A Tribute to Oum Kalsoum

A Tribute to Oum Kalsoum

Abir Nasraoui, Karima Skalli & Riham Abdelhakim


Premier titre (piste 1 – 14’25/piste 2 – 5’10/piste 3 – 6’48)
Gaddedt hobbak leh / Pourquoi renouveler ton amour / Rekindle your love
Paroles : Ahmad Rami
Musique : Riyad Al-Sunbati
Interprétation : Riham Abdelhakim (live à l’auditorium de l’IMA, le 17 juin 2001, dans le cadre du 2ème Festival de musique de l’Institut du monde arabe)

Deuxième titre (piste 4 – 7’20/piste 5 – 3’17/piste 6 – 6’30)
Hayyart qalbi ma’ak / Tu as troublé mon cœur / You have troubled my heart
Paroles : Ahmad Rami
Musique : Riyad Al-Sunbati
Interprétation : Riham Abdelhakim (live à l’abbatiale de Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, le 23 juin 2001, dans le cadre du festival « Les Orientales »)

Troisième titre (piste 7 – 7’30)
Emta l-hawa / A quand l’amour / When will love come
Paroles : Yahya Muhammad
Musique : Zakariyya Ahmad
Interprétation : Karima Skalli (live à l’auditorium de l’IMA, le 17 juin 2001, dans le cadre du 2ème Festival de musique de l’Institut du monde arabe)

Quatrième titre (piste 8 – 7’28)
Lughet ez-zuhur/ Le langage des fleurs / The Language of Flowers
Paroles : Mahmud Bayram Al-Tunisi
Musique : Zakariyya Ahmad
Interprétation : Karima Skalli (live à l’abbatiale de Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, le 23 juin 2001, dans le cadre du festival « Les Orientales »)

Cinquième titre (piste 9 – 8’57)
Ana fe entezarak / En t’attendant… / Waiting for You
Paroles : Mahmud Bayram Al-Tunisi
Musique : Zakariyya Ahmad
Interprétation : Abir Nasraoui (live à l’abbatiale de Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, le 23 juin 2001, dans le cadre du festival « Les Orientales »)

1 Gaddedt hobbak leh / Pourquoi renouveler ton amour / Rekindle your love 26’23
2 Hayyart qalbi ma’ak / Tu as troublé mon cœur / You have troubled my heart 17’07
3 Emta l-hawa / A quand l’amour / When will love come 7’30
4 Lughet ez-zuhur/ Le langage des fleurs / The Language of Flowers 7’28
5 Ana fe entezarak / En t’attendant… / Waiting for You 8’57

Interpreters and instruments

Riham Abdelhakim (chant) ; Orchestre de musique arabe de l’Opéra du Caire / Karima Skalli (chant) ; Orchestre de musique arabe de l’Opéra du Caire / Abir Nasraoui (chant) ; Orchestre de musique arabe de l’Opéra du Caire


Lady Kalsoum 

Give me back my freedom, untie my hands/I have given you everything and kept nothing for myself/My wrists are still bleeding from the chains you made me wear/Why should I keep them when you have taken everything from me?/Why should I remain a captive when the world belongs to me? These lines are taken from al-Atlal (The Ruins), one of the best-known and most heartrending songs in the Oum Kalsoum repertory, which was first recorded in 1966. To this day, this masterpiece of poetry and melody, a fusion of real life and the unattainable ideal, with words by Ibrahim Nagi, and music by Riyad al-Sunbati, remains one of the Egyptian diva’s biggest hits. Since it was re-issued on CD, it has once again become a mainstay for Kalsoum fans, amongst both old and young, the vast majority of the latter group being made up of Europeans and second generation immigrants of North African origin. It is also the song most often performed and has been the object of the greatest number of cover versions, including one by Sapho, intended as a tribute to her great precursor, but which was not much appreciated by Kalsoum purists; or a shorter but very successful re-interpretation by Georges Wassouf, the rebellious heart-throb of Syrian-Lebanese song.

Al-Atlal, a haunting cry of love, a pure expression of its undying flame, is the song, par excellence, where to feel is to desire, where tenderness becomes suffering, and where the spell woven by love is both magical and binding. This song is on the border between barely contained feminism and raging femininity; it addresses both the so-called virtuous woman and her debauched counterpart, whose perceived licentiousness can only result in her being shunned by polite society. 

More than thirty years after the death of Oum Kalsoum, al-Atlal continues to enjoy success among music-lovers of all social backgrounds. The artist knew how to charm everyone, from street sweepers to the president (Nasser was one of her most fervent admirers and often attended the famous concerts on the first Thursday of every month), from destitute peasants to well-to-do civil servants. There were those who wondered about the exceptional effect the Sett, “the Lady”, (or the “Mother of the Arabs” as some publicity material would have it) seemed to have on the masses. She was the subject of spiteful gossip and speculation: how could a relatively plain, uneducated peasant girl have managed to acquire such knowledge and culture in such seemingly unpromising circumstances? And how did she manage to make sacred music sound profane and the profane sacred?

Oum Kalsoum was ably supported throughout her career by her friend (and discreet lover) Ahmad Rami. This self-taught scholar and wordsmith of genius wrote about half the texts in her repertory, and excelled in the adaptation and re-interpretation of the work by the great names of Arabic Muslim poetry, in all genres. What a miracle! With Oum Kalsoum, the texts of the hedonistic Omar Khayyam, the “prince of poets” Ahmad Chawki, the erudite Mahmud Bayram al-Tunisi (Ghanni Li Chway, covered by Rachid Taha in his album Diwan 2), the passionate Taher Abu Facha, or the romantic Ahmad Chafiq Kamel took on a whole new dimension. Carried aloft on her captivating voice, they touched the sublime. And even more than in her recordings, it was onstage that the artist dazzled her audience. The proud carriage of her head, her face, sometimes tense with despair, sometimes radiant when the sun cast light on the promise of new love, her handkerchief brandished like a standard in her right hand, Oum Kalsoum gave off such magnetism that her spellbound public followed every movement, every emotion that flickered in her voice and face. It held its breath when she told of her torments, waved its arms when she drew imaginary arabesques in the air, cursed those who betrayed her, suffered with her when she described being deserted by her lover and laid its hand on its heart when she sighed…….In a word, her listeners quivered in sympathy with the legend.

A legend that began at the beginning of the previous century, in a context that was often far from easy. Oum Kalsoum is assumed to have been born around 1904, although some reference books give the date as 31st December 1898, in Tamay al-Zahayra, a poor village in the Nile delta. The daughter of Sheikh Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Baltagi, an imam, and Fatma al-Maligi, a simple peasant woman, she began by performing religious songs, encouraged quite naturally by her father and was soon singing in public, at saints’ day festivals. (Later, in tribute to her, the local calendar would bear the name of a new saint, Souma, as she was known to those closest to her.) She rapidly made a name for herself in the region and everyone talked of her androgynous appearance – her father insisted that she dress like a Bedouin boy in public – and unique singing voice. When Sheikh Abu al-Ila Muhammad visited Tamay, this great interpreter of the classical repertory and of poetry in particular, heard her sing and was amazed at her performance. In 1923, he suggested that she and her family move to Cairo, a vital first step on the road to fame and glory on a par with her talent.

However, the circumstances were not exactly auspicious. In 1919, Cairo had been the scene of a bloody revolution. London had rejected demands for independence from the Wafd party, led by Saad Zaghloul, and sent nationalist leaders into exile. Three years later, the number of British citizens being assassinated increased. Oum Kalsoum was always to remember these distressing events. It accounted for her burning patriotism, which later took the form of unstinting support for the war effort. Her detractors were quick to spot what they considered to be her opportunism, as she successively sang the praises of King Farouk, Nasser and then Sadat. Yet, Oum Kalsoum remained philosophical: “They didn’t respect artists very much at that time. The arts were under the control of the Ministry of Health. We were often threatened by drunks and the audience would ask us to sing rude songs, such as, “Let’s draw the curtains, so the neighbours can’t see” or “Who’s my mother, who’s my father, I do not know and never will.” People were deaf to the words of the Prophet.” Oum Kalsoum never bowed to pressure, even when the Muslim Brothers declared that her way of blending the sacred and profane was scandalous. In 1928, her reply took the form of a profane text (If I had to forgive and forget/My eyes would reproach me for it), set to a musical accompaniment inspired by sacred songs. Other people gossiped about her private life, suspecting her of marrying her doctor late in life to protect her reputation.

In the 1920s and 30s, during the reign of Fuad I, the world of Egyptian song was dominated by strong personalities, caught between modernity and the artistic heirs of interpreters such as Sayyid Darwish (whose work was brought up-to-date by the Cairo-born Dalida with her adaptation of Salma Ya Salama), Abdu Hamuli and especially Munira Al-Mahdiya, the temperamental star and undisputed queen of “eccentric” operas. In 1934, a talented young man by the name of Muhammad Abdel Wahab, pioneer of the fusion between western symphonic music and Egyptian melody, enjoyed great success with The White Rose, considered to be the first Arab musical comedy. Meanwhile, Oum Kalsoum, who had been working with Ahmad Rami since 1924, and also with Zakariyya Ahmad, began broadcasting on Egyptian radio; her fame now spread beyond a small group of devoted admirers to reach other Arab countries such as Syria, Irak or Lebanon, which she was to visit in 1932. Her listeners were all charmed by her unique voice accompanied by a takht (chamber orchestra), which now included a new musician, Muhammad al-Qasabgi, a lute player of exceptional talent, who helped her perfect her musical education. In 1936, at the time of Egyptian independence – even if British troops were still stationed in the country – she made her first film, Wedad. Yet, unlike her male counterparts Farid el Atrache or Abdel Halim Hafez, Oum Kalsoum made very few films, only six full-length features in all. She did not consider herself a good actress, and an eye condition for which she received treatment in the United States and as a result of which she later regularly wore dark glasses, gave her the ideal excuse to stop making films after Fatma. Between 1936 and 1952, in a country ruled by the capricious Farouk I, who made a fool of himself during the war in Palestine in 1948, Oum Kalsoum was at the height of her fame. During her famous concerts broadcast on the radio on the first Thursday of every month, the entire country hung from her lips: the public looked forward to her programme in the same way a modern-day Cairo football supporter would look forward to a match between Zamalek and el Ahly. It caught its breath at the moment when the radio presenter began to describe her long dress – she wore a different one for each concert. As soon as the first notes rang out, a frisson of excitement ran through the listening crowd and when the diva began to sing, it succumbed to the exquisite delight of mazag, a typically Egyptian expression that could be translated by “intense pleasure” or “heightened emotion”. Oum Kalsoum generally performed three songs, not more, (reducing the number to two only after 1967) the equivalent of the length of an opera, with a heartrending anguish that perhaps explains the sheer emotional impact of her voice. Wagdy el Hakim, a former radio manager, described the atmosphere as follows: “The evening of the performance was dreadful because she was frightened of the public.  During the day she read the Koran as a way of preparing herself; she didn’t want to be disturbed by anyone and never spoke, not even to ask for a glass of water, just scribbling what she needed on bits of paper.” She was to give these concerts right up until her death, with one notable and humiliating break just after the declaration of the founding of the Republic by Nasser in 1953: Oum Kalsoum had been accused of collaborating with the former regime and forbidden to perform on the radio; she kept silent for a while, then unable to bear the situation she confided in President Nasser, who promptly called the director of the national radio station in person to demand her reinstatement and a daily broadcast for her.

Nasser also played an important role in the reconciliation between the “People’s Diva” and the composer of genius, Muhammad Abdel Wahab. In 1960, the raïs brought together the two monstres sacrés, awarded them both medals and, during the ceremony, made it very clear how he felt about the situation: “I am happy to celebrate your art, but I cannot forgive you for not working together.” Four years later, as described by Nourredine Amdouni in his book on Abdel Wahab (Editions du Cygne, Genève), the two legendary artists finally agreed to work together to the satisfaction of both the press and the public in what turned out to be an extremely fruitful partnership, particularly on a financial level. Abdel Wahab played the song Enta ‘Umri (You are my life) to Oum Kalsoum, a sentimental tune with a text by the poet Ahmad Chafiq Kamel. The diva liked the song but she asked for one or two changes to be made and refused the idea of using an electric guitar. “On the contrary, it’s new, it’s modern and the guitar is the ideal instrument for this piece,” insisted Abdel Wahab. “Muhammad al-Qasabgi’s lute would be more appropriate,” replied the Star of the East. “I am not calling into question the immense talent of al-Qasabgi. It was he who introduced me to the lute and taught me to love it. But this tune can only be played on the guitar,” argued Abdel Wahab, who then suggested that they compare both options. They brought in the guitarist Abdel Fattah Khayri and al-Qasabgi who, each in turn, gave their version of Enta ‘Umri. The singer finally changed her mind and gave carte blanche (in French in the discussion) to her illustrious partner. As a result, Enta ‘Umri was to transform the orchestration of eastern music, and it became the done thing, from then on, to use (and abuse) long guitar introductions and organ passages.

Oum Kalsoum was secretly delighted to have humiliated al-Qasabgi. For the lady had a long memory and she had never forgiven her personal lute player, whom she held responsible for the failure of the film Aïda, to have betrayed her by composing the magnificent and highly successful Ya Tuyur for her arch rival, Asmahane. This was characteristic of Souma’s behaviour towards the men who wrote and composed for her: deaf to their declarations of love, greedy for the essence of their art, she worked them hard and dismissed them as soon as they ran out of inspiration. Somewhat suspicious in nature, she even went to the extent of giving exclusive rights to a single photographer to have tighter control over her image. As far as her private life was concerned, apart from a marriage of convenience to one of her young violinists to allow her to leave Egyptian territory for medical reasons and her late marriage to her favourite doctor, she never seemed to have any romantic attachments. It was even rumoured that she preferred women to men.

Oum Kalsoum was also a successful television performer at the beginning of the 1960s, but her reputation was tarnished after the six-day war, in which Egypt was defeated by Israel in 1967. There were those who accused her of lulling the Arab people to sleep, in the same way as the musicians of al-Andalus who did not hear the arrival of Isabelle the Catholic. In response, she set out on a tour to promote the war effort that stressed her devotion to the cause and took her to many Arab countries and then on to Paris where she appeared at the Olympia in November 1967, to great acclaim. In an effort to boost troop morale, she proclaimed: “We are Fedayins/We will die rather than give in/And we will be the ones who triumph”, rousing words, indeed, that did not in any way justify a subsequent dispute concerning imaginary lyrics where she was said to have called on the troops to “cut Israeli throats”. 

The concerts galvanised her into action, but left her exhausted. Her health began to deteriorate and her nephritis worsened. In 1972, the year of her final concerts at the Nile Palace Cinema, she went to London for medical examinations that revealed her condition to be inoperable. The pain was brought under control as the result of a visit to the United States, but rapidly became unbearable on her return. She was rushed to hospital where she died in the early hours of 3rd February 1975. The funeral cortège was followed by millions of people in a chaotic atmosphere of intense grief.

During the 1980s, Oum Kalsoum was just a distant memory in the minds of the older generation; younger listeners mocked her legacy and were more interested in a musical genre similar to raï, christened gil (or jeel) music by French journalists. Yet, the flame still flickered beneath the embers. In the year 2000, during Ramadan, a television series in 37 episodes recounting the story of her life brought her music to a whole new audience. Major stars such as Georges Wassouf, Nancy Ajram, Angham, Lubna Salamé, and Rachid Taha did new cover versions of some of her best-known songs. The old world of Oum Kalsoum has disappeared; a new world is just asking to be born.

Rabah Mezouane

The Recordings

Song one (track 1 – 14’25/track 2 – 5’10/track 3 – 6’48)

Gaddedt hobbak leh/Rekindle your love

Words: Ahmad Rami

Music: Riyad al-Sunbati

Performed by Riham Abdelhakim (live at the IMA auditorium on 17th June 2001, as part of the second IMA Music Festival)

Premiered on 1st February 1951 at one of her famous radio broadcasts on the first Thursday of every month, Gaddedt hobbak was frequently performed by Oum Kalsoum over a long period of time: at least twenty-six performances in public between 1951 and January 1959, when she put this, her 1950s theme song, away for good with all her other old hits. Some of her renderings of this song remain the stuff of legend, as at the concert in September 1955 in Damascus, where she swapped jokes onstage with the politician and patron of the arts, Fakhri al-Bardi, and performed a remarkable set of variations on a melody composed by Riyad al-Sunbati. Ahmad Rami’s dialectal poem introduced a recurrent theme in the love songs of Oum Kalsoum: the presence of painful memories and the impossibility of forgetting past love:

جددت حبك ليه بعد الفؤاد ما ارتاح

حرام عليك خليه غافل عن اللي راح

ده الهجر وانت قريب مني كان فيه أمل لوصالك يوم

لكن بعادك ده عني خلى الفؤاد منك محروم

يا هل ترى قلبك مشتاق يحس لوعة قلبي عليك

ويشعلل النار والأشواق اللي طفيتها انت بإيديك

Why rekindle your love now that my heart has forgotten

Have pity! Leave it unaware of what is passed

When you were close to me, absence brought me the hope of meeting

But when you left I was plunged into loss

What are you thinking? Can your heart sense my suffering?

Does it want to rekindle the flame and the desires that you yourself put out?

Sunbati’s lengthy composition is very different from the melodies of Zakariyya Ahmad, which had made up the main part of Oum Kalsoum’s repertory during the war and up to the end of the 1940s: while Zakariyya offered a brief framework of great melodic subtlety, requiring a remarkable capacity for improvisation on the part of the performer, Sunbati emphasised the importance of the musician. The instrumental responses of the orchestra are written out in their entirety and each section of the song is preceded by a short introduction. The piece is conceived as a variation on the typical Kalsoum “long song”, but in three parts instead of the usual four, with a very long opening verse, itself in two distinct sections, before the final chorus:

إنت النعيم والهنا وانت العذاب والضنى

والعمر إيه غير دول

إن فات على حبنا سنة وراها سنة حبك شباب على طول

You are grace and joy, you are pain and languor

And what is life, if not this?

In spite of the passing years, our love is eternal youth

The climax to the first verse in the nahawand mode falls on the “What are you thinking?” (ya haltara, track 1, 7’18), which opens a long phrase in the bayyati mode, requiring breath, strength and the ability to improvise original vocal ornaments.

Riham’s technical mastery and pleasant timbre fill the hall and allow her to make the piece her own in this abridged version; she adopts a personal approach, as is evident in the last verse where we can note the precision of the melismas on the letter â (weyyak ; hawak, track 3, 3’22-3’55):

ولما اكون وياك هايم في بحر هواك

ما اعرفش إيه فات من عمري إن كان رضا أو كان حرمان

And when I am with you, lost in the ocean of your love.

I do not know what part of my life has passed, whether through choice or loss.

Song two (track 4 – 7’20/track 5 – 3’17/track 6 – 6’30)

Hayyart qalbi ma’ak/You have troubled my heart

Words: Ahmad Rami

Music: Riyad al-Sunbati

Performed by: Riham Abdelhakim (live at the Abbey-Church of Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, on 23rd June 2001, as part of the festival “Les Orientales”)

The partnership of the lyricist Ahmad Rami and the composer Riyad al-Sunbati, whose work dominated the Kalsoum repertory throughout the 1950s was trying to find a new lease of life at the beginning of the 1960s. From 1964 onwards, a new generation of writers and musicians brought a set of easier and lighter pieces to the Lady’s repertory, better suited to the times and to the more limited vocal abilities of an ageing artist still at the height of her fame. Hayyart qalbi (You have troubled my heart), first performed on the new stage at the Qasr al-Nil Cinema on 7th December 1961, suggests that Sunbati was indeed exploring a different approach: rather than long, complex, stately phrases that unfold slowly, the composer has written shorter melodic statements, with a more pronounced rhythm, giving priority to ornamental improvisation rather than tragic expression. The huge success of this song explains why Oum Kalsoum was to keep it in her repertory long after her conversion to the “new song” style of the 1960s; she sang it in concert thirteen times in all, the last occasion being in March 1966. The first verse in the kurdi mode, sets out the basic theme of the song, both musically and textually, founded on the paradox of a statement unacceptable to she who utters it:

حيرت قلبي معاك وانا بداري واخبي

قل لي اعمل إيه وياك ولا اعمل إيه ويا قلبي

بدي اشكي لك من نار حبي بدي احكي لك ع اللي في قلبي

واقولك ع اللي سهّرني واقولك ع اللي بكّاني

واصور لك ضنى روحي وعزة نفسي منعاني

You have troubled my heart, and I conceal my torment from you

Tell me what to do with you, or indeed what to do with this heart of mine

I want to tell you of the fire that dwells within me, I want to tell you what I feel

I want to tell you what robs me of sleep, what makes me weep

And describe the languor that exhausts me, and my pride

As is usually the case, the discourse of the character interpreted by Oum Kalsoum onstage is not destined so much for her unattainable, unseen lover as for herself; it is an expression of her own delectatio morosa and the pain of love.

Sunbati inserts two passages that are very similar to each other, both in the same scale and rast mode. These provided opportunities for Oum Kalsoum to play with the rhythm and introduce subtle variations on the phrasing, a form of vocal acrobatics that was greeted with instant applause from a public hanging on her every note. The first of these passages is to be found in the second verse (track 4, 5’25-6’07 in the performance given by Riham): the narrator asks her lover to look her in the eyes and then describes how this affects her:

وده خيال بين الأجفان فضل معايا الليل كله

سهّرني بين فكر وأشجان وفات لي جوه العين ظله

I see a vision between my eyelids, that stays with me throughout the night

And I toss and turn between obsession and grief, with his shadow at the heart of my eyes

Riham quotes here from Oum Kalsoum’s own playful interpretation by integrating a rapid melisma that she reproduces in a very convincing manner (5’53). 

The second passage is to be found in the fourth and final verse (track 6, 3’50-5’22):

ولما يرحمني قلبك ويبان لعيني هواك

وتنادي ع اللي انشغل بك وروحي تسمع نداك

When your heart spares me, when your love appears before my eyes

When you think of the person who can only think of you and my soul hears this call

Riham is capable of conjuring up memories of the Diva’s spellbinding performances, while proposing her own variations and it would be wonderful to hear her expressing her obvious talent with even greater freedom (particularly in 4’45-4’52).

Song three (track 7 – 7’30)

Emta l-hawa yigi sawa/When will love come

Words: Yahya Muhammad

Music: Zakariyya Ahmad

Performed by Karima Skalli (live at the IMA auditorium on 17th June 2001, as part of the second IMA Music Festival)

In 1936, after ten years of rivalry, Oum Kalsoum had finally triumphed in the war for fame and glory over other Cairo singers, such as the former almah turned queen of the stage Munira al-Mahdiyya, or that remarkable – but illiterate – interpreter of the classical repertory Fathiyya Ahmad. The most famous singer of her time, she performed onstage and signed a contract with the radio for a monthly concert on the first Thursday of every month. That same year, Odéon brought out a series of recordings, including this text in dialect by Yahya Muhammad to a setting by Zakariyya Ahmad in the huzam mode. It is one of the very last dor-s in the history of Egyptian song, a classical form dating from the nineteenth century, which reached its peak at the beginning of the twentieth century with the great exponents of the khedivial school.

إمتى الهوى ييجي سوا وارتاح ولو في العمر يوم

يا ناس انا قلبي انكوى وعيني ما بيهواها نوم

في شرع مين يا منصفين والعمر كله لوم في لوم

ليه يا ترى حيرتني يا دي الهوى بملاعبتك

إيه يعني لو ريّحتني وعملت غيري لعبتك

وتميل عليه وتقول له ليه طاوعتني ما هي غلطتك

في شرع مين يا منصفين والعمر كله لوم في لوم

When will we love in equal measure, so that I may know one day of peace in this life?

Oh, People! My heart has been consumed by the game of passion and knows no rest

O Impartial Witnesses! What law would allow a life full of regret?

Why have you involved me in your cruel games – miserable victim!

What would it cost you to spare me and find another victim?

Lavish her with your insincere attentions and ask her why you have obeyed me? All this is your doing!

O Impartial Witnesses! What law would allow a life full of regret?

Composing and performing a dor in 1936 could only be considered as a last tribute to a form soon to be swept away by the desire to popularise classical music. The originality of this piece resides in the choice of a series of opening ahat (a lament in ah), as well as in a central section of composed ahat, sung responsorially with a chorus. The piece is at its most moving in a section in rast kerdan just prior to an brilliant descending scale to the very lowest point of the mode (track 7, 5’03-5’36 in the Karima Skalli version). This is followed by a second virtuoso passage in the sikah buzurg mode (to be found from 5’56-6’32), in which Oum Kalsoum showed off the agility of her voice.

At the end, the piece returns to the original huzam mode, after a brilliant final cadenza (qafla). Here, Karima Skalli is inspired by the Oum Kalsoum recording of 1936 (on 78 rpm), which unfortunately is the only remaining trace of this work. As no recordings exist of the song in its entirety, we can only speculate on its length – it probably lasted about twenty minutes in all – and on the many opportunities for vocal display that it gave to the performer.

Song four (track 8 – 7’28)

Lughet ez-zuhur/El-ward gamîl/The Language of Flowers/Beautiful are the Roses

Words: Mahmud Bayram al-Tunisi

Music: Zakariyya Ahmad

Performed by Karima Skalli (live at the Abbey-Church of Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, on 23rd June 2001, as part of the festival “Les Orientales”)

Written by Mahmud Bayram al-Tunisi and composed by Zakariyya Ahmad, “The Language of Flowers” is a light piece that was originally intended as part of the soundtrack of the musical film Fatma, first released in the winter of 1946-1947. This was to be Oum Kalsoum’s last film: she did not have the physique of a film actress and was never at ease in front of the cameras, complaining that the lights hurt her eyes. The film was a melodrama and a complete change from the historical films she had made previously. She played a nurse with a heart of gold and sang a number of pieces in the film, one of which, at least, would later be performed in concert. Zalamuni n-nas (“Unfairly Treated”, live version 1953). Unfortunately, there is no trace of a concert performance of this song by Oum Kalsoum – but it was performed by its composer and also by Sayyid Mekkawi. Lughet ez-zuhur takes its basic form from the taqtuqa, or light song, and prefigures the modern Kalsoum song, with four verses, each with its own tune and a single chorus:

شوف الزهور واتعلم بين الحبايب تتكلم

Look at the flowers and pick out those in love

Each verse thematically encapsulates a flower: rose, then narcissus, followed by Arabian Jasmine and, to conclude, Common Jasmine, each associating a different key with a different emotion (the trichord sikah of the huzam mode; the tetrachord bayyati of the iraq on sikah mode; rast kerdan brought in by a musical introduction; the tetrachord higaz of the huzam mode). From this carefully defined thematic material, reminiscent of ancient flower poetry, we can see how film songs may have helped to update musical forms: they imposed a more modernist aesthetic characterised by an interest in modal transformation, tonal variety and the element of surprise (notice the change in orchestration to introduce the iraq modeat 2’30), rather than the slow unfolding and ascetic quality of the classical tradition, which had been prominent up until this time. Yet, at the same time, they respected the innate logic and development of the initial mode, in a manner inspired perhaps by Arab-Ottoman instrumental music. The desire to remain within the extended framework of the mode would ultimately be replaced by a patchwork structure. In this performance, Karima Skalli attempts to reproduce singing techniques characteristic of the early part of the twentieth century (those in which Oum Kalsoum herself would have been trained), a difficult exercise in which she is at her best in the final phrase of the chorus, sounding an elegant trill at the highest point of the mode, on the word zuhur (flowers), before moving in striking contrast down an octave to the very lowest point of the huzam mode, on the words shuf w-et’allem (look and learn).

Song five (track 9 – 8’57)

Ana fe entezarak/Waiting for You

Words: Mahmud Bayram al-Tunisi

Music: Zakariyya Ahmad

Performed by Abir Nasraoui (live at the Abbey-Church of Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, on 23rd June 2001, as part of the festival “Les Orientales”)

This song was first performed by Oum Kalsoum in January 1944 and was to remain a favourite of hers for thirteen years; she sang it in concert for the last time in May 1957. The best-known version of this masterpiece dates from the beginning of the 1950s and is one of the artist’s most outstanding performances. It is famous for two sets of improvisation. The first of these is in the second verse:

عايز اعرف لتكون غضبان أو شاغل قلبك إنسان

I want to know if you are angry, or if your heart has been taken by another person

The second example is in the fourth verse, where a long and heartrending lament displays, at its very best, the rapport between the singer and her solo musicians, the lute player Muhammad al-Qasabgi, the violinist Ahmad al-Hifnawi, the zither player (kanun) Muhammad Abduh Salih and the discreet elegance of Ibrahim Afifi on the tambourine:

توعدني بسنين وايام وتجيني بحجج وكلام

وتسلّم وتمرّ قوام أو تخلف وتقول لي نسيت

You promise me days and years with you

Then come back with lame excuses

You come to greet me, then quickly rush off

Or break your promises and then say, “I forgot”

The mid-1940s was the most fruitful period in the collaboration between Oum Kalsoum and Zakariyya Ahmad. It produced a series of songs, born of the complex rapport between the composer and the singer: he would suggest an idea or original composition that she would adapt and complete to suit her needs. Following a financial disagreement in 1948 between the diva and the composer, their friendship came to an abrupt end and he stopped working with her, until they were reconciled long in 1960, a few weeks before his death. Oum Kalsoum only performed four of Sheikh Zakariyya’s songs during the 1950s (Ana fe entezarak, Ahl el-hawa, El-Amal et El-Ahat), giving extraordinary performances of the works in concert, as if reminding her friend of her existence. Bayram al-Tunisi’s lyrics have something of a premonitory ring to them:

أنا في انتظارك خليت ناري في ضلوعي وحطيت

إيدي على خدي وعدّيت بالثانية غيابك ولا جيت

يا ريتني عمري ما حبّيت

While waiting for you, I kept the flame burning within me. I laid

My hand upon my cheek, counted the seconds of your absence, and you did not return.

I would have loved not to have loved…

Three short verses follow this opening passage, each of them an invitation to imagine and develop what follows. 

On this recording, the Tunisian singer Abir Nasraoui does not try to imitate the tragic tones of Oum Kalsoum. Instead, she offers a rapid, playful, even impish, interpretation of one of the masterpieces of tarab, a showcase for Oum Kalsoum’s virtuosity. For example here, in the second verse:

أتقلب على جمر النار وأتشرد ويا الأفكار

النسمة أحسبها خطاك والهمسة أحسبها لغاك

على كده أصبحت وأمسيت وشافوني وقالوا اتجنيت

On burning coals, I twist and turn; in my thoughts, I wander aimlessly

I hear your footsteps in the breeze, I hear,

your voice in every whisper

So it is, that people see me night and day, and take me for one possessed

Abir Nasraoui transforms the mood to one of dancing festivity (4’58-5’48), and sketches out rapid, surefire ornaments, that entertain and exhilarate by their sheer precision.

Frédéric Lagrange

In June 2001, on the occasion of the second Music Festival, the Institut du monde arabe paid a resounding tribute to the great lady of Arab song. The same concert, an exceptional event, was then given as part of the Les Orientales Festival at Saint-Florent-Le-Vieil. It brought together a new generation of performers, from various Arab nations, such as Karima Skalli (Morocco), Abir Nasraoui (Tunisia) and Riham Abdelhakim (Egypt), accompanied by the National Arab Music Ensemble of the Cairo Opera, conducted by Salim Sahhab.

This album offers you live recordings of the best moments from the two concerts, as well as some of the most beautiful and moving songs associated with the “Star of the East”.

Reference :


Ean :

794 881 904 020

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Theme :

Poésie chantée

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Composers :

Riyad al-Sundati // Zakariyya Ahmad

Lyricists :

Ahmad Rami // Yahya Muhammad // Mahmud Bayram al-Tunisi

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Copyright :

Insitut du Monde Arabe