It is Thursday evening, the end of the work week in the Arabian world. The almost entirely male audience is on its feet, craning their necks, as they try to catch a glimpse of the makeshift stage. The arena fills up with the sound of violins and cellos. But everyone’s eyes are on the slightly portly woman on stage. She is wearing a long dress and is swaying lightly to the accompanying music. She closes her eyes, draws a breath, and lets the fullness of her voice take over. The audience erupts in applause as they realize that they are being treated to the work of a musical genius.
Umm Kulthum was born to an Imam in a small village in Egypt around 1904. She learnt to sing while listening to her father perform at religious events and weddings. When he realized that his daughter was blessed with immense strength in her voice, the gentle Imam decided to dress her up as a boy so she could perform together with him. Singing was considered a disreputable occupation in Egypt at the time, and even more so for a girl. Slowly, Umm Kulthum started making a name for herself, performing at towns and villages across the Egyptian Delta.
As her family moved to Cairo, a major centre for arts and music in the region at the time, Umm Kulthum continued to perform. However, she and her family were considered to be old fashioned and rustic. Rather than giving up and opting for what might have been considered a more traditional and acceptable life for a woman of the day in Egypt, she decided to study music and poetry from accomplished performers and copied the manners of the wealthy ladies at who’s homes she would be invited to perform. In time, she made a name for herself in Cairo, singing at public venues, theatres and cabarets, slowly achieving a more polished and distinct style. She was sought by famous poets and songwriters, keen on having their compositions sung in the emotive, passionate style that Umm Kulthum had made her own.
For forty years on the first Thursday of each month, Umm Kulthum would perform for a spellbound audience. Through her passion, dedication and commitment to her art, she had won over her critics and society and made a name for herself across the Arab world.
Umm Kulthum dared to be different by upending custom and gaining acceptance in a traditional, largely male-dominated society. Will you overturn tradition and dare to be different?