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Umm Kulthum: Artistic Agency and the Shaping of an Arab Legend, 1967-2007

by Laura Lohman
Wesleyan University Press, Middleton, CT, 2010
256 pp. Trade, $40.00; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7071-0; 978-0-8195-7072-7.

Jonathan Zilberg
Center for African Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In her profoundly interesting first book, Laura Lohman examines the post-1967 career and legacy of Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian popular singer, a transcendent character symbolic of utopian Egyptian and pan-Arab aspirations. Presenting a classic example of how to convey a sophisticated ethnomusicological analysis to a broad audience in the humanities and social sciences, the study demonstrates how useful ethnomusicology can be for the historical study of the state and of how a gifted and politically astute artist is able to use and be used by the state to mutual advantage for the purposes of advancing nationalist agendas in very different eras.

This book will be especially useful for those working in the conjoined fields of popular culture, identity and nationalism, life history studies of star image making and audiences. Beyond illustrating the traditional categories of “classical” versus “popular” as “intersecting domains,” it adds a vital contribution to the historical study of music and war. A dense but readable combination of history and ethnography, it also brings ethnomusicology into productive relation with museum and cultural heritage as well as tourism studies fusing the ethnomusicological and museological literature by paying careful attention to how museums and café culture in Egypt design and produce authenticity so as to celebrate and perpetuate Kulthum’s legacy.

Kulthum’s music and legacy as a living force in the Egyptian and pan-Arab experience past and present is revived through this study, for instance, in how we are simultaneously returned to Kulthum’s lament for Abd al Nasir and introduced to the world of Egyptian cassette culture and popular dance. As Lohman relates, today the power of Umm Kulthum is experienced by millions globally, her musical influence extending far beyond the Islamic sphere. For instance, it has become a source of identification by Mizrahi Jews in Israel through Ben Zahava’s adaptations. And through American Idol type televised vocal competitions in the Arab world even gifted non-Muslim Americans have been inspired and enraptured by the emotional and sonic qualities of Kulthum’s vocal art. In such an expanding heritage this book has a relevance that extends far beyond the confines of any particular discipline and ideally well beyond academia. For example, surely Shakira will read it – or should, considering her use of “Inta Umri” in the Oral Fixation tour in Paris in 2007.

In adding to Virginia Danielson’s study The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century (2008) and Scott Marcus’s Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (2007), ethnomusicologists will find fertile ground her for future in-depth studies of how vocalists who have been inspired by Kulthum such as Ben Zahava, Shakira, and the young American Jennifer Grout. More generally, as Lohman introduces in the final chapter, Kulthum’s legacy has a broad comparative relevance for the study of popular Arabic music as regards the crafting of tradition and modernity specifically in terms of the way in which Umm Kulthum was able to generate shared ecstasy, tarab, in her audience, bringing us naturally to Jonathan Holt Shannon in Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria also published by Wesleyan University Press (2006) and trance music more generally. [1] This makes Lohman’s study an additional critical work for anyone interested in tarab music wherever they might be working in the Islamic world and Arab Diaspora.

The six chapters explore Umm Kulthum’s later career from the time of the Six-Day War in 1967 to her death in 1975, her funeral having been attended by four million mourners from all walks of life. Thus the book starts with her work as an already mature artist in a period of performance activism that propelled her into the international arena where she became a unifying modernist and yet traditionalist icon for the Arab world.  Each chapter successively deepens our appreciation for the artist’s life, for her work and patriotism and how she strategically developed her career and shaped her legacy so as to become a legend while still alive. The chapters deftly reveal how she became a national icon intimately associated with the state in the Sadat and Mubarak eras, and especially as incarnated after her death in the later period of Mubarak’s rule by the seductive Amal Mahir. The question must surely now be - how will President Sissi use Kulthum’s legacy to bring Egypt firmly back into the fold of a Mubarak-era vision of Egypt?

For those interested in music, gender and politics in the Arab world this study significantly advances the previous literature and is perhaps particularly relevant to Lebanon where Kulthum as a maternal metaphor for the nation provides an obvious point of comparison with the aging diva Fairouz. Here Lohman takes a very different position to Christopher Stone’s generalization in Popular Culture and Nationalism in Lebanon (2007) of the sexualization and maternalization of such figures as national projects for symbolizing heightened utopian collective hopes rooted in past golden eras. The similarities of Kulthum’s and Fairouz’s performance contexts in these nations’ most symbolically charged archaeological sites, for Kulthum at the Pyramids of Giza and for Fairouz at Baalbeck, are striking. Further afield, Lohman opens a vast territory for comparative case studies for instance in India in the case of M. S. Subbulaksmi or in America, Josephine Baker.

Finally, Lohman’s fine book invites future comparative research on the all-important issue of the production of authenticity in popular culture. Consider for instance the case of the Palestinian American hip hop artist, Will Yuomans, the Iron Sheik, and the fact that as a consequence of the persistent and intensifying crises in the region since the Arab spring, American ethnographers and ethnomusicologists will probably have to conduct their research in the Gulf States or at home in the Diaspora, especially if it concerns music and the Muslim Brotherhood.


1. See
http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/nov2006/among_zilberg.html and http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/july2008/zilberg_traveling.html.

Last Updated 29th August 2014

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