Who Is Umm Kulthum and Why Is She Important for Belly Dance?

Have you 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. 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. She remained active there 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? You’ll find out in this article. Spoiler: lots of the most well known belly dance tunes were originally sung by Umm Kulthum!

Umm Kulthum singing in a full length white gown with her orchestra
Umm Kulthum in concert

Umm Kulthum’s Musical Style and Legacy

Umm Kulthum sang in the (Arabic) classical style. She sang ughniya (long and elaborate) songs. They typically ran to 40 minutes or more in length. They 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. She regularly released new songs and performances on these media. Before her, Egyptian classical musicians held closed, private concerts. These 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. They are regularly broadcast on Egyptian radio and TV.

Umm Kulthum’s Significance for Belly Dancers

That includes popularity as songs to perform belly dance to. Her songs as sung by her would not be appropriate to belly dance to because they are typically in the classical ughniya format. But 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. 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 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. Imagine yourself transported back to Umm Kulthum’s Egypt. You’re 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

Midnight in Cairo book by Raphael Cormack and review by Anam Sufi

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