This year on NPR, we're exploring 50 great voices, singers whove made their mark in many styles of music across the decades. Today, we're going to hear about Umm Kulthum, from Egypt. She has been dead for over 30 years, but she's still one of the Arab world's biggest stars.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has a report complete with a little lesson in Arabic.

NEDA ULABY: I did not really understand Umm Kulthum's mystique. I grew up in the U.S., so I asked my dad to explain. Ulaby is a Syrian name and my dad, Fawwaz, has this story's first vocabulary lesson. It's "Inta Omri," the name of Umm Kulthum's signature song. My dad says Umm Kulthum was a soundtrack to his youth in the Middle East.

Mr. FAWWAZ ULABY: Her voice was everywhere. It was like she was ubiquitous.

ULABY: What was it about her voice?

Mr. ULABY: It's hard to describe. The words penetrate into your ears, into your psyche, into your brain when you're listening to her saying things like inta omri, which means you are my life, you are my world.

(Soundbite of song, "Inta Omri")

Ms. UMM KULTHUM (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. ULABY: There was such passion, such total devotion.

(Soundbite of song, "Inta Omri")

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing in foreign language)

Dr. VIRGINIA DANIELSON (Curator, Harvard University Archive of World Music): She has a very powerful voice with a lot of nasal resonance, and this is all good.

ULABY: Ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson is a renowned expert on Umm Kulthum. But at first, she did not understand what cued those cheers of approval during Umm Kulthum's songs. She learned the audience responded whenever the singer closed the gap between poetry and emotion.

More vocabulary here: When Umm Kulthum sings the words, I'm afraid your heart belongs to somebody else, she completely nails the way that anguish should sound.

Dr. DANIELSON: And the way she treats the word somebody else, which is inse'en, is just heartrending.

(Soundbite of song, "Inta Omri")

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing in foreign language)

Dr. DANIELSON: And you can hear the feeling of the poem come through in the way that she sings it.

(Soundbite of song, "Inta Omri")

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing in foreign language)

ULABY: It's often occurred to me that you never see Arabs smiling when you watch TV in the U.S. But in videos of Umm Kulthum in concert, her entire audience is wreathed in grins. Literally, people cannot contain their pleasure.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

ULABY: Umm Kulthum's legendary concerts were broadcast live from Cairo on the first Thursday of each month, from the 1930s to the early 1970s. The Arab world's buzz and bustle stopped, from Medina to Marrakesh, from Jeddah to Jerusalem. Shops closed; families gathered to listen for four, five, even six hours of rapture.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing in foreign language)

ULABY: Umm Kulthum was drenched in religious music as a child. Her father was a village cleric. They sang together at weddings and funerals. When Umm Kulthum went to Cairo as a young woman, people laughed at her cheap clothes and country manners. They whispered she did not know how to use a knife or fork.

But Umm Kulthum smartly crafted an image that played on the romance of being from the land. She began studying classical poetry and music. And she copied the wealthy Muslim women who were becoming her fans. Umm Kulthum was never beautiful, but she ripened into a sophisticated star.

Ms. SUHEIR HAMMAD (Poet, Political Activist): She was the original diva for us.

ULABY: Suheir Hammad is a Palestinian-American poet, and a disciple of Umm Kulthum's ability to juice lines and embellish language. She says Umm Kulthum's songs were usually not really religious, but they all reflected a childhood spent praising God.

Ms. HAMMAD: There's something about the fact that even when she's not saying Allah, she has said it so many times in her life that everything is inflected with the notion of Allah of the most high.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. HAMMAD: It's like Sam Cooke's music for me, something about church and fellowship and Juma, Friday prayer.

ULABY: It's fair to liken Umm Kulthum's music to the blues in the way she blended together Quranic recitation, classical love poems and folk songs.

Here's your last vocabulary word: It's tarab, a unique quality of Arab music, explained by ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson.

Dr. DANIELSON: It translates best to the word enchantment, but what it refers to is the experience of really being carried away by music.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing in foreign language)

Dr. DANIELSON: People would tell preposterous stories about getting up and leaving the house and not knowing where they were going, and just all kinds of experiences of completely forgetting your troubles, completely being outside yourself, having been transported by the experience.

ULABY: At a moment when the Arab world was buffeted by modernity - the aftershocks of 19th century colonialism, corrupt leaders and the new Israeli state - Umm Kulthum's voice was a lodestar. Part of tarab is the idea that listeners are as crucial as musicians. And Umm Kulthum and her audience together created something sweet and whole.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: You can see video of Umm Kulthum singing, and guess who will be the next voice in our series, at

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.


And Im Renee Montagne.

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