About this sample
About this sample
Words: 1307 |
7 min read
Published: Apr 11, 2019
Words: 1307|Pages: 3|7 min read
The joy and tenderness that’s in your love
Is enough for more than many long generations
Your love filled my heart and my thoughts
Lightens my night and makes my life longer
~ Umm Kulthum, “The Hope of my Life”
Fifty years ago, Umm Kulthum (alternatively ‘Oum Kalthoum’) was an internationally renowned Egyptian singer. Kulthum had an incredible style and unique vocal ability, which has led to her recognition as one of the “most influential Arab singers of the 20th century and is arguably the single most prominent Arab woman in contemporary history” (Brittanica n.p.). As one commentator noted, “Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Umm Kulthum” (Oxford n.p.). With this praise in mind, this discussion paper examined Umm Kulthum, the nearly mythical Arabic singer from Egypt, within the context of her biography, her music, and the meaning that she brought both to her own world and the contemporary world. Understanding Umm Kulthum, like many singers, requires understanding both their musical style and their personal life. The paper there first turns to personal and public life of Umm Kulthum before turning to an assessment of her musical style, utilizing the elements of rhythm, instruments, pitch, form and meaning. Finally, the discussion turns to the meaning and impact of Umm Kulthum. The entire discussion is couched in an assessment of Umm Kulthum’s most famous ongs – ‘The Hope of my Life’ (Amal Hayati). Recorded in 1965, the song essentially represents Umm Kulthum, her musical ability and style, and the contemporary relevance that she holds.
The date of birth for Umm Kulthum is not known for certain, though it is thought to be either December 31, 1898 or May 4, 1904 (Brittanica n.p.). What is known is that her father was a “village imam who sang traditional religious songs at weddings and holidays” in order to make ends meet for his family (Britannica n.p.). While during her childhood singing was largely looked down upon in Egypt, Kulthum was able to study music and poetry when she moved to Cairo with her family in 1923. This was at the invitation of another famous Arabic musician, Zakariyya Ahmad: her talents “were noticed by [the] famous oudist,” who then “invited her to Cairo to study under his tutelage” (Stanton 297). It was there where she perfected her talents at singing and the oud. From there, her success took off. By the 1950s, she was a national icon in Egypt, and found one of her biggest in Gamal Abdel Nasser, the nationalist who overthrew the king and founded his own government in 1952. Throughout the 1950s, Nasser would often broadcast his speeches and government propaganda before and after Kulthum’s concerts. Despite her fame, Kulthum remained relatively private: she ‘avoided succumbing to the debauchery of the bohemian lifestyle championed by artists and musicians. Rather, she stressed her humble origins and conservative values” (Stanton 297). As another scholar concludes, the singing of Kulthum “accompanied the Arab world in all its national aspirations and catalyzed a sense of Arab unity that managed to transcend (at least, on the cultural level) social tensions and political conflicts” (Shohat 305). This is not, of course, the biography of Umm Kalthum in its entirety; it simply outlines her origins, her rise to fame, and her influence on Egypt and the Arab world as a whole. It does, however, provide the context necessary for a more in-depth discussion of how her music informed the meaning of her art, vice versa, and the relevance that she continues to have in the contemporary world.
As mentioned above, the main musical factors considered here are instruments, rhythm, pitch, form, and meaning. The major instrument utilized in ‘The Hope of My Life’ (that is, the major work under consideration here) is the chordophone, or string instrument. Percussion is used to a limited extent, but it is Umm Kalthum’s voice that actually has the most amount of beat throughout the entirety of the piece. As mentioned in one account, the beauty of Kalthum’s voice lay in “her ability to produce over 14,000 vibrations per second and her incredible vocal strength required…to stand at least three feet away from the microphone,” and was “enhanced by her ability to sing every Arabic vocal scale” (Stanton 297). However, in the introduction (before Kalthum begins singing), there is one percussion instrument used. Related to this, the rhythm found in the piece is reminiscent of many other musicians and musical numbers from the time: music that one could dance to, but only with a flowing, spinning choreography. This is a song that inspires neither ballroom dancing nor jubilant footwork, but a methodological review of emotions, just like the rhythm. Similarly, the pitch of the piece – or the melody, rather – invokes a sense of melancholy that transcends language and words. If pitch is about the highness and lowness of a musical sound, then the music of Kalthum is all over the map. As one commentator states, “The beauty of her voice was enhanced by her ability to sing every Arabic vocal scale” (Stanton 297). Finally, it appears that ‘The Hope of My Life’ takes a ternary form (or something along the lines of a through-composed form) in terms of its lyrics. Rather than simply progressing from chorus to verse and back again, the song presents new lyrics that are only reminiscent of previous stanzas. For instance, the line that the song gets its title from is not repeated after Kalthum sings it as the first line: “You’re the hope of my life, a precious love that never ends, you’re the best song that my heart heard and that could never be forgotten.” Instead of serving as a verse or chorus, this line simply sets up the rest of the song, with only echoes of the original line. In this way, the song is somewhere in-between a ternary form and through-composed form (West Michigan 5).
Of course, this discussion is not complete without addressing the meaning of the song and how it relates to the contemporary world. As noted above, this is a melancholy song not only about lost love but about the beauty of love itself. This is where the song finds its relevance to the contemporary world. As mentioned above, it is in the fact that the singer’s music and voice are able to carry so much emotional meaning even to those who are unable to understand her words. As David Stupplebeen reflects, “Although when listening to her music, I am unable to understand the words, the emotion shines through. Her music at some points will fill you with sadness or with excitement” (n.p.). It is this that not only gives meaning to the song, but contemporary relevance to the music of Umm Kulthum. As an Arab magazine notes, “Umm Kulthum was a voice born in Egypt but one that transcended geographical and political boundaries and found its way into the hearts of all Arabs across the Arab world whether rich or poor, religious or non, white-collars or blue. She is an exceptional phenomenon who continues to be loved and celebrated today, forty years after her death” (Albawaba n.p.). Stupplebeen reflects this sentiment, the singer “is a giant in the Arab world” although she is a “minor footnote in the world of Western music and politics” (n.p.). There is no question that songs like ‘The Hope of My Life’ inspired listeners not only in the 1950s and 1960s, but to this day. Her use of pitch, form, and meaning in her music have made certain of that.
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