Umm Kulthum - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthum

By Eugene S. Robinson



When Maria Callas describes your voice as incomparable, it’s safe to say it probably is. 

By Eugene S. Robinson

The Egyptian vocalist Umm Kulthum, alternately described as the “Incomparable Voice” by Maria Callas or the “Star of the East,” was and is, even in death, a superstar of the highest order in not only the world of Arabic music but music PERIOD. Armed with nothing but a voice, a scarf and shades, Kulthum, in concerts that rolled into three and sometimes four hours would improvise vocals over enduring lyrical themes of love, loss, regret and joy.

From the 1930s until her death in 1975 at the age of 76, Kulthum could wring an entire emotional spectrum from a transnational audience (she is beloved in Israel as well) whether she was singing or acting (as she did in a gaggle of movies). Feted by fans and disparate heads of state from Charles de Gaulle to Egypt’s next-to-last king, Farouk I (with whom there was some family-romantic intrigue), and its second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who declared the politically motivated ban on her radio performances “crazy,” Kulthum drew millions of grief-stricken Egyptians to the streets in a mass spasm of profound sorrow when she died.

Which would explain her more than 60 records (OZY’s pick? 1998’s La Diva) that are still selling — even in the age of the download — about a million copies a year.

Enduring, epic and enduringly epic. Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Kulthum.

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