If you’ve never heard of Umm Kulthum (Oum Kalthoum) before, she was a very famous Egyptian singer active between the 1920s to 1970s. She is remembered for her extraordinary voice and unique musical style. She was born circa 1900 to a religious family in the Nile delta, and her exceptional singing talent was noticed through her recitation of the Qur’an. She moved to Cairo in the 1920s to pursue a singing career, where she remained active as a singer until her death in 1975. There is a wealth of biographical information available about her if you’d like to learn more, such the sources listed on her Wikipedia page. But what does she have to do with belly dance? That’s what I’ll focus on in this article.
Umm Kulthum sang in the (Arabic) classical style. She sang ughniya (long and elaborate) songs which typically ran to 40 minutes or more in length and which featured an introduction, repeated sections, and a vocal improvisation section. Here’s a video of her singing Lessa Fakir in concert as an example:
She pioneered the popularisation of Arabic classical music. She used the new technologies of television, radio, and the gramophone to bring her music to a mass audience through regular releases of new songs and performances on these media. Before her, Egyptian classical musicians held closed, private concerts which were not open to the public. I see her as a bridge between Arabic classical and popular music through her efforts to bring her music to the masses. Her music has maintained prominence in modern Egypt. Today, her musical performances remain ubiquitously popular and are regularly broadcast on Egyptian radio and tv.
That includes popularity as songs to perform belly dance to. Though her songs as sung by her would not be appropriate to belly dance to as they are typically in the classical ughniya format, arrangements of them for belly dance are extremely popular to dance to. Well known dancers such as Tahia Carioca and Soheir Zaki danced to arrangements of her music during her lifetime (Tahia or Soheir? Similar Legends, Which Are True? by Shira). Here’s a video of Soheir Zaki dancing to Lessa Fakir so you can hear the difference between Umm Kulthum’s version for performance and a version for belly dance:
In fact, many of today’s well known Egyptian songs to perform belly dance to were songs popularised by Umm Kulthum. Songs for belly dance such as Alf Leyla Wa Leyla, Enta Omri, Lessa Fakir, Daret al Ayam, and Leylet Hob were all sung by Umm Kulthum. Next time you dance, put on one of these tunes and imagine yourself transported back to Umm Kulhthum’s Egypt, waiting by the radio for her latest broadcast or in the adoring crowd at one of her concerts.
Further Reading / Watching
Umm Kulthum, A Voice Like Egypt (1996) documentary film on Youtube
Umm Kulthum Wikipedia page
Tahia or Soheir? Similar Legends, Which Are True? by Shira on Shira.net
List of Recordings for Belly Dancers Featuring Songs by Oum Kalthoum by Shira on Shira.net