West End musical celebrates Arab diva Umm Kulthum

Performing alongside talented West End dancers and singers, Syrian soprano Lubana Al Quntar played the role of the Arab diva.
Sunday 08/03/2020
From Umm Kulthum’s West End musical in London.  (Zainab Mehdi)
From Umm Kulthum’s West End musical in London. (Zainab Mehdi)

LONDON - Known as Egypt’s Fourth Pyramid and “The Star of the Orient,” Arab diva Umm Kulthum was celebrated in a special musical based on her life at a London West End theatre.

“Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era” brought alive the music legacy of the Egyptian singer who carved Arab history and moved women’s voices into the consciousness of the Arab world.

One of Umm Kulthum’s aspirations was to go London after her legendary 1967 performance in Paris at the Olympia. “It is my gift to bring her to the stage in London,” said Mona Khashoggi, the musical’s Saudi writer and producer

Marsm, a London events company promoting underground, alternative and indie Arab music and culture, helped promote the event.

The compelling concert covered Umm Kulthum’s most recognised and admired works from the 1920s through to the 1970s; the 1940s marked the beginning of her Golden Age.

Umm Kulthum’s best-known works, formulated by Egyptian musical figures including Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Riyad El Sunbati, Sayed Mekawy, Mohamed el-Qasabji and Baligh Hamdi, were performed by an orchestra conducted by Louai Alhenawi.

Umm Kulthum’s rise to fame was not a straightforward one. Determined for people to hear how remarkable and moving his daughter’s voice was, Umm Kulthum’s father dressed the young girl in boy’s clothing to have her sing in public. Given that Umm Kulthum was born to a poor family, it wasn’t usual in Egyptian peasant tradition for women or girls to sing in front of strangers.

In 1926, Umm Kulthum signed her first contract with Gramophone Records, which paid her a yearly salary and royalties for every record sold. As her career advanced, Umm Kulthum replaced her male outfits for conservative yet stylish women’s dresses and was accompanied by a takht, a group of talented musicians.

By combining poetry with music, Umm Kulthum made fine literature available to the masses, many of whom were unable to read and write.

Performing alongside talented West End dancers and singers, Syrian soprano Lubana Al Quntar played the role of the Arab diva. Umm Kulthum’s granddaughter, Sanaa Nabil, was on stage as a guest performer.

“Singing the right way, which in this case would be singing like Umm Kulthum is a challenge and will always be a challenge. However, I am doing the best that I can. That’s what makes everything so exciting,” Quntar said.

Quntar said singers from the era of classical Arabic music had a huge role to play throughout her singing career.

“Growing up, I’d always listen to Asmahan, whom I am related to. Notable singers such as Umm Kulthum, Souad Mohamed, Farid al-Atrash, Mohamed Abdel Wahab were and still are an inspiration to me.

“I will always be amazed by Umm Kulthum’s singing technique. Singing Umm Kulthum’s songs makes everything feel unique and that’s exactly what her voice was. It was unique. She had an amazing strong voice that captured the souls of millions of people,” Quntar said

She said she hoped the musical would help connect the public with Umm Kulthum’s songs and her life.

“Behind this great singer, there was a girl from a village who struggled for many years disguised as a boy. I hope that people will get a closer insight on Umm Kulthum’s journey, including her success,” Quntar said.

“For me, it’s very emotional to see how her character developed from being a child trapped in a very closed, religious and protective circle, then came out of this environment to become one of the most successful Arab singers of all times. It’s just amazing.”

Quntar said she hoped the musical would also be performed elsewhere in Europe, the United States and the Middle East.

“Now is the perfect time to create and remember the great singer. We hope that people around the world will be a part of this exciting tribute and celebration. The concert is distinctive because it is the first time an Arab figure has been represented in this way, especially in a Western country,” she said.

“It’s time to remember and pay tribute to exceptional Arab performers such as Asmahan, Farid al-Atrash, Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim Hafez,” Quntar added.

Khashoggi said she is working on a musical focusing on Asmahan, a Syrian-born singer whose voice has been compared with Umm Kulthum’s.