Umm Kulthum

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Umm Kulthum
أم كلثوم
فاطمة إبراهيم السيد البلتاجي
Umm Kulthum4.jpg
Background information
Birth nameFatima Ibrahim as-Sayed El-Beltagi
Born(1898-12-31)31 December 1898
Tamay Ez-Zahayra, El Senbellawein, El Dakahlia, Egypt
Died3 February 1975(1975-02-03) (aged 76)
Cairo, Egypt
GenresEgyptian music, Classical
Occupation(s)Singer, actress
Years activec. 1924–1973
LabelsEMI Classics , Mazzika
Associated actsMohamed El Qasabgi
Sayed Darwish
Baligh Hamdi
Abdel Halim Hafez
El Sunbati
Mohammed Abdel Wahab

Umm Kulthum (Arabic: أم كلثوم‎, Egyptian Arabic pronunciation: [ʊm kʊlˈsuːm]; French: Oum Kalthoum; born Fāṭima ʾIbrāhīm es-Sayyid el-Beltāǧī فاطمة إبراهيم السيد البلتاجي[1][2] on 31 December 1898, or 4 May 1904;[3] died 3 February 1975) was an Egyptian singer, songwriter, and film actress active from the 1920s to the 1970s. She was given the honorific title Kawkab al-Sharq (كوكب الشرق, "Star of the East").

Umm Kulthum was known for her vocal ability and unique style. She sold over 80 million records worldwide, making her one of the best-selling Middle Eastern singers of all time. She is considered a national icon in her native Egypt; she has been dubbed "The voice of Egypt"[4] and "Egypt's fourth pyramid".[5][6]


Early life

Umm Kulthum as a toddler, with her father Ibrahim El Beltagi

Umm Kulthum was born in the village of Tamay e-Zahayra, belonging to the city of Senbellawein, Dakahlia Governorate, in the Nile Delta. Her birth date is unconfirmed, as birth registration was not enforced throughout Egypt at that time. Some sources claim that she was born either on 31 December 1898; 31 December 1904; or 4 May 1904. She learned how to sing by listening to her father teach her older brother, Khalid. From a young age she showed exceptional singing talent. Her father, an imam at the local mosque, taught her to recite the Qur'an, and she is said to have memorized the entire book. When she was 12 years old, her father noticed her strength in singing so he asked her to join the family ensemble. She dressed as a boy for her father to not face disapprobation due to having a girl on stage. At the age of 16, she was noticed by Mohamed Abo Al-Ela, a modestly famous singer, who taught her the old classical Arabic repertoire. A few years later, she met the famous composer and oudist Zakariyya Ahmad, who invited her to come to Cairo. 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, a type of lute. She developed a close relationship with Rawheya Al-Mahdi, Amin's daughter, and became her closest friend. Umm Kulthum even attended Rawheya's daughter's wedding, although she normally preferred to avoid appearing in public (offstage).

Amin Al Mahdi introduced her to the cultural circles in Cairo, where she carefully avoided succumbing to the attractions of the bohemian lifestyle and, indeed, throughout her life, stressed her pride in her humble origins and upholding conservative values. She also maintained a tightly managed public image, which undoubtedly added to her allure. At this point in her career, Umm Kulthum was introduced to the famous poet Ahmad Rami, who wrote 137 songs for her. Rami also introduced her to French literature, which he greatly admired from his studies at the Sorbonne, Paris, and eventually became her head mentor in Arabic literature and literary analysis. Furthermore, she was introduced to the renowned oud virtuoso and composer Mohamed El Qasabgi, who introduced her to the Arabic Theatre Palace, where she would experience her first real public success. In 1932, her fame as a singer increased through sales of her records to the point where she embarked upon a major tour of the Middle East and North Africa, performing in prominent Arab capital cities such as Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, Rabat, Tunis, and Tripoli.


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.

Virginia Danielson, Harvard Magazine[7][8]

Umm Kulthum's status as one of the most famous and popular Arab singers was driven by several factors. During her early career years, she faced staunch competition from two prominent singers: Mounira El Mahdeya and Fathiyya Ahmad, who had similar voices. However, Mounira had poor control over her voice, and Fathiyya lacked the emotive vocal impact that Umm Kulthum's voice had. The presence of all these enabling vocal characteristics attracted many composers, musicians, and lyricists to work with Umm Kulthum.[citation needed]

In the mid-1920s, Mohammad El Qasabgi, who was an oud player and a composer, formed a small orchestra (takht), boasting some of the most virtuosic instrumentalists. Furthermore, unlike most of her fellow artists who held private concerts, Umm Kulthum's performances were open to the public, which contributed to the transition from classical, and often elitist, to popular Arabic music.[citation needed]

Poster advertising Umm Kulthum's concert in Jerusalem during Mandatory Palestine.

In 1934, Umm Kulthum sang for the inaugural broadcast of Radio Cairo, the state station.[9] Over the second half of the 1930s, two initiatives sealed her status 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 the musical season from October to June. Her influence kept growing and expanding beyond the artistic scene: the reigning royal family would request private concerts and even attend her public performances.[citation needed]

In 1944, King Farouk I of Egypt decorated her with the highest level of orders (nishan el kamal), a decoration reserved exclusively to members of the royal family and politicians. Despite this recognition, the royal family rigidly opposed her potential marriage to the King's uncle, a rejection that deeply wounded her pride and led her to distance herself from the royal family and embrace grassroots causes, such as her answering the request of the Egyptian legion trapped in the Faluja Pocket during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War to sing a particular song. Among the army men trapped were the figures who were going to lead the bloodless revolution of 23 July 1952, prominently Gamal Abdel Nasser, who arguably was a fan of Umm Kulthum and who would later become the president of Egypt.[citation needed]

Following the revolution, the Egyptian musicians guild of which she became a member (and eventually president) rejected her because she had sung for the then-deposed King Farouk of Egypt. When Nasser discovered that her songs were banned from being aired on the radio, he reportedly said something to the effect of "What are they, crazy? Do you want Egypt to turn against us?"[10] It was his favor that made the musicians' guild accept her back into the fold; but it is uncertain if that happened.

In addition, Umm Kulthum was a dedicated Egyptian patriot since the time of King Farouk. Some claim that Umm Kulthum's popularity helped Nasser's political agenda. For example, Nasser's speeches and other government messages were frequently broadcast immediately after Umm Kulthum's monthly radio concerts. She sang many songs in support of Nasser, with whom she developed a close friendship. One of her songs associated with Nasser—"Wallāhi Zamān, Yā Silāḥī" ("It's Been a Long Time, O Weapon of Mine")—was adopted as the Egyptian national anthem from 1960 to 1979, when President Sadat revoked it because of the peace negotiations with Israel and replaced it by the less militant "Bilady, Bilady, Bilady", which continues to be Egypt's anthem today.[11][12]

Umm Kulthum was also known for her continuous contributions to works supporting the Egyptian military efforts. Umm Kulthum's monthly concerts took place on the first Thursday of every month and were renowned for their ability to clear the streets of some of the world's most populous cities as people rushed home to tune in.

Her songs deal mostly with the universal themes of love, longing and loss. They are nothing short of epic in scale, with durations measured in hours rather than minutes. A typical Umm Kulthum concert consisted of the performance of two or three songs over a period of three to four hours. In the late 1960s, due to her age and weakened vocal abilities, she began to shorten her performances to two songs over a period of two-and-a-half to three hours. These performances are in some ways reminiscent of the structure of Western opera, consisting of long vocal passages linked by shorter orchestral interludes. However, Umm Kulthum was not stylistically influenced by opera, and she sang solo most of her career.

During the 1930s her repertoire took the first of several specific stylistic directions. Her songs were virtuosic, as befitted her newly trained and very capable voice, and romantic and modern in musical style, feeding the prevailing currents in Egyptian popular culture of the time. She worked extensively with texts by romance poet Ahmad Rami and composer Mohammad El-Qasabgi, whose songs incorporated European instruments such as the violoncello and double bass, as well as harmony.

Golden age

Umm Kulthum with some of the most prominent names in Egyptian classical music. From left: Riad Al Sunbati, Mohamed El Qasabgi, Farid al-Atrash, Zakariya Ahmad.

Umm Kulthum's musical directions in the 1940s and early 1950s and her mature performing style led this period to becoming popularly known as "the golden age" of Umm Kulthum. In keeping with changing popular taste as well as her own artistic inclinations, in the early 1940s, she requested songs from composer Zakariya Ahmad and colloquial poet Mahmud Bayram el-Tunsi cast in styles considered to be indigenously Egyptian. This represented a dramatic departure from the modernist romantic songs of the 1930s, mainly led by Mohammad El-Qasabgi. Umm Kulthum had abstained from singing Qasabgi's music since the early 1940s. Their last stage song collaboration in 1941 was "Raq el Habib" ("The lover's heart softens"), one of her most popular, intricate, and high-caliber songs.

The reason for the separation is not clear. It is speculated that this was due in part to the popular failure of the movie Aida, in which Umm Kulthum sings mostly Qasabgi's compositions, including the first part of the opera. Qasabgi was experimenting with Arabic music, under the influence of classical European music, and was composing a lot for Asmahan, a singer who immigrated to Egypt from Syria and was the only serious competitor for Umm Kulthum before Asmahan's death in a car accident in 1944.

Simultaneously, Umm Kulthum started to rely heavily on a younger composer who joined her artistic team a few years earlier: Riad El-Sonbati. While Sonbati was evidently influenced by Qasabgi in those early years, the melodic lines he composed were more lyrical and more acceptable to Umm Kulthum's audience. The result of collaborations with Rami/Sonbati and al-Tunisi/Ahmad was a populist and popular repertoire that had lasting appeal for the Egyptian audience.

In 1946, Umm Kulthum 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 Umm Kulthum 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 Umm Kulthum, including "Woulida el Houda" ("The Prophet is Born"; 1949), in which she surprised royalists by singing a verse that describes the Prophet Mohammad as "the Imam of Socialists".

At the peak of her career, in 1950, Umm Kulthum sang Sonbati's composition of excerpts of what Ahmad Rami considered the accomplishment of his career: the translation from Persian into classical Arabic of Omar Khayyám's quatrains (Rubayyiat el Khayyam). The song included quatrains that deal with both epicurianism and redemption. Ibrahim Nagi's poem "Al-Atlal" ("The Ruins"), composed by Sonbati and premiered in 1966, is considered by many[who?] as Umm Kulthum's best song. While this is debatable, as Umm Kulthum's vocal abilities had regressed considerably by then, the song can be viewed as the last example of genuine Arabic music at a time when even Umm Kulthum had started to compromise by singing Western-influenced pieces composed by her old rival Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

The duration of Umm Kulthum's songs in performance was not fixed, but varied based on the level of emotive interaction between the singer and her audience and Umm Kulthum's own mood for creativity. An improvisatory technique, which was typical of old classical Arabic singing, and which she executed for as long as she could have (both her regressing vocal abilities with age and the increased Westernization of Arabic music became an impediment to this art), was 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. For example, the available live performances (about 30) 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.

Umm Kulthum with Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi in 1971

The spontaneous creativity of Umm Kulthum as a singer is most impressive when, upon listening to these many different renditions of the same song over a time span of five years (1954–1959), the listener is offered a totally unique and different experience. This intense, highly personalized relationship was undoubtedly one of the reasons for Umm Kulthum's tremendous success as an artist. Worth noting though that the length of a performance did not necessarily reflect either its quality or the improvisatory creativity of Umm Kulthum. Some of her best performances were 25–45 minutes in duration, such as the three available renditions, including the commercial version of "El Awwila Fi'l Gharam" ("First in Love"), and "Ana Fi Intizarak" ("I am waiting for you"), (commercial and 3 March 1955 performance). On the other hand, her songs as of the mid-1960s would extend sometimes over a duration of two hours (premiere of "Enta Omri", "Enta el Hobb", etc.); however, the repetitions, mostly executed upon the request of the audience, were often devoid of creative musical improvisations and limited to vocal colorful variations on a syllable, letter or word.

Around 1965, Umm Kulthum started collaborating with composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Her first song composed by Abdel Wahab, "Enta Omri" (You are my life"), was considered the "summit meeting". Several beautiful songs composed by Abdel Wahab followed, such as "Amal Hayati" ("The Hope of my life"), "Fakkarouni" ("They reminded me"), and others.

In May 1967, just before the Six-Day War, she was heard on Radio Cairo and Radio Damas singing "Slaughter, slaughter, slaughter and have no pity ..." towards the Zionist Israeli.[13][14][15][16][17] Another source mentions the creation of a song of war.[18] Laura Lohman[19] has identified several other warsongs created for her in that same period. In 1969 it was followed by another one "Asbaha al-Ana 'indi Bunduqiyyah" (I now have a rifle).[20]

Her songs took on more a soul-searching quality in 1967, following the defeat of Egypt during the Six-Day War. "Hadeeth el Rouh" ("The Talk of The Soul"), which is a translation from the poet Mohammad Iqbal's "Shikwa", set up a very reflective tone. Generals in the audience are said to have been left in tears.

Umm Kulthum also sang for composers Mohammad El Mougi, Sayed Mekawy, and Baligh Hamdi.

Death and funeral

Umm Kulthum died on 3 February 1975, aged 76, from kidney failure. Her funeral procession became a national event, with around 4 million[21] grief-stricken Egyptians lining the streets to catch a glimpse as her cortège passed.[3] It is even reported that her funeral's attendance drew a greater audience than that of the late president at the time.[22] She was buried in her mausoleum in Imam Al-Shafi’i cemetery in Cairo.[23]

Artistic legacy

Umm Kulthum in Life Magazine, 1962

Umm Kulthum has been a significant influence on a number of musicians, both in the Arab World and beyond. Among others, Jah Wobble has claimed her as a significant influence on his work. Bob Dylan has been quoted praising her[24][25] Maria Callas,[26] Marie Laforêt,[27] Bono,[27] Robert Plant,[28] and among many others are also known to be admirers of Umm Kulthum's music. Youssou N'Dour, a fan of hers since childhood, recorded his 2004 album Egypt with an Egyptian orchestra in homage to her legacy.[29] One of her best-known songs, "Enta Omri", has been covered and reinterpreted numerous times.

She was referred to as the Lady by Charles de Gaulle and is regarded as the "Incomparable Voice" by Maria Callas. It is difficult to accurately measure her vocal range at its peak, as most of her songs were recorded live. Even today, she has retained a near-mythical status among young Egyptians. In 2001, the Egyptian government opened the Kawkab al-Sharq (Star of the East) Museum in the singer's memory. Housed in a pavilion on the grounds of Cairo's Manesterly Palace, the collection includes a range of Umm Kulthum's personal possessions, including her trademark sunglasses and scarves, along with photographs, recordings, and other archival material.[30]

Monument to Umm Kulthum in Zamalek, Cairo; it is located on the site of the singer's former house

Critics and journalists note that while she was known to have touched many different artists, she had also touched the lives of millions of her listeners and fans. Her performances combined raw emotion and political rhetoric; she was greatly influential and spoke about politics through her music. An example of this is seen in her music performed after World War II. The theme at the surface was love, yet a deeper interpretation of the lyrics – for example in the song "Salue Qalbi" – reveals questioning of political motives in times of political tension.[22] Umm Kulthum's political rhetoric in her music is still influential today, not only in Egypt, but in many other Middle Eastern countries and even globally.

She is referenced at length in the lyrics of the central ballad "Omar Sharif" in the musical The Band's Visit.

In January 2019, at the Winter in Tantora festival in Al-Ula for the first time they had a performed live concert "appearing as a hologram with accompaniment by an orchestra and bedecked in flowing, full-length gowns as she had when debuting in the 1920s." [1]


Umm Kulthum was a contralto.[31] Contralto singers are uncommon and sing in the lowest register of the female voice.[32]

Essential songs


Song Date Music Lyrics
El Awela fel Gharam 1944 Zakaria Ahmad Bayram al-Tunisi
Salou Qalbi 1946 Riad al Sanbati Ahmad Shawqi
Al Nil 1949 Riad al Sanbati Ahmad Shawqi
Arouh Lemin 1958 Riad al Sanbati Abdel Menhem Al Sbaey
Siret el Hobb 1964 Baligh Hamdi Morsi Jamil Aziz
Inta Omri 1964 Mohamad Abdel Wahab Ahmad Shafeeq Kamel
Amal Hayati 1965 Mohamad Abdel Wahab Ahmad Shafiq Kamel
Al-Atlal 1966 Riad al Sanbati Ibrahim Naji
Alf Leila w Leila 1969 Baligh Hamdi Morsi Jamil Aziz
Arak Assey al Damaa Riad al Sanbati Abu Firas al-Hamdani

Selected discography

  • Aghadan alqak ("Shall I see you tomorrow?") (Maqam Ajam) (1971)
  • Ana Fi Entezarak ("I am waiting for you") (1943)
  • Alf Leila wa Leila ("One thousand and one nights") (Maqam Farahfaza) (1969)
  • Arouh li Meen or Arooh Lemeen ("Whom should I go to") (Maqam Rast) (1958)
  • Al Atlal[34] ("The Ruins") (Maqam Rahat Alarwah) (1966)
  • Amal Hayati"; Sono ("Hope of my life") (Maqam Ajam) (1965)
  • Ansak Ya Salam ("Forget you? Come on!") (1961) (Maqam Rast)
  • Aqbal al-layl ("Night has arrived") (1969)
  • Araka asiya al-dam ("I see you refusing to cry") (1964)
  • 'Awwidt 'ayni ("I accustomed my eyes") (1957) (Maqam Kurd)
  • Baeed Anak ("Away From You") (Maqam Bayati) (1965)
  • Betfaker fi Meen ("Who are you thinking of?") (Maqam Bayati) (1963)
  • Dalili Ehtar ("I am lost") (1955) (Maqam Kurd)
  • Dhikrayatun (Qessat Hobbi or the story of my love or memories) (1955)
  • El Hobb Kolloh[35] ("All the love") (Maqam Rast) (1971)
  • Ental Hobb ("You are the love") (Maqam Nahwand) (1965)
  • Es'al Rouhak ("Ask yourself") (Maqam Hijaz Kar) (1970)
  • Fakarouni ("They reminded me") (Maqam Rast) (1966)
  • Fit al-ma' ad ("It is too late" or "The rendez-vous is over") Sono Cairo (Maqam Sika) (1967)
  • Gharib' Ala Bab erraja ("Stranger at the door of hope") (1955)
  • Ghulubt asalih ("Tired of forgiving") (1946)
  • Hadeeth el Rouh ("The talk of the soul") (Maqam Rahat Alarwah) (1967)
  • Hagartek or Hajartak ("I left you") EMI (1959)
  • Hasibak lil-zaman ("I will leave you to time") (1962)
  • Hathehe Laylati ("This is my night") (Maqam Bayati) (1968)
  • Hayart Albi Ma'ak ("You confused my heart") (Maqam Nahwand) (1961)
  • Hakam 'alayna al-haw'a ("Love has ordered me") (1973)
  • Hobb Eih[36] ("Which love") (Maqam Bayati) (1960)
  • Howwa Sahih El-Hawa Ghallab ("Is love really stronger?") (1960) (Maqam Saba)
  • Inta Omri – Sono ("You are the love of my life") (Maqam Kurd) (1964)
  • Kull al-ahabbah ("All the friends") (1941)
  • La Diva – CD, EMI Arabia, 1998
  • La Diva II – CD, EMI Arabia, 1998
  • La Diva III – CD, EMI Arabia, 1998
  • La Diva IV – CD, EMI Arabia, 1998
  • La Diva V – CD, EMI Arabia, 1998
  • Leilet Hobb ("A night of love") (1973) (Maqam Nahawand)
  • Lel Sabr Hedod ("Patience has limits") (Maqam Sika) (1964)
  • Lessa Faker ("You still remember") (Maqam Ajam) (1960)
  • Men Agl Aynayk ("For your eyes") (1972)
  • Othkorene ("Remember me") (1939)
  • Raq il Habeeb ("My beloved tendered back") (1941)
  • Retrospective – Artists Arabes Associes
  • Rihab al-huda (al-Thulathiyah al-Muqaddisah) ("The paths to repentance or the holy trinity") (1972)
  • Rubaiyat Al-Khayyam ("Quatrains of Omar Khayyám") (Maqam Rast) (1950)
  • Sirat el Houb ("Tale of love") (Maqam Sika) (1964)
  • Toof we Shoof ("Wander and wonder") (1963)
  • The Classics – CD, EMI Arabia, 2001
  • Wi-darit il-ayyam ("And time passed by") (Maqam Nahwand) (1970)
  • Ya Karawan ("O plover") (1926)
  • Yali Kan Yashqiq Anini ("You who enjoyed my cries") (1949)
  • Ya Msaharny ("You that keeps me awake at night") (1972) (Maqam Rast)
  • Ya Zalemny ("You who were unjust to me") (1954) (Maqam Kurd)
  • Zalamna El Hob ("Love has been unjust to us") (1962)


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  13. ^ "Lettre à un ami arabe". 7 June 2017. Archived from the original on 7 June 2017.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
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  15. ^ "A propos d'Oum Kalsoum – Libération". 4 September 2015. Archived from the original on 4 September 2015.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
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  20. ^ "Liberating Songs: Palestine Put to Music – The Institute for Palestine Studies".
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  25. ^ Piazza, Tom (28 July 2002). "Bob Dylan's Unswerving Road Back to Newport". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 June 2009.
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  27. ^ a b "Old is gold: Vintage photos of a chic Umm Kulthum in Paris!". 4 October 2015.
  28. ^ Andy Gill (27 August 2010). "Robert Plant: 'I feel so far away from heavy rock'". The Independent. UK. Retrieved 30 August 2010.
  29. ^ Pascarella, Matt. "A Voice from Senegal: Youssou N'Dour". Retrieved 23 October 2010. 'Umm Kulthum was something that we could all share – throughout the Muslim world, despite our differences, her music brought people together,' he says. 'Although I haven't done anything close to what Umm did in music, I'm trying to be part of that musical tradition. For me, through Umm, Egypt became more than a country, it is a concept of meeting, of sharing what we have in common.' 'The Egypt album was my homage to Umm's legacy.'
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  31. ^ "Funeral for a Nightingale". Time. 17 February 1975. Retrieved 8 September 2012.
  32. ^ Owen Jander, et al. "Contralto". Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.
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  • Murat Özyıldırım, Arap ve Turk Musikisinin 20. yy Birlikteligi, Bağlam Yay. (Müzik Bilimleri Serisi, Edt. V. Yildirim), Istanbul Kasım 2013.

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