Rudolph Valentino was well-known there as an actor. I don’t think that he personally was ever there, but there was a wide awareness of the international scene, and of course also, a very questioning view of the international scene that grew out of the colonialism that virtually everyone experienced, from villagers who experienced conscription and oppressive taxes, to wealthy families whose options were basically constrained by the colonial authorities, the British colonial authorities. So the issue of for Egyptians was a very strongly felt, pervasive issue, and it didn’t matter what class of society you came from. That was an important idea that was in the air in the twenties.
Eyre: So tell us about Umm Kulthum’s experience of assimilation in the city.
Danielson: Well, Umm Kulthum came to Cairo as a country girl, and basically the clothing, the manners, the hairstyles that she had, and that were familiar to her, were very countrified. The repertory she sang viewed as countrified. It was familiar to urban audiences, but seen as old and unsophisticated, something that was done in villages and not so much in this city. Now, of course, it was done in parts of the city, but they tended to be the lower class, less wealthy parts. In order to make money, one had to perform downtown, and downtown required more of an awareness of the international scene than Umm Kulthum had, so she was criticized for the way she dressed. She wasn’t seen as having manners. People said that she couldn’t eat with a knife and fork, and of course she couldn’t. And her accompaniment by these male singers, who really weren’t very good, who weren’t up to the standard of the urban environment certainly, was seen as very old-fashioned, and unnecessary, particularly as her voice developed. As her singing skills developed, that accompaniment didn’t keep up with her vocally, and couldn’t, and so eventually, they were criticized as being simply unnecessary.
Eyre: Who were they?
Danielson: Her accompanists in the city, well for her entire life at that point, included her father, her brother, and a cousin, and occasionally other male family members that her father recruited to sing with them.
Eyre: I understand that she performed wearing a Bedouin headdress. What was that about?
Danielson: Oh yes. [SIGH] Initially, perhaps because her father felt it was a breach of his moral responsibility to the family to put his daughter on stage in front of men she didn’t know, he initially dressed her as a boy, using boys clothes, and for a while, I think it was possible to fool people into thinking she was his son and not his daughter. Now, of course, that the eventually became impossible, and he continued to permit her to sing, but it was a real dilemma, because, especially for a man who was religiously educated, putting your daughter up in front of an audience of usually man, that she didn’t know, was simply not a good way to protect her reputation. Regardless of how she behaved, it simply brought you and family under criticism, social criticism, for not protecting her. And I think it remained a dilemma for him, and in fact, Umm Kulthum always dressed relatively conservatively compared to her counterparts. Also, once she reached Cairo , it became clear that she wasn’t the prettiest women around either. And so she tended to make the use of conservative dress as a way of creating a persona for herself and emphasizing a particular part of her persona over others, rather than trying to compete as a physical beauty, which I think she would have had trouble doing, given the looks of the other women on the stage in Cairo.
And in the midst of all this, she appeared with her brother, dressed in Bedouin garb, which was fairly hilarious, because that would not have been the family dress at all. It was a costume as much as anything else was, but again, to emphasize her connection to the land, and her connection to the history of rather than her connection to the urban stage in the modern entertainer.
Eyre: That didn’t last very long in Cairo though, did it?
Danielson: Not at all. Eventually, fashionable dress simply became necessary, and the way that Umm Kulthum handled that was to watch what the wealthy Muslim women in this city wore, and to try to copy that. She had the opportunity to do that because she and her father were invited to perform in their houses, and she saw what many of the women looked like, and of course these were models of conservative dress who also shop and Paris and Rome , and had the means to buy fine fabrics and the latest fashions. So she developed her style by following the patterns of the wealthy, Muslim women.
Eyre: Tell us about her very first recordings.
Danielson: One of the opportunities that Cairo offered was that of making records. European recording companies reached out into virtually the entire world trying to expand their market for recordings, and this happened very fast, and recordings became very popular in Calcutta, in Istanbul, Cairo, Beirut, Algiers, places in , many, many places in the world. Basically, the companies would send engineers in, and recruit local artists to perform. Because these recordings were so popular locally, it was a very good way to make quite a lot of money for local artists, and so Umm Kulthum’s family was attracted to this possibility as being something that they could do in Cairo. It was another good reason to move to the city. So she was recruited initially by Odeon Records, and she made a number of recordings for them in 1924 and 25, singing songs that had been composed for her especially. At that time she had been in the city for a couple of years. She had this very interesting and capable voice, and composers liked composing for her. So she attracted the likes of her teacher, Abu Al-Ila Muhammad, also Muhammed al-Qasabji and others, who wrote the songs for her that she performed. These are not religious songs. These were new songs that were sometimes in elegant, literary Arabic, sometimes in colloquial Arabic, that were more or less characteristically contemporary love songs. The music that was written for her became quite popular.
Eyre: I am very impressed by her negotiating skills. And it seems to start right at the beginning. She always gets a good deal. Talk about that. You write that from the beginning she was one of the highest-paid singers for her recordings. How did she manage that?
Danielson: One of the interesting questions to me in looking not only at the story of Umm Kulthum, but in the career of any performing musicians, is: How did this really work? How did their careers actually work? One has to remember that nearly nowhere in the world do performers come from the upper classes. Rarely do beginning performers have any money to work with, so they have to do something to sustain themselves, musically or otherwise, in order to work. Umm Kulthum became aware that her recordings were very popular, and as I mentioned, there were a number of European companies competing for the market all over the world. Odeon was one of them. Parlaphone was another. Gramophone was another big one. They were located all over the world, and certainly in Cairo. So the managing directors of these agencies, who tended to be Egyptians, look for performers, sought performers, and bargained for their services.
Interestingly, there were a couple of dimensions. One could perform for a flat fee, which tended to be the option for less established musicians, those who were in need of immediate money. Or one could negotiate for a percentage of sales. Interestingly, very few if any women took a percentage of sales in the twenties. Later on they did, when they realized how well they could do. Umm Kulthum’s immediate reaction to this proposition was that she didn’t have time to audit the company’s books, and so she wasn’t interested in taking a chance on what they thought her profits war. But she did manage to negotiate a very good recording contract for herself by moving to the Gramophone recording company from Odeon, at the behest of a man who very much wanted to attain her services, for several reasons.
Gramophone did not have a very good reputation in the country at the time because the recording technology was inferior to some of the other companies. Now, this man had upgraded the technology, but he needed a star to draw attention to his label and draw more attention to his label. So he very much wanted Umm Kulthum, who by that time had quite a reputation in the city, and he offered her basically an honorarium, or a retainer for services, in addition to the fee-for-service for recordings. This was absolutely unprecedented, and what this did for was to sustain her income, and this became extremely important as the economy deteriorated at the end of the twenties and into the thirties. It sustained her income, and allowed her to choose what other kinds of performances she would give, said she didn’t have to be drawn into venues that she considered to be undesirable, or that might be damaging to her reputation, and she didn’t have to take up opportunities that may have been just plain silly. She didn’t have the tour, for example. So there were many things that she didn’t have to do as a result of obtaining this retainer, and that’s what made it desirable for her to move from Odeon to Gramophone where she stayed until the early 1930s.
Eyre: That shrewdness for making the deal, was that her, or were there people around her? It seems like she had a lot of savvy right from the get-go.
Danielson: I think that Umm Kulthum was always a pretty good businesswoman, and this would not have been unusual, because in many families, rich or poor, women handled the household money. Women made the purchases and managed many investments however small or large those may be, and so thinking in terms of value would not have been something women were unused to doing. I am also under the impression that her father was not very good at it, and so there became a need for someone to step into the breach and make sure they were actually getting what they should be paid, and she had an aptitude for and so she did it.
Eyre: If her father wasn’t good at that, perhaps she was already experienced in this area.
Danielson: Yeah, her father was not particularly apt when it came to money. This became clear when Umm Kulthum entered the company of other musicians working commercially and realized what they were being offered and what they were getting. Also, this was a world of written contracts, even in the countryside. If a family invited a performer to come for a particular occasion, the agreement was often in writing, indicating that the performer would be at such and such a place at such and such a time, and performed for us and such money, and the money would or would it not include transportation, and would or would not include accompanists. This was not infrequently written down. Again, it was a transaction. It wasn’t a kind of happy, fuzzy environment where musicians love to sing and just did it because they loved it.
Eyre: So, around the time she makes the deal with Gramophone, 1926, the also has this rather dramatic reinvention of her stage presentation. Talk about that.
Danielson: The first few years that Umm Kulthum spent in Cairo were very much learning years. She had to adjust to the norms of the city. She wanted the most lucrative performing opportunities. At the time she started making records, she was confronted with the necessity of using instrumentalists that the record company provided, because that was their expectation, and they were calling the shots. So she needed to learn about the norms of the city, even though at first she was a very much a novelty, and she was appreciated as a novelty. People remember. Literary figures who were later asked about her remember saying to each other, “Have you seen the Bedouin singer? She’s got this amazing voice.” So the novelty lasted for a certain period of time, but then, critics in the newspapers and magazines, of which there were many, said, “Well, you know, her repertory varies from religious songs to these cheap little cities that people request. She doesn’t look very good. Her dresses are not so much. The voice is powerful, but she can’t do a lot with it. She doesn’t have a lot of musical skills…”
And so she began to take music lessons. She was tutored in poetry, and taught to memorize lots of poetry. As I said, singing great poetry was the expectation. That was the norm. So she sought ways to avoid singing the real cheap little deities, and to focus on music that seemed to be worth while. Again, her entire persona was not well suited to be a sort of a musical comedy revue star. And so there was no point in going in that direction. The singing refined poetry seemed to be a way to showcase her voice and the skills that she had, and so that’s what she did. When the contract with Gramophone came along, she had reached the point of deciding that he needed to make a break with her family, and she needed to work only with instrumentalists, and she hired some of the finest instrumentalists in the city, with support from her family. They were apparently behind this, for very interesting reasons. She had by that time caught onto the styles of the local elite women, and started to copy them. And she had attracted sufficient poets for that matter, and also composers who wrote music for, who were very fine artists. And so she was able to create her own repertory. And so with the new recording contract in 1926, she also launched Umm Kulthum a la takht, with a takht, with this ensemble of very fine instrumentalists who she worked with. Well, she worked with very fine instrumentalists from 1926 until she died, and this group stayed with her. One of stayed with her until he died in 1966. They stayed with her at least into the 1930s. It was a very fine group of people.
The reason that it worked out in terms of her family was that they had saved enough money by that time to buy land, and for virtually any Egyptian of any class, land ownership was the sina qua non for elite status. Being able to own land more than anything else was a financial accomplishment, a signal of status, and so her father was very happy to retire back to his village, where she bought a large parcel of land for him and his son was the overseer of the land. So they returned to the village, not as disenfranchised artists, but as landowners, and this was very satisfactory to everyone.
Eyre: Do we have any recordings of Umm Kulthum before the takht?
Danielson: Well, no. Actually, all the recordings feature takhts, because the recording companies insisted on them. So even the very earliest recordings feature instrumentalists. I’m not sure we know who all instrumentalists are because they would have been the house musicians that Odeon had, but we do know who the ones are with Gramophone.
Eyre: So there are no recordings, no record, of the sound that she put on the stage before 1926.
Danielson: No. Not in her voice, and I don’t think you could really even come close to it.
Eyre: This is the point where she begins referring to her musical pieces as ughniyya. It seems like she’s already taking sides in this westernization versus non-Westernization dialogue that is going on. How does this “Egyptianness” quality emerge at this early stage?
Danielson: The resistance to the colonial presence in Cairo combined with the obvious technological superiority of Europe , which in the music world was manifest by recording production companies and that sort of thing, was really a subject that was on everyone’s mind. And the key question was: What of these new technologies and these new approaches to life can we use, without sacrificing our entire background and our values? People had very different attitudes about this. Politicians had very different attitudes. The merchant class, farmers, landowners, and performing artists had different attitudes. Performing artists tended to try things out, and if the audience liked them, fine. They would run with them. If they didn’t, these things would fall out of performance practice. Then, the more intellectual musicians would argue, “Well, should we actually use cello or not? Should we use the string bass, or should we stay with our own instruments?” And so on. Musicians had very different views of these things.
Umm Kulthum held with an Arab aesthetic that was by that time centuries old. That was the centrality of the sung poem to performance. That was a value that she was brought up with, that was important in her circle of friends, that included important poets in Cairo, and the need to sort of use the Arab system of modes, Arab modes, or maqamat, in order to bring out the meaning of a really fine poem, was fundamental to her musical thinking throughout her life. Now, in the twenties, she experimented as much as anybody. The song for example, “In Kont Assameh” includes some triadic gestures and clear evidence of the impact of Western musical systems. Also songs composed by Mohammed al-Qasabji, who was very conversant with Western musical theory and symphonic norms. He composed lots of songs for her and remained a close friend and colleague for her entire life, but she eventually stopped singing his compositions because his interests went in the direction of Western musical systems, harmonic systems, triadic, melodic gestures, that by the end of the 30s, she had become uncomfortable with and didn’t like singing, and didn’t want to pursue. So one sees this mix in her repertory in the twenties. This exists in the context of musicians such as Mohammed Abd al-Wahhab, who, although he was also classically trained in the Arab sense, was very interested in European musical systems and pushed them much farther than Umm Kulthum ever did. She remained much closer to the norm of Arabic sung poetry all her life, and she was rewarded for this. Especially in the “ for Egyptians” environment, using Egyptian melodic modes, singing colloquial Egyptian songs, singing historical Arabic poetry, was an articulation of local values that was very much rewarded. Now that didn’t mean that there were no people who appreciated the innovations of an Abd al-Wahhab. But what one can say is that she was very well rewarded for staying close to home in this musical sense.
“Khassamatni” is another song that was composed by Mohammed al-Qasabji for Umm Kulthum. That’s an interesting one that combines the close treatment of text that one would use for a sung Arabic poem with the kind of triadic, melodic gestures that al-Qasabji love to use. So this is probably a reasonably good example of a combination of Western musical gestures with some of the principles of Arabic sung poetry.
Eyre: At this time, we start getting the first live radio concerts. How did that come about?
Danielson: Radio started to become popular in Cairo in 1920s through private radio stations that aficionados of technology started to build up, and interestingly, one of the first singers on these private stations was Ali al-Atrache who is Farid al-Atrache’s mother. She had come to Cairo and she made a little money by singing in these radio stations, but they didn’t have much power, and it wasn’t until 1934 when Marconi established what became a national radio station in Cairo , that the medium actually took off and became widely received. What one has to remember is that whether one is talking about commercial recordings, or radios, or later televisions, or cassette players, it wasn’t necessary for an individual to buy one of the devices in order to have access to them. Because they appeared in coffee houses where anyone could come, and so if one could afford to buy a record, forget about the record prayer. One could take it to a coffeehouse and it would be played, or one could sit and drink coffee and listen to somebody else’s record. The same thing happened with radio and later television, cassette players, and virtually every other medium. So that’s one way in which technology became very widespread in the Middle East among all classes, because there was no question of having to own a gadget that played the thing. So radio became very, very popular very, very quickly.
But Umm Kulthum was a little suspicious of it, because for her entire life she preferred to sing in front of a live audience. And here she would be in a booth in a radio station, and this didn’t really seemed like fun, or it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. The music programmer for radio only got her to agree to perform by telling her that Abd al-Wahhab, her main competitor, had agreed and would be singing on Thursday nights, which was primetime in the Muslim world. So she immediately agreed that she would sing too, provided they could split Thursday nights, which they did. This went on for some time. Now typically, from 1934, when the radio station opened, to about ‘36, any live performer would be given about 20 minutes to perform, so it was a good chunk of time. Thursday nights were primetime, but the amount of time given for any given song was significant. One could sing one song and improvise for the amount of time that one had, or several songs, or whatever. But in 1936, when her contract was up, Umm Kulthum asked if she could broadcaster entire concerts. Now she had by that time developed the habit of singing on Thursday nights.
One has to remember that Friday is the Muslim holiday, and so Thursday night would be the equivalent of Friday night in the , for example. People are willing to stay up late. They were willing to go out. They were willing to do all kinds of things they wouldn’t do if tomorrow was a workday. So she would customarily sing from about 9:30 until about two or three in the morning on a Thursday night, and she would sing two or three songs, and improvise during that amount to time.
So, in 1936, and she got the radio station to agree to broadcast these concerts live, and radio said, “Sure,” without I think knowing it exactly what their costs would be, and did so for a season. So basically, Umm Kulthum managed to get the entire Thursday night once a month devoted to her own artistry, and that remained the case until she died. It was a way of moving front and center culturally in a musical life of the Arab world as the radio station became stronger and stronger, which it did, particularly under the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the fifties, and she became the international star that she was predominantly by that means.
Eyre: And it was the first Thursday of every month.
Danielson: Yes. The first Thursday of every month during the season, which tended to be in November through May or June.
Eyre: Let’s talk about her voice, the characteristics of her voice.
Danielson: Umm Kulthum’s voice was a very strong voice, and this is an important characteristic. It’s a very value to characteristic in Arab culture, and what is particularly important is that it remains strong from the bottom of its range to the top. Issues of soprano, alto, tenor, bass, don’t apply. One sings in what a Westerner would call chest voice from top to bottom. Now, variety was introduced, coloristic variety, by such things as falsetto, but only if it were used ornamentally. If one had to use falsetto just to get the note, that was a flaw. But as an ornamental device, falsetto could be very beautiful. And also an intentional hoarseness or bahha, that implied great emotion. This was also a quality that if deployed properly was very, very evocative. Coloristic change that would include what was referred to as “sweet nasality,” or ghunna, a nasality that basically and engages frontal, facial residence. It is not a matter of singing through the nose, but simply singing using the frontal bones of the face for residence, rather than sort of singing out of the top of your head, for example the way a bel canto singer would do, using a lot of head resonance for that opened sound than one associates with Italian opera, for example. This was a much more facial resonance. Moving around from one resonance to another was very, very expressive. And if you listen carefully to Umm Kulthum’s singing, in many songs would manifest this, if not all of them. “Khassamatni” I believe, includes this feature. She was able to manipulate resonances very quickly, and to shift. If one tries to do it oneself, one can find out how hard it is. To shift easily from one place of resonance to another, and to create this wide, coloristic palette that she had.
She also understood music very well and could invent musically, could improvise very well. But her improvisations are not like instrumental improvisations. She remained very close to the value of sung poetry, and so she would construct variations on melodies that are very, very closely tied to the text. She would not go off on melodic tangents for their own sake, whereas an instrumentalist would. That is a huge difference between the kind of variation she did and a kind one would hear from an oud player, or any other instrumental soloist.
Eyre: It has more to do with the emotional character, different ways of emphasizing the emotional character of the lyric. Not so much the rhythms and the modes.
Danielson: Abstracting melodic gestures one could find in Umm Kulthum’s performances, but they are not bedrock at all. Basically, delivery of varying takes on the meanings of the words was the critical and the driving force, and one engaged melody to do that, not simply as flights of melodic fancy.
Eyre: What is a good example of that quality of hoarseness you talked about?
Danielson: “Biradhak Yahalijia,” from the film, Salama. That’s a very short song, and at the melodic climax, her voice breaks. It’s a very clear example. You absolutely can’t miss it. And if you have to bear in mind is that it is deliberate. Once you’ve heard it, it will jump out at you elsewhere. It is easy for a Western art to hear what she’s doing in this song, because she gets their very quickly.
Eyre: Let’s talk about the importance of her interaction with the audience. It became something of a ritual, the way they would respond and shape the concert. Maybe we could start by talking about the role of the audience in general in this type of music.
Danielson: Musical performance throughout the Arabic world historically is a very interactive art. In the context of sung poetry, the expectation would be that a singer would deliver lines of a poem to an audience who would immediately respond to the effectiveness of the delivery, in terms of perhaps the choice of melodic mode, the engagement of the voice, the various attempts to bring out the meaning of the line, and the audience would respond immediately. Not by hooting and hollering, and not in any old place in the performance, but at the end of a particularly effective line, there would be a verbal gesture. “Allah!” Or some indication that the listener had been moved by what the artist did. When that happened, the artist would very often stay in that place in the poem before a period of time, working with that section of the poem until the audience had had enough, or until the singer had run out of ideas, whichever happened first, and then move on. Now this is basic Arabic musical performance, whether it is instrumental or vocal. The interaction is a hugely important, historically driven aesthetic, so that the audience has a major role in the outcome and a performance, in its length, and also in its shape. So a song that if played from beginning to end with no repetitions might last five or six minutes, could in performance last for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or even longer than that, and the sections of the songs might have different lengths in the course a performance.
So if one looks at it from the standpoint of the deployment of social time, social time is not dictated by the virtuosity of the singer, or by the idea of a composer, but by the performer, and the composer as a background figure, and the audience collectively. This is very, very different from European classical music, where, however much you might like Beethoven’s fifth, it ends where it ends and there’s nothing you can do about it.
This was a basic feature of the kind of performance that Umm Kulthum was brought up with, and that she advanced for her entire life. Now it took a powerful performer to do this, because not every audience was polite. Not every audience was sober. Not every audience had the kind of knowledge to make appropriate responses happen. So there had to be sort of ways that a singer could control the environment, so it didn’t just get completely out of hand. One has to remember also that public concerts were new to the Arab world at the turn of the 20th century, and that they tended to include lots of men, young men particularly, who were sort of out of the familial controls that weddings and other kinds of celebratory events would involve, and so they behaved worse. Singers, whether they were male or female, took a variety of approaches to deal with the situation. In some cases, they would pack the audience with their supporters, who would react in the way they wanted them to react and thereby guide everyone else. A powerful personality code that a certain amount of control too, and singers such as Muhamed Abd al-Wahhab or Umm Kulthum attained that position as performers, so that if they evinced a little disapproval, or sort of looked askance at a reaction, that it did have a controlling effect. They knew, simply as experienced performers, what to do and what not to do to sort of keep the tone of the environment, the tone of the event in line with what they wanted it to be.
Eyre: I was surprised to read how much people drank these performances.
Danielson: The audiences, especially in the first half of the century—and many Egyptians would attribute this sort of drunkenness and bad behavior to the colonial influence—but the fact was that as a performing venues developed in the first quarter of the 20th century, public concerts became the norm. There were spaces that were called casinos. They didn’t necessarily involve gambling but they were places where you could certainly buy alcohol, and there was entertainment. Music halls were also places that you could buy alcohol. And these developed in the years when there was a colonial presence, and also there were lots of foreign soldiers, particularly in the teens and twenties, and then again in the late thirties and forties. There were lots of foreign soldiers in Cairo who had no constraints on their behavior at all, and in fact were accustomed to drinking alcohol, and in fact didn’t know how to behave politely in Arab culture. They didn’t know what was polite and what wasn’t polite. So the kind of public behavior that one had to put up with as an entertainer in these environments was pretty extreme. Local audiences became drawn into the kind of drinking, and in some cases drugging and carrying on, that happened in these places, and one simply had to have strategies for dealing with them.
Now in the later 20th-century, public concerts took place in theaters where there was no alcohol and in the Cairo Opera House, which was used for these performances, so the whole venue changed quite a bit. And not to be forgotten, after 1934, there were lots and lots of people who listened to famous artists such as Umm Kulthum from their living rooms, on the radio, or later on television, and drank tea with their friends and were in very contained environments. So this kind of outrageous behavior was kind of a flash in the pan, I think.
Eyre: You described the 1940s as Umm Kulthum’s golden era. Give us a sense of what a concert would be like during that time.
Danielson: The 1940s was a very tumultuous time in . Of course, the population that was subjected to the presence of foreign troops in the country remembered what had happened the last time, and so it wasn’t just that they were there; it was that they were there again. The population was very polarized. It believed itself to be involved in a foreign war, not a war of its own, not a war in which it had any interest other than surviving and remaining independent. It became clear during the forties that part of the problem was its own government, which was not up to dealing with other kinds of social crises, such as malaria, and the whole question of the economy generally. So there was just a great deal of turmoil. And then into the mix came the partition of Palestine , which was another very, very dramatically bad political event from the standpoint of local Egyptians. And this sort of environment, as the historian Afaf Marsot has pointed out many times, tended to throw Egyptians back on their own values, on a sort of back to basics: what is really ours, what are our values? What do we think social norms should be? And in many cases, the recourse was to Islam. So one sees this in the production of performers in the 1940s in a variety of ways. For example, one sees much more colloquial poetry, and very colloquial poetry, that made use of Egyptian conversational norms, much of that written by the poet Bayram al-Tunisi, who is a tremendous nationalist, known as a great nationalist. And also a drawing of religious expression back into public entertainment. Now we saw this at the beginning of Umm Kulthum’s career, and in the forties, it happened again, as explicitly devotional performances became part of public performances in music calls, again as an articulation of local values, in this case Muslim devotional values.
In fact, devotional life is important across-the-board in in my opinion. Whether one is Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, one tends to value religious devotion as an important component of life, and so the drawing back in of overtly religious expression, as opposed to copying the model of Hollywood films for example and thirties, became a much more important part of culture then. And one saw this in Umm Kulthum’s concerts. Know the radio and the public concert environmental were extremely important because there was no shellac to produce recordings. So very very few recordings were produced during this time, and usually only of the very most popular songs that were requested time and time again. There just wasn’t enough material to do this, and so the performances had moved to the biggest theaters in Cairo by that time. I think predominantly the Ezbekiya (??) Theatre, which was a movie theater, was used for many of the performances. It sat about 900 people, and it was the largest in Cairo at the time, and that’s where Umm Kulthum’s performances would take place. And when would sing her colloquial songs or her religious songs…
The religious songs had multiple meetings, some of which could be political meanings as well, calls to arms on behalf of the people. Umm Kulthum concerts became a rallying points for many other sentiments in the country, many nationalistic sentiments, many—I don’t know if you use the word pan-Arab—but certainly widely shared Arab concerns. These were articulated through the poetry and singing of Umm Kulthum. At this point, there were foreigners who came to the concerts. One finds, for example, diplomatic records in the American embassies of people going to the concerts and not quite understanding what was going on, but knowing that it was something important. But basically, they were very Egyptian at this particular point, and the military life of foreigners existed more or less apart from this environment.
Eyre: This is the point when she is performing colloquial songs and also qasa’id (singular qasida), which is a grand confluence of Arabic poetry and neoclassical compositions. Maybe the way to get at this is to talk about these two very powerful collaborators she worked with during the 1930s, Zakariyya Ahmad and Bayram al-Tunisi.
Danielson: Perhaps the greatest composer of colloquial Egyptian music that Umm Kulthum worked with was Zakariyya Ahmad. She knew him for her entire performing career. He was one of the musicians who came from Cairo and heard her sing in the Delta, and helped her when she tried to settle in Cairo . He always had a lot of respect for her voice, and he was part of an extremely important to group of artists who valued colloquial expression. Badi Khayri the playwright and poet was another, and Bayram al-Tunisi the poet was a third. Basically, these poets wrote song lyrics because they were lucrative ways of making money. Their artistry, if you will, is probably better manifest in literary works such as plays and poems, but the song lyrics, nonetheless, had high impact. And they tended, in Bayram’s case particularly, to draw small elements of colloquial expression right into the song. There were very terse. The characters that emerged in the songs were sort of local characters, women waiting for men who never showed up, funny characters from the rural environment. They drew heavily on these sorts of images, and then the musical composition relied on melodic modes that could not be easily harmonized, that were just bedrock Egyptian, popular, Egyptian melodic modes. So the result was this wonderful, highly colloquial repertoire. It was very deceptive, because Zakariyya Ahmad’s songs sounded as though anyone could sing them, and people would try to sing along with them, and it sounded very simple. The problem was getting from beginning to end, because when you try to do that, you would find that in fact the song had a very wide range, that it required a lot of vocal manipulation that an average person couldn’t easily do, and then when you added improvisation to that, the whole thing just became a tour de force that an amateur musician would just give up on.
One good example of that that remains very popular in the repertory is the song “Ghannin li Shwayya Shwayya,” which means “Sing to Me a Little Bit.” Basically, this is a strophic song that has a different melody for each strophe with a refrain that has the same melody that you can sing along with. This one became popular in the film Salama, and it had maybe a four or five minute piece of the film when Umm Kulthum sang a song, but there’s also a concert version of the song went on for maybe half an hour. This song became very popular out of the film context, and still it is a song that lots of Arab American groups know and try to sing or perform.
Another side of the repertory in the forties was the very classical poetic genre, qasida, which is thousands of years old. They have been known in the Arab world for a thousand years certainly. This is a very elaborate and demanding poetic structure. Again, Umm Kulthum was taught to sing these as a child, and learned them in early years. However, poetically, they tend to depend on historical and religious allusion. They tend to be jam-packed with meaning. They often use words that might sound to an English speaker the way Shakespearean English would, with syntactical structures and vocabulary that were just not very familiar. The entire language was perceived to be more remote, certainly more remote than colloquial poetry, but also more remote than other contemporary literary forms. So with the religious songs of the 1940s, Umm Kulthum also brought back the genre qasida, and people told her that it would never work, that no one was going to sit through this thing. They would be bored, and it would not be seen as entertainment. In fact, just the opposite happened, partly because at that time she worked with a very accomplished young composer and oud player, Riad al-Sunbati, who wrote music for these poems that was very, very respectful of classical Arab norms, which been used for qasa’id, but also updated them with new instruments, sometimes electronic instruments, with new musical gestures. He used instruments such as the cello and bass to put a little bit of a baseline and some of the songs. And so basically, they were very, very musically accomplished, complicated but modern settings for this poetry, which actually did become very popular with people. The qasa’id from the 1940s, first of all, remained popular throughout Umm Kulthum’s life. Riad al-Sunbati remained a composer for her until her death, and continued writing some of the most popular neoclassical compositions that she ever sang, including “Al Atlal,” which of course is a signature piece for her. That was recorded in 1966.
Eyre: I really like this al Sunbati piece also, “El Alb Yeshak Kol Gamil.” It’s very lively.
Danielson: It is. That’s a later one. It’s also very popular. This was written in the late sixties. This one is played a lot.
Eyre: Okay, let’s talk about both of them, starting with “Al Atlal.”
Danielson: “Al Atlal” (“Traces”) is an interesting composition. It was written by a very, very neo-romantic poet Ibrahim Nagi in 1949. And it was published the way lots of poems were published initially, which was in magazines and newspapers, and is this was published sequentially. Nagi was a poet whom a well-known literary scholar has said, “never had a political thought in his life.” Very, very romantic, very interested in romantic, geographical depictions of deserts and whatnot. With “Atlal,” what Umm Kulthum did it was she took parts of this poem and combine them with another one of his poems called “Al Wida” (“The Farewell”), and basically created her own poem. Now, exerpting lines from longer qasa’id was something singers did all the time. That didn’t bother anybody. But what she did was from every four of his lines, she would take three, and then she dumped the second poem in the middle of it, and that drove literary scholars nuts. This they thought a singer had no right to do. That opinion was not very long-lived however, because the song, which was set to music by Riad al-Sunbati, was not only successful, but it remains such a signature piece that if you simply play the very beginning notes of “Al Atlal,” you will invoke the memory of Umm Kulthum, with just those notes, even for people who don’t know her repertory very well.
“Atlal” also has lines that have been carried by audience members, and by Umm Kulthum herself in some contexts, into very different political places than poet, the author of the lines, ever went. One of the lines, “Give me my freedom. Set free my hands,” became a sort of an outcry in the mid-sixties against the repressions of the Nasser government, against the horrible political position that many Arabs felt themselves to be an internationally, particularly with the defeat in 1967 war. So the sentiments of this initially highly romantic poem were basically moved by the audience into much different contexts to give expression in an oblique way into different and more dramatic political feelings. So that song has remained extremely important ever since its first performance.
Eyre: Fantastic. Not tell us a bit about “El Alb Yeshak Kol Gamil.”
Danielson: “El Alb Yeshak Kol Gamil” is an interesting example of a collaboration between Riad al Sunbati, who is best known for neoclassical structures, and Bayram al-Tunisi, who is best known for colloquial ones. This sort of cross-fertilization was not so unusual. This is a relatively late song of Umm Kulthum’s. I believe it’s from the late 1960s. It’s very upbeat, and very powerful, a popular song.
Eyre: I love the way you described in your book the whole process of putting a song together. It takes about a year at the height of her career. Take us through that.
Danielson: One reason that Umm Kulthum is so interesting to focus on is that she is not simply a carrier of someone else’s art, but very much a creator of her own idiom. Partly that’s because of the improvisation and invention that a singer was required to do in performance. But partly it also has to do with her involvement in the composition of her own pieces. Ever since the late 1920s, virtually everything she performed was written especially for her, and as she became more powerful, she acquired more authority over the compositions, so that wise composers would say, “You never go to her with a complete song. You go to her with three or four different starts, and then depending on what she likes, you write more. But it’s a waste of time to bring a complete song, because if she doesn’t like it, you’ve just used a whole lot of your time for nothing.”
So what would happen is that Umm Kulthum, with her circle of friends, would find text that she liked. Or appellate would submit a text to her and she would decide she wanted to sing the text. Then she would send the complete text to a composer that she thought would do a good job of it, and then the composer would start to write, and as I said, composers experienced been working with her would bring just the beginning of the composition, just the first few lines, and play it for her. Then she would criticize it, or she would say, “Yes I like it. No I don’t. Let’s keep going along these lines.” And the song would collectively be completed, usually in this collaborative way of the composer bringing pieces of music tour. These pieces would not be written down. It would simply be in a composer’s head, and he would play and saying his composition to her and self. She would learn it, suggest emendations, and eventually a song would come out of all this. It was a very tedious process, and she sent composers back time and time again. Sometimes she would get to the end of the process and say, “You know, I really don’t like this.” And there the thing would go. If the composer were well enough known, often another singer would picket out, so it would be performed by somebody, but just not her.
Then the process of teaching the song to the ensemble would start. This also was done by ear, because it was Umm Kulthum’s firm belief that if you internalized a piece, you would play it better. This happened in an era when most musicians did read music because it was an important job skill. If you read music, you could be a session musician. If you read music, you could do radio work, and so most of them did read music and were used to it. But she wouldn’t have any of it, and didn’t use it, and so the composer would come and teach the piece to the ensemble the same way that he had taught it to her, and very often she would be in the audience, sort of watching and listening to this process. Sometimes the musicians would have suggestions for improvements and additions, and those were also taken seriously, if they came from senior people.
Eventually, over the course of the year, the entire piece would be learned and rehearsed again and again, and would be ready for performance. Both Umm Kulthum and Muhamed Abd al-Wahhab were very, very fussy about their performances, and they would pay out-of-pocket for many more rehearsals than most musicians would pay for. They simply took no chances with something going wrong, with somebody not being on the same page for how a piece should sound. Abd al-Wahhab was really the most aggressive of the two in this regard. He would have up to 50 or 55 rehearsals for a single piece before he would be willing to perform it. Umm Kulthum was also much more demanding of the time of musicians than most performers were during her lifetime.
Eyre: And she would record the piece before she performed, so that the record would be there waiting to be sold.
Danielson: Usually, Umm Kulthum would make the recording of the piece before the live performance. That meant that a recording could be timed to come out at the same time as the initial concert was held, and then later on when it became possible, recordings would be issued of live performances, which are from our standpoint a lot more interesting. Then, she would also exercised a great deal of care in the editing of the performance, so that she or somebody else did make the mistake, you won’t hear it on the commercial, so-called “live” recording that is available. For some songs, for example “Al Atlal,” there are many, many large recordings available. People also recorded from radio, listeners in their homes, and so private collections often contain complete recordings without any editing, which are very interesting, although the production technology isn’t very good because it was basically just the machine in the living room with the radio.
Eyre: The audience reaction changes over time. By the fifties and sixties, it’s this roaring crowd with lots of whistling. Maybe you could just talk about how this audience response evolved.
Danielson: Performing before 800 people, of course, is a dramatic change from performing before a few connoisseurs. When Umm Kulthum performed before these very large audiences, although she tried to create a sense of intimacy, especially with those sitting toward the front of the hall, it was largely fictive. Some people said that the audience response took on the life of its own, so that they would contribute a sort of uproarious approval of almost anything she did, whether it was interesting than not. The audience behavior became predictable. Every now and then, she would raise this subject in radio interviews, or in published interviews. She would say, “I really love when the audience response and claps, but I hate the whistling.” And then people would try to shush the whistlers at the next concert. So she would try to talk about this in a way that would produce the result she wanted.
Because of the nature of the art as the singing of poetry, and because of the familiarity of the parameters of that art, most of the response came at the end of the line, which was appropriate. So that the fact that a performance was interrupted and brought to a halt was not really very important. That could be appropriate. Most people knew not to interrupt the middle of the line or exclaim loudly at any old place, and so to that extent, the performance worked reasonably well, but there were many times when entire 20-minute introduction was repeated because the audience just liked it so well and they would clap and cheer, clap and cheer, clap and cheer, until finally there was really no recourse but to go back and play the whole thing again. So the audience had quite an impact in that regard.
Eyre: She would often edit that stuff out of the recording, right?
Danielson: When a live recording was released, Umm Kulthum or her representatives would often take a lot of the audience reaction out, reasoning that nobody wanted to pay for 10 or 15 minutes of clapping on a recording. Sometimes the so-called “live” recording would actually be a composite of several different live performances put together, so that she sort of got the best of her own performances in one performance. Not always. For example, there is only one known live recording of “Ana Fi Entesarak,” so that’s it. So whatever the cover looks like, you’re going to get the same thing. But of the others, it’s not entirely clear.
Eyre: At this point, the height of her career, she’s giving very long concerts. Tell us what a concert would consist of.
Danielson: Her concerts were characteristically very, very long. She normally would sing three songs. The compositional length of any song was maybe 20 or 25 minutes, and by the time the performance was over, it was easily double that length, and sometimes more than that. So the song itself would expand to 40 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half, in one memorable case, two hours. And the shape of the song would be different, of course, and every performance. The concerts were built to start at 9:30. They typically started somewhere between 9:30 and 10, and occasionally, if she knew that a flight from Beirut or somewhere in the Arab world was late, that night she would hold the concert for the flight, so that everyone knew it intended to get the award. The first song that she sang was typically a song the audience knew, and she is that opportunity to sing something familiar, to get them engaged with a concert, thesaurus on what the audience was like, to get herself and her accompanists warmed up, and then I she had a new song, it was typically second. The third song sometimes would not even be decided until the night of the performance, because she would judge what she would sing based on how late it was, how much energy she thought she had, what she thought the audience might want to hear at that point, depending on how the new song went. So often, when one reads reviews of concerts, whenever the third song was falls right off the map. No one remembers it. It’s just something that was sort of there.
Between songs, she would take breaks, and these breaks could be quite lengthy. I think they were scheduled for 15 or 20 minutes, but they could be as much as an hour. People would go backstage to visit her during these times, and so what a wonderful concert it was and what are you going to sing next, and talk to her. So these became just massive social events for those in attendance, and even for those who aren’t, who were sitting at home acting like audience members, talking about the song and drinking more tea, and socializing among themselves while they waited for the next part of the concert to start.
In the 1960s, a journalist who is actually very prestigious at the time, noted that this really had gone completely out of control, that whereas in the past, her concerts would wind up sometime between two and three in the morning, now it was more like four or five. And she, of course, by this time with something like 65, 66 years old, so this cannot have been an easy performance venue for her. She took the opportunity to cut down to two songs, rather than three, in each performance. That had some effect of shortening the concerts, but not as much as he would have thought, because again, the audience had kind of taken on a life of its own at that point, and they would request repetitions and reiterations, no matter what she sang.
Eyre: And this whole thing would be broadcast on the radio. What did they do during the breaks?
Danielson: During the breaks, there would usually be a news update or some other kind of music. Maybe some kind of commentary.
Eyre: Let’s talk a little bit about her personal life, which she was very reluctant to talk about publicly. Ultimately she got married, after a long time of being single and a lot of rumors. Tell us a bit about the difficulties that she had, and how she managed the presentation of her personal life.
Danielson: Early on, Umm Kulthum had a bad experience with the press in which she, like many other public figures and persons in society, had what was thought of as an “at home,” one afternoon a week in which people could visit her. And a journalist noted that there was a married man there almost all the time, acting as one case, “as though he were the man of the house.” This outraged Umm Kulthum’s father, who basically threatened to pack the whole family up and take them back to the village. He was persuaded not to do that, but the solution that the family found was simply not to let anyone near them, ever, in a personal context. All media contact was controlled, even from the late 1920s. It wasn’t until she was an older woman that Umm Kulthum even talked about her personal opinions. Basically, she said, “I’m a singer. I can talk about my singing, about my songs, but that’s all I’m going to talk about.” So whatever her personal life was, and of course, there were all kinds of rumors about what it consisted of, and who was in love with her. There were rumors that she actually had been married a couple of times. Basically, she let them slide. She allowed them to just lay and didn’t address any of them. She built a house for herself and had a kind of receiving area where people could come, and when she made herself available, it was under very constrained circumstances.
With particularly the battle of Faluja in the late 1940s, which was a battle, interestingly, that both Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser were involved in, and which turned out to be a sort of tragic, heroic stand for the Egyptian army, she allowed her political views to become more clear, by supporting the cause of the troops in Faluja, and she then went on to be outspoken in her support for the new Nasser government. This was new.
At the same time, we do know that she experienced some thyroid trouble in the late 1940s, which was terribly depressing because in those days, any sort of surgery on the thyroid could result in a loss of voice. So this was not just simply a medical problem that had to be dealt with. It was a potential loss of our entire identity. At the time, she had also been involved with a member of the Egyptian Royal court, who aspired to marry her. This was a marriage that by all accounts she would have welcomed. He was apparently a very nice man, a senior person in the court, very wealthy, although by that time, so was she, a very respectable figure. But the royal family just said absolutely not. “You are not going to marry a singer.” I think this came as a huge shock to her. Having accomplished as much as she had in her life, I don’t think she saw that particular glass ceiling, and it was there.
And so all things considered, she had a very, very rough time at the end of the forties and the beginning of the fifties, and you can see it in her output. It was only in 1954 that she started to come back from the thyroid surgery, which by the way, the American Government provided for her at Bethesda Naval Hospital as a gift to the new Nasser Government. This was I think a lucky thing, because it’s unlikely that any Egyptian singer would have been eager to do that surgery. It turned out very well. She was able to return to singing, and one sees her career pick up again in 1954, which is also the year that she married Hasan al-Hifnawi, who is a well-known Egyptian dermatologist, with much the same social background as her. He was a self-made person, and came from a rural background, and his case in Upper Egypt, was a diligent worker, had done very well for himself, and that marriage was seen as a marriage of companionability that saw her to the end of her life.
Eyre: Let’s talk about the ultimate, long anticipated collaboration between Umm Kulthum and Abd al-Wahhab in the 1960s.
Danielson: Umm Kulthum and Muhamed Abd al-Wahhab remained friendly competitors throughout their entire lives. Their performance styles were very different. Both were extremely popular. Both were extremely well-loved, considered to be sort of the paragons of musical achievement in , and to some extent, throughout the Arab world, for different reasons. During the Nasser years, it became important to Gamal Abdel Nasser, and to his cultural governance, that the two collaborate. He wanted to foster that, kept bringing them together, and inviting them to the same places, and eventually, they gave in and did. It was quite a negotiation, because Abd al-Wahhab was afraid that she would simply take over anything that he composed, and turn it into something else. Umm Kulthum was afraid that she would have no opportunity for improvisation because by that time, Abd al-Wahhab was extremely well-known for his control over his performances. For example, he would write out—he used musical notation a lot—and he would write out passages that sounded as though they were improvised, but then insist that they be played exactly the same way every time. So she was very worried about being controlled by him, and he by her, and there was just all kinds of effort that went into the negotiation that finally brought them together.
What happened was an interesting melding of styles that was palatable to some people and not others. They produced 10 songs together, and the songs in a very general way are characterized by what might be seen as a standard Abd al-Wahhab compositional structure, which involved many sections of music, one after the other, often distinguished by a rhythmic contrasts, and that drew on many Western instruments, Western musical styles, including jazz styles, barn dance styles. Anything that he could absorb and reuse, he would reuse. He was very good at it. He had a very good ear for what was at the bottom of a musical style, and would be able to reproduce it remarkably well. Lots of emphasis on the instrumental components of songs, long instrumental introductions, long instrumental interludes. But, when the singer began her part, the instrumentalists fell back into an accompaniment role, and acted as a takht would have acted with a much smaller number of instruments, following the singer and she sang the poetry in the same way that she always had.
To some ears, this was remarkably incompatible. To other ears, it was remarkably innovative. One of the great examples that brings lots of styles together is “Aamal Hayati,” “Hope of My Life.” His songs for her were typically love songs. And that song does bring in some American jazz, some American barn dance music, as well as Egyptian local dance rhythms and music, and Egyptian melodic modes. So it’s a highly sectionalized piece, with dramatically contrasting sections.
Eyre: Let’s talk about the Concerts for , near the end of her life.
Danielson: As an older woman, and in the political environment of the sixties, Umm Kulthum was seen as being out of touch with the concerns of daily life, and her concerts and her repertory are seen as invitations to sort of forget about the cares of the world, or the cares of life, and lapse back into a kind of old-fashioned forgetting of contemporary concerns. An obliteration of political and social awareness. That sort of thing. To many intellectuals, this was objectionable. Of course, to many listeners, it was very comfortable and familiar, something they eagerly awaited. But this was yet another dialog that occurred during her life.
After the devastating defeat of the Egyptian army in 1967, Umm Kulthum conceived the idea of using her repertory and herself to raise money to replenish the treasury of . She had in our schedule already a concert in Paris . She had never performed outside of the Arab world before, but had been persuaded to come to Paris , partly because there was a large, Arctic speaking population there. She decided that this concert would be the first of the Concerts for . What she did, was she would travel around, within , to cities and villages, and then also to many, not just Arab countries, but also Muslim countries, giving concerts the proceeds of which would go to the Egyptian treasury. She would take payment of all kinds. Women very often gave their jewelry if they didn’t have cash. They would give their jewelry. All told, between 1967, and about 1970—I think 1970 was the last one, because her health was then failing—she was said to have raised more than 2-million Egyptian pounds, which was a substantial figure at that time, to replenish the treasury. That solidified her persona as a representative of Arab culture of the 20th century.
When she would do is concerts, she would often ask a local poet for attacks on this habit composed especially for her. For example, when she went to , she sang a poem by Mohammed Iqbal. She did that sort of thing in many of the places that she went. She would sing songs that were in standard literary Arabic, rather than the highly colloquial Egyptian Arabic, which may not have been quite is understandable are interesting to others. “Al Atlal” was a song she did frequently. She would use items from her repertory that she thought would reach out. Various governments made it very easy for her to do this. She traveled on the diplomatic passport, and she was often received as a visitor of state, and toward around to the museums and the cultural sites Indies various locations as a sort of state visitor, and of course, lots of stores were told about her carrying messages from the Nasser government to other governments. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but what is true is that she became a very important Egyptian cultural figure with these efforts, as well as raising quite a bit of money.
Eyre: She is often described as the great Arab singer of the 20th century. Part of it seems to have to do with this bridging of high and low culture, the way she always held onto this religious, village identity, even as she became an exponent for high literary culture. Maybe the question is, why is she remembered as the greatest Arab singer of 20th-century?
Danielson: When I’ve been asked before to try to find some kind of cultural equivalent in the Western world for Umm Kulthum, it’s extremely hard to do, partly because the separation between classical art and popular art is not so great. Basically all are considered part of the heritage, part of the Egyptian heritage, the Arab heritage, turath, and there’s not such a clear line between what is a popular and what is classical. But what I found myself saying is that if you took a musician with the competence of an Ella Fitzgerald and with the pure musical chops and ability of a woman such as Ella Fitzgerald in terms of rendition and improvisation, and combined that with a public persona such as Eleanor Roosevelt, a very dignified public figure who clearly had the good of the masses at heart in most of her enterprises, and then you give that public figure the audience of an Elvis Presley, you will have Umm Kulthum. It’s very difficult to find sort of one person in the Western world who brings all of those features together.
I think one cannot escape musical competence as a tremendous factor in Umm Kulthum’s success. There are lots and lots of musicians in the Arab world. They come and go. There are lots of good ones. People can listen to one musician or another, or they can turn their attention to a poet or play right or someone else. The control, and the ability to maintain the interest of the public as a musician was critically important. That is certainly one thing. People did not get tired listening to her for most part.
Secondly, one would look at her public persona, and her determination to reiterate values in her statements, in the public views that she did express, and in her behavior—all are essentially respectable, Muslim, and Arab. And this at a time when throughout her career, Arab and Muslim identity were challenged, and at the same time a source of pride for those who are trying to resist colonial government, for those who are trying to resist and find ways to object to the establishment of orders by external parties. It’s a time when people were trying to assert at the very least the value of their own culture. She did so, musically and personally, and became a person who was accomplished, respectable, and could constantly put out a good product that reached a lot of people, and that was extremely important. I think that her allegiance to the country, region, and religion, were extremely important that time when the values of these were being challenged, and sometimes challenged intellectually, as well by Western forms that were seen as being interesting and valuable, but in her view not more valuable than local culture. So, for example, if there was to be a ballet school in Cairo , which there has been since the 1950s, then they’re also needed to be an Arab music school, which there has been from the same time partly at her behest.
Eyre: She certainly benefited from living through very dramatic times. It all comes together, the genius, and the radical transformations of the time.
Danielson: Her performances were well-suited to her times, and I don’t think that that was contrived. There is no reason at all to believe that she made up performances just because she thought they would sell to an audience, because in fact what we have seen over the years is the audience has carried her performances forward through representations, re-performances, through using them as statements of their own as background to their own productions. Audiences have carried her performances forward in their own ways, articulating values that in many cases were similar to her own, but carried further by them. So there’s no reason to think that she was pandering to an audience, but rather that she was we simply articulating widely felt social concerns.
Eyre: And what happened in Cairo when she died in January, 1975?
Danielson: Umm Kulthum’s funeral was described, rightly I think, as being bigger than Gamal Abdel Nasser’s, and involving millions of people. It was a state funeral that was similar to many that have occurred in Cairo . The funerary prayers were to be said at one of the important central mosques. Then, because a distance to the burial place was too great for the casket to be carried, it was in fact to be carried a short distance into cars where it would be taken to the funerary grounds, and final prayers said there. What in fact happened is that the public, which had filled the streets, took the bier from its official carriers, and carried it themselves all over Cairo for hours and hours and hours, headed in the direction of the burial grounds, but in their own way. Eventually, the sheikh of Al Azhar spoke over the radio to people and asked them to please bring the bier to its resting place because she was, in his description, a good Muslim who would have wanted to be buried promptly according to custom. And so people brought the bier to a burial ground was not far from the Azhar mosque, the funerary prayers were said, and she eventually was buried. But it was a dramatic outpouring of public mourning.
Eyre: One subject we didn’t address is the fact of Umm Kulthum being a woman. I think many people in the West are surprised to know that a woman could have such a powerful public role. How do respond to that?
Danielson: Well, let’s talk about the public role of women. Umm Kulthum came into an environment where for thousands of years, women had been accomplished singers, normally in courts. But the histories of the Arab world are full of descriptions of female court entertainers, who are not just good singers, but who are accomplished in languages, who are poetesses, who were considered to be very witty, clever with words, knowledgeable on contemporary subjects, and basically were the wit and wisdom of court, in addition to bring powerful voices to the singing of poetry. So that is a given. The potential for women to be respectable public performers is a given in Arab society, and one sees it for example in Saudi women’s parties, for weddings, were accomplished women musicians are the principal entertainment. One also sees it through stories of the historic singers, such as Salama, that were reproduced as films. In the 20th century, the competence of this particular courts singer was sort of giving contemporary filmic setting. So that was one part that enabled her presence.
In terms of moving into the public space that was created by casinos, music halls, concert houses of the 20th century, it was here where her choices to emulate models of respectable, elite women came into play. The decision she made for example to stand still separated her from a dancer, who would have been viewed as a much more provocative a figure. Her clothing was modest. She basically observed all the contemporary norms of a coveredness that would be expected. Her dresses always had sleeves. Her concert dresses were always floor length. They were not entirely loose-fitting, but they certainly were not revealing. Her hairdo. She had long hair, and she put it up in the way that most Egyptian women would. Her jewelry was very rich. She presented herself as a respectable figure, and then, in her speech, she continued that presentation, so that she didn’t invite any sort of rowdy, raucous response that might have worked against her image of respectability. Keeping the press away from her personal life was another critical tool in maintaining some distance, appearing as a singer, and only a singer, and not someone who is maybe screaming at her maid, or doing any number of other things that might have been seen as reprehensible in another context, or as simply leading up public, personal life. So she looked more like a respectable woman who was a public figure then she did an entertainer. And these things all helped a great deal in producing a public persona that could occupy public space comfortably.
What was interesting to me when I went to Cairo for the first time in the 1980s is that I noticed there were many, many more female broadcasters of hard news than I had ever seen in . And many of them used the same model, very conservative dress, not a lot of physical motion while speaking. It was an interesting idea that Umm Kulthum and others who have followed her model had created a lot of space that women could occupy respectably, in the media and in other places in the Arab world.
Eyre: Thank you. This has been fascinating.
Danielson: I hope you got all you needed.
Eyre: I think we’ll manage!