The enduring melodic magic of Umm Kulthum, Star of the Orient

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Egyptian actress Umm Kulthum singing on Cairo’s Voice of Arabs radio show. (Getty Images)
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The legendary Umm Kulthum during an interview in May 1970. This rare picture, along with four letters, were uncovered by Huda Al-Tabei, wife of the late Egyptian journalist Mohammed Al-Tabei, 24 years after his death. (AFP/Getty Images)
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Umm Kulthum. This rare picture, along with four letters, were uncovered by Huda Al-Tabei, wife of the late Egyptian journalist Mohammed Al-Tabei, 24 years after his death. (AFP/Getty Images)
Updated 20 July 2018
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The enduring melodic magic of Umm Kulthum, Star of the Orient

  • She was blessed with great range and virtuosity, and had the ability to link musical improvisation with the lyrics she was singing
  • For the Lebanese singer Tania Saleh, who has been a lifelong fan of Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian icon represents more than just artistic greatness

DUBAI: When the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum took to the stage at Lebanon’s Baalbeck International Festival for the last time in 1970, she was at the end of a career that had enraptured the Arab world. Over the course of almost 50 years, her voice had captured the collective imagination, brought pleasure to millions, and become a powerful symbol of Arab nationalism.
Now, 48 years later, her music is to grace the festival’s stage once again, with this year’s program kicking off on Friday, July 20 with “Baalbeck Remembers Umm Kulthum,” a 90-minute homage to the ‘Star of the Orient.’
“Everything about Umm Kulthum stands out,” says the Egyptian composer and conductor Hisham Gabr, who is to lead the celebrations. “Her voice, her mastery, her ability to improvise, and the way that she uses this incredible array of nuances in her voice to express the tiniest and slightest details of the words that she’s singing. She reincarnates melody, reinvents it in so many ways that are quite stunning and amazing. And yet she never loses track of what those words mean and how she can convey and augment those meanings to her listeners.”
The music of Umm Kulthum was formed in what is now an unrecognizable era — a golden age of Arab musical endeavor epitomized by Umm Kulthum and other greats including Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim Hafez. She mesmerized audiences, singing songs such as “Enta Omri” and “Al Atlal” with such raw emotional power that they continue to hold sway over great swathes of the Arab world.
She was blessed with great range and virtuosity, and had the ability to link musical improvisation with the lyrics she was singing. During her live radio broadcasts, which traditionally took place on Thursday evenings, she would often sing the same melody in a variety of different ways, performing three or four songs over the course of a few hours and bringing cities to a standstill.
These songs covered universal themes of love, loss and desire, although it was her early religious training that enabled such immaculate and nuanced diction.
“I had a very distant admiration of Umm Kulthum and didn’t really connect to her and what she represents until later in life,” admits Gabr. “I was more of a normal Egyptian fan of Umm Kulthum who would listen to her in cafés and stuff like that.
“She didn’t become a part of my life until later on, when I started studying her work to orchestrate it. And I was completely blown away with my new finding — this Umm Kulthum and her music — and felt that she really talked to me, and talks about me. I think she owns her listeners in a way that no artist has ever achieved in their life.”
Despite his admiration for the singer, however, the fact that this year’s Baalbeck concert is happening at all is as much down to fate as anything else. As Gabr says, he “bumped into it” by chance, having met the festival’s deputy director, Maya Halabi, in China last November. Halabi told Gabr that the festival was looking to produce a tribute to Umm Kulthum, but in a way that had not been done before.
“I suggested that Umm Kulthum’s legacy has been dealt with in so many ways, but until today she has never been put into an orchestral form,” says Gabr. “Why don’t we try to do that?”
So they did. An array of talent has been assembled, including the Egyptian singers Mai Farouk and Marwa Nagy, and the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental-Arabic Music. They will perform two medleys of Umm Kulthum’s most famous songs, including “Aghadan Alkak,” “Inta El Hob” and “Alf Layla Wa Layla.”
Umm Kulthum was born in the village of Tamay e-Zahayra in the Nile Delta. The daughter of an Imam, she was taught to recite the Quran and sang with her father at village weddings before heading to Cairo, where she would find worldwide fame. Even Western singers such as Bob Dylan and Maria Callas have proclaimed to be admirers.
For the Lebanese singer Tania Saleh, who has been a lifelong fan of Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian icon represents more than just artistic greatness. She is a representative of female empowerment and revolution.

“Even though she was raised in an extremely poor family, she succeeded in imposing her talent in her native town (as a religious chants singer, accompanied by her father, who started her career disguised as a boy) and later in Cairo where she took matters into her own hands,” says Saleh. “She was self-taught, but very soon she had the ability to choose the poems of the best songwriters of her time, and of historical masters from the region, also discovering creative composers from her generation and the younger generations as well. 
“She and Abdel Wahab carried the legacy of Sayed Darwish, who gave Egyptian song a new dimension by making it about the real stories of people’s everyday realities, and by introducing the orchestra to the traditional unison of oud and voice. She put her listeners in a trance and kept them ‘msaltanin,’ as we say in Arabic, until her last breath in 1975.”
Umm Kulthum performed at Baalbeck on two other occasions, in 1966 and 1968. All three of her appearances were understandably sold out. This year’s concert is to be held on the steps of the Temple of Bacchus and limited-edition posters of her 1970 performance will be on sale at the event.
“Umm Kulthum’s is a timeless and eternal legacy,” says Gabr. “She was present, is present, and will always be present as long as there are people speaking Arabic. Her legacy is unique and unparalleled and I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that Umm Kulthum’s legacy alone, in so many ways, surpasses all other singers combined.”


Julia Louis-Dreyfus gets a top award for comedy

Updated 22 October 2018
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Julia Louis-Dreyfus gets a top award for comedy

  • Louis-Dreyfus is the 21st Mark Twain recipient, joining a list that includes Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Carol Burnett

WASHINGTON: After a 35-year acting career and with two iconic television characters to her name — Elaine Benes of “Seinfeld” and foul-mouthed Vice President Selina Meyer — Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been honored with the Mark Twain Prize for lifetime achievement in comedy.
On Sunday night at Washington’s Kennedy Center, the 57-year-old actress received a stream of testimonials from celebrities including Jerry Seinfeld, Stephen Colbert and 2010 Mark Twain recipient Tina Fey, touching on the multiple aspects of her career.
“We both started comedy in Chicago,” said Fey, paying tribute by tracking the similarities between their lives.
“We both moved on to ‘Saturday Night Live.’ We both lost our virginity to Brad Hall,” referring to Louis-Dreyfus’ husband and former SNL cast mate, sitting next to the honoree. Fey praised the “secret precision” of her comedy and her willingness to make her Seinfeld character so flawed.
“Julia let Elaine be selfish and petty and sarcastic and a terrible, terrible dancer,” Fey said. “Julia’s never been afraid to be unlikable — not on screen and not in person.”
Louis-Dreyfus is the 21st Mark Twain recipient, joining a list that includes Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Carol Burnett. Bill Cosby, the winner in 2009, had his award rescinded earlier this year after he was convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
During last year’s ceremony to honor David Letterman, Cosby’s name was never mentioned. But this year, two of the performers felt comfortable making Cosby jokes. Late night host Stephen Colbert displayed a sign proclaiming, “167 days since the last Un-Twaining.”
With his fingers crossed, he told Louis-Dreyfus, “I think you’ll be OK.”
Later Keegan-Michael Key come onstage, dressed as Mark Twain himself and proceeded to roast many of the previous award recipients. When a picture of Cosby was briefly shown, Michael-Key quickly moved things along and said, “It’s OK, he’s not watching,” then added that he doubted PBS was a popular channel “in the penitentiary.”
Seinfeld, while on the red carpet before the ceremony, recalled first meeting Louis-Dreyfus during an informal audition. His iconic sitcom, “Seinfeld,” was still in the planning stages and producer Larry David knew Louis-Dreyfus from their time together on “Saturday Night Live.”
“We had just two short pages of script, and we sat down to read the dialogue together,” Seinfeld said. “As soon as she opened her mouth, I knew she was the one.”
Seinfeld also credited Louis-Dreyfus for having the confidence and strength of personality to hold her own on what he called “a very male show.”
That confidence was evident very early for Louis-Dreyfus, who said she knew as a young child that she had a gift for comedy.
“The first time I really knew was when I stuffed raisins in my nose and my mother laughed. I ended up in the emergency room because they wouldn’t come out!” Louis-Dreyfus said before the ceremony.
Comedian Kumail Nanjiani grew up in Pakistan and never saw an episode of “Seinfeld” until he immigrated to the USas an adult.
“But I became a huge fan as soon as I moved here,” he said.
The co-writer of the movie “The Big Sick” recalled her iconic, slightly convulsive “Elaine Benes dance” on the show, which he credits to Louis-Dreyfus’ gift for physical comedy.
“There are some comedians who think physical comedy is beneath them,” he said. “But she was just fearless and ego-less.”
At the end of the night, Louis-Dreyfus accepted her award with an extended comedic bit and a few shots at new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The veteran comedic actress first drew laughs by repeatedly referencing her true life’s ambition to be a respected dramatic actress_stopping in mid-speech to deliver a monologue from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.”
A native of the Washington suburbs in Maryland, Louis-Dreyfus is a graduate of the elite Holton-Arms school, alma mater of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of assault.
Louis-Dreyfus make a veiled but unmistakable reference to Ford’s testimony_framing it around her performance in high school of the play “Serendipity.”
“I can remember every single aspect of that play that night, so much so that I would testify under oath about it,” she said, to a round of laughter and applause. “But I can’t remember who drove me there or who drove me home.”
Louis-Dreyfus emerged from Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe before joining the cast of “Saturday Night Live.” After her nine-year run on “Seinfeld,” her turn as Vice President Selina Meyer on “Veep” earned her six consecutive Emmy Awards.
The upcoming seventh and final season of “Veep” was delayed as Louis-Dreyfus received treatment for breast cancer. That season is currently in production.
PBS will air the Twain event on Nov. 19.