Oum Kalsoum Recital
This report, broadcasted during the evening ORTF newscast on November 18th 1967 brings up the two exceptional concerts given by Oum Kalsoum at the Olympia de Paris on the 13th and 15th of November.
Born in Egypt, in a rural village of the Nile Delta to a poor Egyptian family somewhere around 1900, Oum Kalsoum, who died in 1975, is still widely regarded as the greatest female Arab singer and was nicknamed “the Eastern Star”.
Oum Kalsoum’s talent showed up at a precociously young age, when she listened to her parents teaching one of her brothers to sing. Her father snuck her into the little Sheikh group he lead during religious celebrations, disguising her as a boy when she was ten years old. When she was 16, she was noticed by a famous singer and lute musician. Her career kicked off in Cairo, in small theaters. There, the young singer met pivotal characters in her life, such as the poet Ahmed Rami, who later penned more than one hundred songs for her, and Mohamed Ed Qasabgi, a lute virtuoso, who allowed her to sing at a truly remarkable venue, the Arab Theater Palace in the mid-twenties. Her free-of-charge concerts attracted a large crowd and made her famous. In 1932, Oum Kalsoum became so famous that she kicked off her first oriental tour, playing shows in cities like Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Tripoli.
In 1934, she was named the “best Egyptian singer” by alternating between a modern, romantic style and more classical tunes. She inaugurated the Cairo Radio and her concerts were often broadcasted. People rushed to see her perform and clamored for the slightest sighting of the diva, including her silver screen career –she appeared in a few movies in the early forties but didn’t pursue an acting career. She became so famous, the royal family attended her concerts but also requested private performances. In 1944, King Farouk decorated her with the highest level of Egyptian Order, “Nishan El Kamal” (Order of the Virtues), a decoration normally exclusively reserved to members of the royal family and politicians. However, Oum Kalsoum’s relation with the royal family cooled considerably after they opposed her engagement to the King’s uncle.
At the height of her glory, in 1948, she strikes a friendship with Lieutenant Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, a fervent admirer. Oum Kalsoum gradually adopted the cause of the Egyptian revolution of 1952, earning her the title of the “People’s Singer”.
Her fame did not wane; quite the opposite, it grew in the Arab world during the fifties and sixties with her rich repertoire of nearly 300 songs and her unwavering commitment to her country, to the Nasserite cause and her charity work to help the needy. A usual Oum Kalsoum concert spanned three to four hours during which only two to three songs were performed; the singer favored improvisation and long-held notes in front of enthralled audiences. Wherever she sang, from Khartoum to Kuwait, from Amman to Beirut, from Abu Dhabi to Karachi, from Tripoli to Tunis and Rabat, she was extolled by delirious crowds.
In 1967, El Sett (the Lady), the legend performed in Paris, even if she wasn’t very well-known to the French public. The press, headed by Le Figaro, informs readers that Oum Kalsoum is even bigger than Maria Callas, Edith Piaf and Mahalia Jackson put together. These two concerts held in Paris were as historic as they were unique: they were the only two concerts she gave outside the Arab-Muslim world (another was planned for September 1970 in Moscow, but was cancelled after the death of Nasser). Bruno Coquatrix, the manager of the Olympia, bravely took this risk, saying that it was an insanity of his. He paid the high price for this incredible media/commercial operation: the singer cashed in on ten million old francs per night, equivalent to ten times what she earned per regular concert –and she gave it all to the Egyptian army.
And although he struggled to rush a TV crew to film the arrival of the star at the Orly airport, it was still a flooring success: the Olympia is sold out and tickets were sold for up to two thousand francs on the black market. Before the concerts, the queue stretched all the way to the Grand Rex. In addition to the classic Parisian public including Charles Aznavour and Enrico Macias, the crowds included many Arabs, a large number of which were migrant workers.
Before this show, observers were both hostile and worried, such as France-Soir journalist Jean Macabies, who said on November 15th, in a display of widespread anti-Arab racism, that thousands of fanatics went to the Olympia just like they would go to Mecca, to celebrate a religious service sung by the high priestess of Islam. He was confused as to the behavior of this unusual audience, saying he had never seen such a thing, not even with rock stars; he added that it was incredible to see this wild crowd welcome the singer with shouts and scream, only to fall silent a moment later like a tamed wild animal. When Oum Kalsoum performs a stanza of one of her most famous songs, Al-Atlal (the Remains of Passion), singing “is there anyone more drunk on love than the both of us?”, the crowd goes wild. A worker at Peugeot, originally from Biskra, tries to go up on stage and kiss the singer’s feet, making her stumble. She then smiled and mocked the clumsy fan in the next stanza.
Later that night, after a long concert, there were ten times more people outside the Olympia than inside it. Those who couldn’t nab tickets milled about, hoping to catch a glimpse of the diva. The concert was also broadcasted in “musicorama”, an audio broadcasting device owned by the Olympia and the radio station Europe n˚1 at the Le Louxor theater at the 10th arrondissement. This theater usually attracted members of the ever-growing migrant population of northeast Paris and usually played Indian, Egyptian and Arab movies in their original versions.
These two performances are historic for diplomatic regions. Oum Kalsoum’s passage in Paris in November 1967 came in the wake of the Naksa, the scathing military humiliation of Egypt and the Arab world before Israel, after the Six-Day war of June 1967. The diva, a staunch supporter of anti-Zionism, launched a wide militant campaign in the Arab world. She did not go back on her decision to perform in France, taken before the conflict erupted. On the contrary, and against the will of some of her relatives, Oum Kalsoum saw in these concerts an opportunity to affirm her Arab pride and to raise some money for her country’s war efforts. The singer, during her first real television interview, in the margin of her Arabic concert, didn’t hide that fact and reiterated her attachment to Egypt while stating her love for Paris and French women, despite the discord over the Obelisk. The newspaper Paris-Jour did not hesitate to call Oum Kalsoum “Nasser’s Bomb”, for even after suffering a crippling defeat, the Arabs are still standing and singing through her. In the report, interviewed by Jean-Pierre Enkiri, she says a few words in Arabic, satisfied of the welcome she received.
The political stakes of the concert stirred the concerns of Bruno Coquatrix who received anonymous threats and wanted to make sure the concert wasn’t interrupted by partisans of Israel or extreme-right members. Consequently, the Olympia was placed under high police security. A few days before the famous conference held on November 27th, 1967, in which he described the Jewish people as an elite people, sure of itself and its domination, French President Charles de Gaulle, an Oum Kalsoum fan, sent her a telegram to congratulate her on her double performance at the Olympia.
Through the art of Oum Kalsoum, situated halfway between traditional Arab-Muslim music and modernism with an important orchestral accompaniment, it is a part of Egypt and the Arab world that performed in Paris in November 1967. For the first time, France was aware of an Arab-Oriental culture living in France with more facets than the single economic and immigration dimensions.
In addition to her talent and patriotic commitment, The Lady is a prime example of modernism and emancipation for Arab women, going as far as calling them to shed their veils during her performances even though she remained extremely religious throughout her entire life. She played a pivotal role in contemporary Arab society by becoming her country’s symbol of national unity. In a fitting homage to her popularity, millions of people attended and/or followed her funeral service in Cairo in 1975.
- Virginia Danielson, The Voice of Egypt : Umm Kultgum, Arabic song and Egyptian Society in the XXème century, University of Chicago press, 1997.
- Oum Kalsoum, documentaire de Simone Bitton, 1993
- Emission de France culture Une vie une œuvre 31 décembre 2011 « Oum Kalsoum la voix des Arabes » par Mathieu Garrigou-Lagrange.