Umm Kolthoum (1904-1975) was unquestionably the greatest Arab singer of the 20th century. Known as 'The Shining Star of the Middle East' (Kawkab El Sharq), her importance in the Arab countries was so great that she was received with the same ceremony as heads of state.
Born in Egypt to a humble family of singers, her remarkable voice was known all over Egypt by the time she was 5 years old. However, it was not until she was 19 that she left her village moving to Cairo to pursue her career.
The famous poet Ahmad Rami wrote 137 songs for her and renowned lute virtuoso Mahamed El Asabgi was also highly influential in her formative years.
By 1948 her fame came to the attention of Gamel Abdel Nasser, who was to become president of Egypt. Nasser's speeches and other government messages were frequently broadcast immediately after her monthly concerts, which took place on the first Thursday of every month and were listened to avidly by the masses. Her concerts were unique in the way that a single song could last an hour or two with much of it impromptu, repeating lines over and over again but varying the style of singing every time, so that no two lines were the same. In this way she interacted in a hugely personal way with her audience bringing them to an almost hypnotic state.
Umm Kolthoum was relentless in her charitable work and was the spokeswoman for various good causes. She gave away most of her wealth during her lifetime and financially supported around 200 peasant families.
After the disasterous defeat in the 1967 Arab/Israel war, she toured throughout the Arab world giving concerts and donating the proceeds to the Egyptian Government. These concerts were highly publicized and took on the character of state visits. She was entertained by heads of state and in her many interviews she repeated her views regarding the importance of indigenous Arab culture. More than a musician she became the voice and face of Egypt.
Umm Kolthoum died in 1975. Her funeral was led by the presidential court and followed by several million of her followers. In her honour the Egyptian government opened the Kawkab al-Sharq Museum (Star of the East) dedicated to the life and work of Umm Kolthoum.