"My father was uneasy. The idea that his daughter should sing in front of men he didnt know was difficult for him to accept, but my singing helped support the family. So he dressed me in boys clothes and I sang this way for several years. I realize now that he wanted to convince himself, and the audience too, that the singer was a young boy and not a young woman." -From "Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt"
She had the musicality of Ella Fitzgerald, the public presence of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis Presley. Her name was Umm Kulthum and she became a powerful symbol, first of the aspirations of her country, Egypt, and then of the entire Arab world.
Born a peasant at the turn of the century, she became a woman of great wealth and power, confidant of presidents and kings and, above all, President Gamal Abd al-Nassers unofficial ambassador in the region. Four million people were on the streets of Cairo for her funeral in 1975. To this day, her cassettes outsell every other Arabic female vocalist.
Narrated by Omar Sharif, Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt is the first documentary to bring Umm Kulthum to an American audience. The film puts her life in the context of the epic story of 20th century Egypt as it shook off colonialism and confronted modernity. The camera explores her astonishing connection with her audience, taking us into her village in the Nile Delta and into the cafes, markets and streets of Cairo where she lived and worked. From the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz to a 12-year-old girl in an outdoor restaurant, people speak about the role Umm Kulthums music has played in their lives and sing their favorite songs for the camera.
With its esoteric sounds and exotic melodies, Arabic music remains a mystery to much of the Western world. A gem of a documentary, Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt
begins to unravel the music and intertwines the life of this tremendous Middle Eastern singer with the history and politics of Egypt, giving a fuller look at a tumultuous time in the changing country. Umm Kulthum was born to peasants and she began singing religious songs to help her family earn money. Her father would dress her in boy's clothing, because he didn't approve of her singing in front of men he didn't know. Despite her country ways, her full-ranged voice brought her to the attention of society and soon she was performing both onstage and onscreen. The lyrics of her songs were poems--one of her most famous is a rendition of "The Rubaiyat." During her later years, she became on outspoken supporter of Nasser and traveled the Arabic-speaking world in support of her government. When she died in 1975, 4 million mourners flooded the streets of Cairo to honor the beloved singer.
This beautifully styled documentary, narrated by Omar Sharif, carefully balances elements so that the video never drags. Long clips of Umm Kulthum singing are interspersed with a dramatized voice-over and shots of the Egyptian countryside. Interviews with writers, journalists, musicologists, folks on the street, a radio commentator, and even Nobel novelist Naguib Mahfouz emphasize the importance of her voice to the people who listened to her. Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt succeeds in making the singer and the music, and even to a certain extent the politics of the country, accessible to a whole new generation of music lovers. --Jenny Brown