book/film review


"The Voice of Egypt": Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the 20th century, a book by Virginia Danielson, University of Chicago Press.



Umm Kulthum, A Voice Like Egypt, a film produced and directed by Michal Goldman, 1996. Distributed by Arab Film Distribution. Narration in English by Omar Sharif. 67 minutes, Color/B & W. Based on Danielson book above.


Excellent book, very thorough presentation of the life and career of Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian singer of legendary fame, known to practically everyone in the Middle East.

The book asks why this particular singer achieved that level of success. The question why is always one of the most difficult to answer. Causality is always difficult to establish in cultural studies because of myriad factors affecting the artist and the artist's work. The book presents however a credible argument of ways in which a commercial artist understood and responded to the principal values of the society and was able to find her way of addressing the principal issues, such as the role of the religion, the striving for political independence, and resisting the overwhelming pressure of westernization, that in its secularization, after all, did not have that much to offer to the fundamentally important spirituality of Egyptian population.

It is truly an ethnomusicological work of high quality. It presents Umm Kulthum as a singer in the context of the social, political and cultural changes in Egypt from the end of 19th century to the 1990s.

The book is a model of thorough scholarship, a result of more than five years of the field-work in Egypt. It seems that Danielson had no opportunity to see Umm Kulthum in a live performance, it was before Danielson's time. It is meticulously documented. I highly recommend this book.


Although I do not know the degree of collaboration between the film producer, Michal Goldman, and Virginia Danielson, it seems that many of the main points raised in the book were successfully shown.

One of the great values of this film is to show fairly long segments of Umm Kulthum= s filmed performances, and interviews with major figures of Egypt's intellectual and artistic elite. An hour-long film, even with long examples of singing, can not deal with some of her most important qualities.

We can consider Umm Kulthum as a classical singer in some ways. Her diction is exceptionally clean and she chose lyrics of high poetic quality.

Yusuf Shawqi, skillful use of the musical material, maqam-s. Perhaps not such a large repertory of maqam-s but those she uses, she executes correctly. She was also immensely popular, a great commercial success.

Umm Kulthum was an unusual personality in the world of commercial music. Many commercial artists, in the realm of popular music, are endowed with exceptional musical abilities, voice, and the understanding of the cultural market. But she had several characteristics that set her apart from the majority of the commercial artists:

1. Respectful of the values of the society in which she was operating. Earning popularity by addressing the highest aspirations of the society and exemplary public conduct, rather than conforming to the lowest common denominator and the notoriety so prevalent in commercial music of the West. She successfully combines the characteristics of rural Egypt and the intellectual and social elite of Egypt.

2. In return she was rewarded with the respect of society, unparalleled in, for example, the West. Both villagers and members of the elite looked up to her.

3. I see her enormous intelligence. Coming from a village, with minimal formal education, she had the intelligence to listen to and learn from right people such as Ahmad Rami (Film suggests the romantic involvement on his part, but not returned by Umm Kulthum), Shawqi, Sunbati.

4. Her learning was that of singing, social behavior, dress code, language, and literature.

5. She understood that regardless of the pressures of commercial world, her function was not only to satisfy the popular demands of the masses, but also to educate them. This can be seen in the remarks of journalist Amal Fahmy, who points to the correctness of her Arabic language. Fahmy says Kulthum is like a professor. She has accomplished that by presenting the best of the contemporary Egyptian poetry, the qasida-s of Shawqi, to the masses. Through her songs, people of the wide education and social background became familiar, and could repeat that poetry. You can see it in the film.

Józef Pacholczyk