Friday, April 08, 2016

Fes Festival Preview #8 - Tribute to Oum Keltoum

Tribute to Oum Keltoum – Egypt and the Arab World

My heart, don't ask where the love has gone
It was a citadel of my imagination that has collapsed
Pour me a drink and let us drink of its ruins
And tell the story on my behalf as long as the tears flow
Tell how that love became past news
And became another story of passion
I haven't forgotten you
And you seduced me with a sweetly-calling and tender tongue
And a hand extending towards me like a hand stretched out through the waves to a drowning person
You seduced me with the saliva (of a kiss) that a night traveler thirsts for
But where is that light in your eyes?
  - Al-Atlal ("The Ruins")

Known as the Kawkab al-Sharq كوكب الشرق Star of the East, Oum Keltoum had an enormous influence on the music scene of the east, having an amazing voice which was not only beloved by the Arab world but also captured the attention of the rest of the world.

When she was 12 years old, her father disguised her as a young boy and entered her in a small performing troupe that he directed. At the age of 16, she was noticed by Mohamed Aboul Ela, a modestly famous singer, who taught her the old classical Arab repertoire. Although she made several visits to Cairo in the early 1920s, she waited until 1923 before permanently moving there. She was invited on several occasions to the house of Amin Beh Al Mahdy, who taught her to play the oud.

Oum Keltoum in Morocco with Amazigh (Berber) singers

Over the second half of the 1930s, two initiatives sealed the fate of Oum Keltoum as the most popular and famous Arab singer: her appearances in musical movies and the live broadcasting of her concerts performed on the first Thursday of each month of her musical season from October to June.

In 1946, Oum Keltoum defied all odds by presenting a religious poem in classical Arabic during one of her monthly concerts, "Salou Qalbi" ("Ask My Heart"), written by Ahmad Shawqi and composed by Sonbati. The success was immediate. It reconnected Oum Keltoum with her early singing years, defined Sonbati's unique style in composing and established him as the best composer of music for poems in classical Arabic, toppling Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Similar poems written by Shawqi were subsequently composed by Sonbati and sung by Oum Keltoum, including "Woulida el Houda" ("The Prophet is Born"; 1949), in which she raised eyebrows of royalists by singing a verse that describes the Prophet Mohammad as "the Imam of Socialists".

The duration of Oum Keltoum's songs in performance was not fixed, but varied based on the level of emotive interaction between the singer and her audience and Oum Keltoum's own mood for creativity. An improvisatory technique, which was typical of old classical Arabic singing, to repeat a single line or stance over and over, subtly altering the emotive emphasis and intensity and exploring one or various musical modal scales (maqām) each time to bring her audiences into a euphoric and ecstatic state known in Arabic as "tarab" طرب.  The available live performances of Ya Zalemni, one of her most popular songs, varied in length from 45 to 90 minutes, depending on both her creative mood for improvisations and the audience request for more repetitions, illustrating the dynamic relationship between the singer and the audience as they fed off each other's emotional energy.

The Star of the East died February 3, 1975, at age 76. Her funeral procession became a national event, with around 4 million grief-stricken Egyptians lining the streets to catch a glimpse as her cortege passed.

Her music is still popular 

What remains outstanding is that years later, young Moroccans not only still love her music but can recite the lyrics of many of her songs. Her fame is preserved because of the availability of many of her recordings.

Kawkab El Sharq Ensemble of the Cairo Opera Orchestra was founded in 2014, forty years after the death of  Oum Keltoum, by the chairman of the Cairo Opera House, Dr Inès Abdel Daïm who is a fervent promoter of the arts.

The Kawkab El Sharq Ensemble is composed of some of the most talented musicians at the Cairo Opera House. It performs on the first Thursday of each month, just as Oum Keltoum did herself. The Opera House promotes its most distinguished young conductors and singers who continue in Oum Keltoum’s footsteps, even using the same orchestral structure as in the past.

Thanks to Helen Ranger for translations from the French

Tribute to Oum Keltoum – Egypt and the Arab World
 May 13th
Book your ticket here

The View From Fez is a Fes Festival official Media Partner

See our Fes Festival previews:
Opening Night Preview
Homage to India Preview
Divas of the World Preview
Nights in the Medina 1 Preview
Nights in the Medina 2 Preview
Nights in the Medina 3 Preview
Istanbul to Fez Preview
Tribute to Oum Keltoum Preview
Samira Saïd Preview
Forum Sessions Preview
Sufi Nights & Boujloud Concerts

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