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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The Rough Guide to World Music states Umm Kulthum is indisputably the Arab world's greatest singer. We're not sure how scientific this survey was, but there is something undeniably special about her voice.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. UMM KULTHUM (Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: The name Umm Kulthum may not resonate in Western ears, but she was a larger-than-life presence in the Arab world. The Egyptian singer's career was long, its heyday extending from the 1930s to the 1960s, and her music became a powerful symbol of Arab nationalism. When Umm Kulthum died in 1975 at the age of 70, some four million people poured into the streets of Cairo to mourn her passing.

Today, her music is everywhere. At a truck stop halfway between Cairo and Alexandria, we found a CD kiosk with plenty of Umm Kulthum's.

Oh my goodness. Is this whole drawer Umm Kulthum?

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible).

HANSEN: Mostly.

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)

HANSEN: Umm Kulthum's live broadcasts of the 50s and 60s, were legendary and Cairo streets would empty on Thursday nights as people gathered around radios to hear them.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: You still can hear a lots of Umm Kulthum on the Egyptian radio. And in honor of her famous broadcasts, her music is played at 10:00 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: Umm Kulthum lived on Cairo's Zamalek Island in a quiet villa overlooking the Nile. The house was razed in the early 1980s to make way for a block of apartments. But on nearby Roda Island, there is now a bronze statue of Kulthum in front of a palace. It is home to the Umm Kulthum Museum.

(Soundbite of banging)

Dr. WALID SHOSHA (Manager, Umm Kulthum Museum, Professor, Academy of Arts): (Through translator) We start the museum by instinctive feature of Umm Kulthum. Her scarf - she's probably the only singer in Egypt who always had the scarf while singing.

HANSEN: Dr. Walid Shosha was our guide. He's the manager of the Umm Kulthum Museum, and a professor at the Academy of Arts. Our tour began at a display featuring two of Kulthum's glamorous trademarks: the scarf she always held in her left hand as she performed and a pair of diamond-studded cat's eye sunglasses. Then we came to a long case filled with Kulthum's luxurious jeweled dresses. There were smaller exhibits of instruments and her gramophones occupies a prominent place just outside a room filled with individual audio-visual terminals.

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: What was the name of this song we were listening to?

Mr. SHOSHA: (Through translator) The song you just heard is called "A Night of Love." It is part of the audio-visual library you have here. And visitors spend hours listening to Umm Kulthum, getting to know her, finding intimate articles about her life and the way she lived.

HANSEN: There's also a library of books about the Umm Kulthum at the Cairo museum, including a biography written by Virginia Danielson, curator of the world music archive at Harvard University.

Unidentified Man #3: Umm Kulthum was born at the turn of the century when most Egyptians, they lived and worked on the land. Her family was as poor as the other peasants in the...

HANSEN: The documentary, "Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt," narrated by Omar Sharif, was released on DVD last year. It is based on Virginia Danielson's biography of Kulthum. Danielson came into the studio of member station of WGBH in Boston to talk about Umm Kulthum's life.

Ms. VIRGINIA DANIELSON (Curator, World Music Archive, Harvard University, Author, "Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt"): She was born to a poor family and at the time Egypt was under British occupation, and virtually the only schools that were available or encouraged were religious schools.

Now what you learned was to recite the Koran, and that tended to give people a profound appreciation for the language and for the sound of the language. And, of course, the Koran is written in very elegant Arabic. Even Christian and Jewish singers would study the Koran or get instruction in recitation in order to be able to treat the language as well as possible because that was very much appreciated by listeners, whether it was to oratory or song.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. DANIELSON: She had a very powerful voice. She had a wide range. Her voice was equally strong from the lowest to the highest part of her range, and she was musically very inventive. She schooled herself musically by learning to command the Arab musical system, learning to improvise in that system the way a jazz musician would improvise on using the Western system. And she also learned a profound appreciate of fine poetry.

And she had an ability to link musical improvisation to the meaning of the words that she was singing in such a way that the meaning was really felt by listeners. Many scholars and teachers would say that poetry is the art of the Arabs. And so to sing poetry well is something that will tend to garner great appreciation among Arabic-speaking listeners.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: She weaves a spell. But there's one part in the documentary, I think somewhere in the 1940s or 50s, and the audience begins to sing back phrases to her. And there's a word, tarab, ecstasy.

Ms. DANIELSON: Yes. Tarab is a concept of enchantment. In fact, it's an goal of historically Arab performance. It's usually associated with vocal music, although instrumental music can produce the same effect, in which the listener is completely enveloped in the sound and the meaning in a broad experiential sense, and is just completely taken away, carried away, if you will, by the performance.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: And there's footage of her too, and you'll see her in this amazing gowns, sparkling, holding the handkerchief in her left hand and just singing. And that's something that goes on. It's like our own - you know, the American idea of go back and see some of these jazz singers. She can channel Billie Holiday a little bit. You know, and you watch some of that older 40s footage of her but in a completely different culture.

Ms. DANIELSON: Yeah, and what we - at one point the filmmaker, Michal Goldman and I had to describe, you know, in what is often asked to describe Umm Kulthum in American terms. And we said, well, if you took a singer with the musical chops of Ella Fitzgerald and then you gave that person the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and they you gave that person the audience of Elvis, you'd have it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DANIELSON: That's what we're looking at.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: that's the Arabesque Music Ensemble preparing for a recent concert at Georgetown University here in Washington, D.C. The group is based in Chicago, and is keeping Kulthum's legacy and classical Arab music alive. The ensemble's CD, "The Music of the Three Musketeers," features a trio of composers who wrote more than three-quarters of Kulthum's songs. Backstage we meet group member Hicham Chami, who says Umm Kulthum always found the right material.

Mr. HICHAM CHAMI (Member, Arabesque Music Ensemble): She was a no-nonsense businesswoman; besides her tremendous talent, she was very successful in surrounding herself with some of the finest musicians of that period, but also some of the finest composers. And as young musicians, we decided that it was about time to give credit to these composers, and reward their legacy.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. YOUSSEF KASSAB (Singer, Arabesque Music Ensemble): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: This song became famous when Umm Kulthum sang it in a scene from the 1944 movie "Sallama." Here it is sung by Youssef Kassab, with the Arabesque Music Ensemble.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KASSAB: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

In Damascus, Syria, Umm Kulthum, she come once when she's maybe 50. I was 16 this time.

HANSEN: Syrian singer Youssef Kassab is now in his 70s.

Mr. KASSAB: My father, he take me, and I listened to Kulthum. But I saw her outside. Her chauffeur, driver, he opened the door for her. I looked - this is Umm Kulthum. And she wearing red.

HANSEN: Red.

Mr. KASSAB: Yeah. Even her socks red. Shoes red, purse red. You know, yeah, like queen. So, Umm Kulthum, she's number one to me.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KULTHUM: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: You can see a video excerpt from "Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt" and hear selections from the Arabesque Music Ensemble's new CD at our Web site, NPR.org/Music.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Lois Hansen's daughter, Liane.

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