Wednesday, May 26, 2010

UMM KULTHUM: A Voice Like Egypt 

Sometime in the 1980's my friend Maria Fama invited me over to her South Philly home for dinner. We spent most of our time talking about poetry, but at one point she brought out a record album and said, "I really want you to hear this. Listen to this with me." It was Umm Kulthum. I still remember sitting there with her, exchanging bursts of surprise with her. The recording PIERCED, it had no other solution in mind but to grab you by the neck and force its blade into your gut. As though music is a SOLUTION to the human condition, music and poetry, Umm and her band of poets PIERCING US ONE AT A TIME! It's impossible to find one word to express the love for this experience.

Maria made a cassette tape of the album for me. And while that was being made she told me of visiting friends in Cairo back in the 1970's. They said, "Maria we have a surprise, we want to take you to hear Umm Kulthum sing!" Maria like 90 percent of western culture didn't know who Umm Kulthum was. She expected to go to a nightclub, but no, it was an enormous stadium. There were thousands of people. Umm was frail and old by then, but she still had power in her voice. The crowd would jump from their seats and scream at the end of a line of music.

All the poets of Egypt and the rest of the Arab world wanted to write for Umm. She remains one of the most celebrated singers in the world. She remains one of the most recorded voices in history. She still remains virtually unknown in America. But the day after seeing Maria I went into a small falafel shop in Philly called BITARS, and I asked the man behind the counter if he had ever heard of Umm Kulthum. "UMM KULTHUM? YES YES OF COURSE I KNOW UMM KULTHUM!" It caused so much excitement! The other man working with him telling him GET THE BAG GET THE BAG! He pulled an enormous, clear plastic bag out of a large drawer FILLED with Umm Kulthum cassette tapes.

All through the early 1990's my friends and I would pour over Umm's cassette's, share new ones. Then one day Maria Fama called me to tell me of a documentary coming to Philadelphia about Umm Kulthum. We went. It was so amazing. It remains one of my favorite movie going experiences. The director was there to present a Q&A, a marvelous woman who was Israeli-American who said that she made the film for many reasons, but one of them being to build a bridge between Israel and the Arab world.

Last night, 14 years later, I saw it again at my friend Mary Kalyna's house with friend Debrah Morkun. It struck me in the very same way. Goose bumps. Umm CHILLS with excitement and longing, her powerful use of her voice taking you OUT OF THIS WORLD whether you intended to go or not. It's bliss. It's ecstasy, Umm is better than any drug I've ever taken.

I'm a HUGE Umm Kulthum fan all over again today!

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