‘Umm Kulthum Returns’ on Cairo puppet theatre stage

The “Umm Kulthum Returns” project attracts audiences and works well in bringing the legends of Arabic music to the attention of new generations.
Sunday 16/12/2018
A puppet version of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum performs with a puppet-backing band in Cairo.                                                                                                                  (Al-Sawy Culture Wheel)
Artistic nostalgia. A puppet version of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum performs with a puppet-backing band in Cairo. (Al-Sawy Culture Wheel)

CAIRO - Wanting to infuse life in the cultural scene and playing on artistic nostalgia, puppet theatres in Egypt are re-enacting popular concerts that were performed at the old Opera House and other Cairo theatres in the last century.

One such an initiative is El Sakia Puppet Theatre’s performance of legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum’s concerts. Under the title “Umm Kulthum Returns,” the theatre is reviving the Arab diva’s music with simulations of Umm Kulthum’s performances concerts the first Thursday of each month.

The audience enters the theatre quite some time before the curtain is raised and local radio announces the approaching time of the beginning of the concert. The curtain is raised exactly at the designated time and a live broadcast begins. The audience finds itself applauding with the one on the radio.

The eyes of the theatre audience fall on the puppet figure of Umm Kulthum, in an elegant dress and sitting on a chair on stage. They watch her as the musical introduction of the first song plays. Mohammed al-Qasabgi, Umm Kulthum’s famed lute player and composer, runs his fingers through the strings of his oud as do other players in the orchestra with their instruments. The music fills the air until imagination mingles with reality.

The orchestra is quite a sight. The players’ fingers move in coordination with the music. There are complete orchestral sections as well as duets and solo renditions. When the public demands an encore of some sections of the performance, the orchestra duly obliges, exactly like in the original concert.

When Umm Kulthum is finally at the microphone, a wave of applause breaks out. Then the puppet’s mouth starts moving in sync with Umm Kulthum’s recorded voice.

There is undeniable artistic effort put into the re-enactment of Umm Kulthum’s concert. The performance is meticulous in recreating the decor and the atmosphere of her performances. The puppets are carefully controlled and show the undeniable skills of the puppeteers.

The “Umm Kulthum Returns” project, like the other puppet shows focusing on towering music figures, attracts audiences and works well in bringing the legends of Arabic music to the attention of new generations.

The success of the Umm Kulthum puppet concerts is not indicative of the return of the puppet theatre to its former glory and influence. Staging Umm Kulthum’s concerts, beloved as they may be, should not be understood as heralding a return to the golden age of Egyptian music and its figures.

Quite simply, the audiences of these puppet shows are those who are willing to believe in the title of the show. In other words, feeling nostalgic for the return of Egypt’s first diva and for the return of the country’s superiority in the arts and culture, with all that it symbolises in terms of soft power, is an escape from bleak reality to an era filled of glee and pleasant living. That is the function of theatre, indeed.

At that time, puppeteering was associated with creativity and craftsmanship because entire theatre dramas, as well as operas with original lyrics, music, characters and storylines, used to be staged using just puppets.

The renaissance of the puppet theatre was part of a strategy to energise culture in Egypt and to establish an excellence mindset. This translated the government’s commitment to promoting art and literature by supporting them generously. The theatre enjoyed a sizeable share of official interest and support because it was deemed effective in disseminating official ideas and national strategies.

The decline of theatre and the arts in general is the other face of the medallion. State institutions have moved away from supporting the tools of soft power and private producers are primarily interested in profits. This is what El Sakia Puppet Theatre had gambled on by staging “Umm Kulthum Returns.”

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