The Singing Canary of Orient: Ummu Gulsum

Merve A. Tokyay

A crying voice is reaching out to my ears. The warbles are resounding in the space just as a teardrops…

Now, they call her fourth Pyramid of Egypt; the immortal voice of Nile, face of the Egypt, star of the East, the lady of the Orient. I am talking about Ummu Gulsum; a genderless voice that leaves deep scars on Arabian hearts around 1900’s. She is no doubt the biggest voice of Arabian soil, in her mortal body, lyric and music saw the light of day first. As Omer Serif says “every day we live without her in Orient is mirthless and gloomy” still…

Her story begins in a small village near Nile; Tammay el Zahayrah. Her father is hafız known with beautiful voice, last brother of 3, took Qur’an lessons since 5 and reads proper.

 

Imagine the year 1909, a father who believes in her daughter, in a geography where women are in silence, he discovers her talent and tutors her. Ummu Gulsum learns all the niceties of Arabic language and her fame begins to circulate near villages and towns. She chants in various events and because of little girls voice is haram, she dresses as a boy. They think she is a boy but her voice is genderless anyway. Her father takes the action on one day; he cannot imprison her in this indigent village and moves the family to Cairo. Her father introduces Ummu Gulsum with famous and prominent teachers. It is 1923.  She begins with working famous composer Sheikh Abu’l ala Mohammed and her name begins to spread around Cairo. She performs traditional melodies alongside classical Arabian compositions but she was expected to do more. The artist sings love songs after 1926 and when it comes to 1928 she was ranked among the best singer in Cairo. At the same era, she was becoming knowledgeable around Egypt, but she became a blast in 1934 when Egypt radio station was built. That was the biggest decision in her life. Her voice spreads through Arabic world and that is a milestone to become worldwide artist. In 1937 she signs a contract and first Thursday of every month she sings alive. She shouts out from the artist capital of Arabic World, Cairo to Palestine, Lebanon and Algeria. Millions of people sit in front of the radios and be in trance with her music. Even so, Arabic leaders don’t speech at that hour.

She was definitely privileged, because people adored her. The love didn’t arouse from the beautiful voice only, she was a patriotic Arabic nationalist. She supported defeated Arabic nations and Egypt with Israeli wars in coming years, donated most of the incomes from concerts to the governments. Ummu Gulsum had such a strong voice that she could sing a note for 1.5 minutes. She only used to sing three songs in a concert and each of them approximately lasted an hour. Meanwhile her motion pictures were a huge success around the globe.

As her fame grew she began to build friendships with high-end society of Egypt community so that she was very close with King Farouk. Gulsum accepted as a symbol of regime and fourth Pyramid of Egypt around that time.

Guldum was living a golden era during then. She used to meet with contemporary poets and figuring out a new repertoire to amaze Egyptian fans. She seems to capture essence of Arabic poetry and glamour of the Orient chime. That was her epoch to be authority of entertainment business and climbed to the head of Musicians Union.

Applauses echoed in her ears during a lifetime, but unfortunately she faced with serious health issues in her late ages. First her liver and then goiter… she had to say goodbye to stages. When she went abroad for treatment her mother’s and brother’s death stroke her.

Ummu Gulsum passed away due to coronary failure on 4th of February. That day Egyptian stations aired Qur’an-I Kareem whole day. Cairo streets were full of millions out of governors, artists, her fans and friends to cherish her memory. The imam who performed funeral prayer parted how religious she was.

Ummu Gulsum is still a hit in online channels and known as a music authority. Everyone accepted this one thing for sure: Gulsum is the best voice of Egypt of all times and Ente Omri is best song ever. But she wasn’t gather fame with just a beautiful voice or charisma, she chanted through strewn Arabic geography and millions united while listening her voice.

 

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