Oum Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab

This post was originally written as part of my certification for Suhaila Level 3 in the Salimpour School of Bellydance.

Oum Kulthum

Oum Kulthum

Mohammed Abdel Wahab

Mohammed Abdel Wahab

Oum Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab were contemporaries, rivals, and collaborators. Their relationship, which spanned throughout both their careers starting in the 1920s, influenced their individual music and their eventual collaborations later on.  They represented the spectrum of Egyptian music with Wahab as the modern and innovative composer, and Kulthum as the traditional singer. This paper considers the life and work of both artists, as well as the similarities and differences between these two icons. I will also explore how their collaborations later on in their careers became some of their most defining and well-known work.

In order to understand the complex relationship between these two icons, it is necessary to understand them as individuals. Interestingly, both artists came from somewhat similar backgrounds. Both had a religious upbringing in which reading the Qua’ran out loud helped to improve the quality of their pronunciation, and ultimately their singing.  As young children they both sang, and were drawn to music from a very young age. However, this is where the similarities end. While their upbringing is an integral aspect to their development as artists and how they ultimately chose to approach their art, Kulthum would end up embracing these traditions, while Wahab was drawn towards innovation and looked outside his culture for inspiration.

A young Mohammed Abdel Wahab

A young Mohammed Abdel Wahab

There are various reasons for their differences, with the most significant being gender and the disparity between urban and rural life. Wahab was raised in Cairo (born in either 1901 or 1910) and while he had a religious upbringing, he seemed free to explore performing and was exposed to a variety of musical styles.[1] He was involved in musical theatre as a young boy, and began singing at the local theatre as a teenager. Wahab was obsessed with music, frequently getting into trouble or missing school because of his passion for music.[2] In 1917, aristocratic poet Ahmad Shawqi mentored him by providing music and etiquette lessons.[3] Though his family did not initially support a career in music, Wahab’s early life seemed to set up him up for success, as well as innovation.[4] As a man it was more socially acceptable for him to perform. Living in an urban setting, it was also more likely he was exposed to a wider variety of music and influences from a young age. 

Early on, Wahab experimented with non-traditional musical influences, in particular Western classical works (such as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky), and popular American folk music. One commentator noted that Wahab was “a giant with one leg in the East and one in the West, a great tree with roots sunk deeply into Arabic musical culture, its branches reaching into the culture of Western music.”[5] His music was influenced by his travels to Europe, recordings, and the opera.[6]  He is also considered by many to have played a large role in moving Arabic music towards musical films and gramophone records thanks to his new modern sound. Over time Wahab also progressively utilized larger musical ensembles, growing from four to five instruments to massive orchestras.[7] Interestingly, while over the course of his career as an he actor, singer, and composer (upwards of 1300 pieces), Walter Armbrust notes that “there was little popular reaction to the Great Man’s death, in contrast to that of his colleague Umm Kulthum, whose funeral procession in 1975 was one of the largest in memory, rivalled only by that of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970.”[8]

Oum Kalthoum as a young woman

Oum Kalthoum as a young woman

Kulthum was born in a small Egyptian rural village (Tammay al-Zahayra) to a poor family in approximately 1904.[9] Kulthum attended school, which “included first and foremost the memorization of the Qur’an” as well as learning “the value attached to Qur’anic learning and to correct pronunciation and phrasing of the text.” She was drawn to singing while listening to her father, the local imam, practicing and teaching religious songs performed at local events and weddings. Even though she was a girl, due to “the unusual strength of her voice” her father invited her to join in on the lessons.[10] This was the beginning of a lifelong career in music, with a foundation in religious songs and tradition. Wahab said of Kulthum: “Umm Kulthum had perfect command of language… Never would you listen to her and ask ‘What did she say?’ She had perfect pronunciation.” This was, he said, “a product of studying the Qur’an.”[11] Her voice was not only beautiful, but because of her upbringing and education, she understood what she sang and could transmit that to her audience. However, it was not easy for Kulthum as a female performer. As A.J. Racy notes, “a comparable attempt to uphold the common standards of decency was made by Umm Kulthum and her family at the very beginning of this singer’s performance career. When she saw her picture at the centre of an advertisement announcing her performances, she reportedly cried of embarrassment” and her father refused her performances to go forward until her photo was removed from the advertisements.  For years she sang while dressed in traditional male attire in order to project a more modest demeanour.[12] These expectations and pressures set upon Kulthum from an early age likely heavily influenced her artistry, performances, and approach to music.

It was not long before her fame spread and by the 1920s she and her family had moved to Cairo to pursue her singing career. She was supported by dedicated patrons and mentors, such as poet Ahmed Rami[13], who saw her potential talent despite her rural country girl demeanour.[14] Over time, Kulthum’s popularity grew, and eventually Egyptians could hear her on the radio, buy her records, or see her in their favourite movies. She believed in the use of modern technologies to bring traditional Arabic song into the modern era.[15] Michael Frishkopf notes that Kulthum was particularly successful thanks to a combination of immense talent and timing that “enabled her to stake a claim to pre-mediated legitimacy, while benefiting enormously from the power of the media era, which developed almost exactly in parallel with her own life, catapulting her to pan-Arab celebrity.”[16] This is not to diminish her talent or success, but to frame her as someone who had not only significant talent, but was also in the right place at the right time. It was who she was meant to be. Under President Nasser, Kulthum’s music was played across the Arab world on radio, allowing her to reach heights of superstardom that have yet to be surpassed by another artist.  

Though both Kulthum’s and Wahab’s careers spanned decades, it was not until 1964 that their first collaboration, Inta Omri, was released. As they were of the same generation and had a similar level of success as singer and composer, it was regularly suggested they collaborate with one another.[17]  However, their opposing artistic objectives halted any collaboration for years. Kulthum publically denounced Wahab’s approach to music, calling it chaotic.  Danielson notes that “her words helped Umm Kulthum to define an artistic and social position for herself vis-à-vis ‘Abd al-Wahhab that lay at one close to the fallaha—suspicious of the foreign and proud of her own heritage—and to politicians and intellectuals who were turning away from Western models.”[18] Both artists utilized their differences to create interest around their music. Interestingly, both their immense successes “cannot be attributed simply to musical talent, but rather must be viewed as resulting from the power (high) and the number (low) of pan-Arab media channels based in Egypt” under the highly nationalistic Nasser era.[19] Both stars benefitted from this situation, regardless of their artistic differences and their individual star power made their collaboration that much more anticipated.

"Enta Omri" (You Are My Life) at the Olympia Théâtre in Paris, November 1967.

Ultimately, it was mutual friends and business associates (possibly even President Nasser) that facilitated the collaboration of the two powerhouses. Both worried about working with the other. “Kulthum feared that the vocal line of any song ‘Abd al-Wahhab wrote would be overwhelmed by the instrumental parts” making her appear weak, while Wahab feared that Kulthum would dominate the music “to such an extent that his composition would become nothing but an insignificant vehicle for her vocal style.”[20] Through compromise, they eventually found a happy ground and released their first piece together, Inta Omri. Over the next decade they worked together on nine pieces, including Fakkarouni, Aghadan Alkak, Daret El Ayam, and Leylet Hob. These pieces became some of the most well-known and popular songs in both their repertoires.

The release of Inta Omri was a huge event and in many ways was a combination of their best attributes.  Inta Omri represented a new path in Kulthum’s career, one with a more modern sound.[21]  Previously, she never allowed an instrument such as an electric guitar to be included in one of her songs. It is now an iconic part of Egyptian music. The collaboration between these two great artists was the culmination of their individual and unique careers.

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[1] Walter Armbrust, Mass Culture and Modernism In Egypt, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 65.

[2] A.J. Racy, Making Music in the Arab World, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 20-21.

[3] “Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab- Egyptian Musician,” last modified June 1, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Muhammad-Abd-al-Wahhab.

[4] Armbrust, Mass Culture, 70.

[5] Armbrust, Mass Culture, 63.

[6] Hashem El Saifi, “Mohamed Abdel Wahab: A Growing Symbol,” (You Tube Video, July 10, 2013),  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYXs-fKhTO4.

[7] Armbrust, Mass Culture, 64.

[8] Armbrust, Mass Culture, 63

[9] Virginia Danielson, The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 21.

[10] Danielson, Voice of Egypt, 22.

[11] Danielson, Voice of Egypt, 97.

[12] Racy, Making Music, 16-17.

[13] For more on Rami’s work, see Racy, Making Music, 182-185.

[14] Umm Kulthum: A Voice like Egypt. Directed by Michel Goldman. 1996. DVD.

[15] Umm Kulthum: A Voice like Egypt, DVD.

[16] Michael Frishkopf, Music and Media in the Arab World, (Cairo: The American University in Cairo, 2010), 13.

[17] Danielson, Voice of Egypt, 171.

[18] Danielson, Voice of Egypt, 172.

[19] Frishkopf, Music and Media 13.

[20] Danielson, Voice of Egypt, 173.

[21] Umm Kulthum: A Voice like Egypt, DVD.

 

Leslie HolmesComment