Maria Callas described her as “the incomparable voice.” Her singing was so powerful she had to stand back three feet from the microphone when she performed. Her broadcasts used to silence the busy streets of Cairo as residents flocked to their homes to listen to her legendary performances on the radio.
This is Oum Kalthoum and she was – and remains – an Egyptian superstar. Her deep contralto vocals are instantly recognisable.
Renowned and rightfully revered across the Middle East with fans across the globe, she sang extensively from the 1920s, admired both by the Egyptian monarchy as well as the revolutionaries who eventually deposed them, plus every strata of society in between.
She preferred to avoid the limelight where possible but nonetheless cut a striking image with her iconic diva appearance and trademark sunglasses, winning hearts through her expression of classical Arabic styles, as well as supportive morale-building work for the Egyptian military.
Globally, the 1920s and 1930s were a notable period in martini history. Prohibition saw the flight of many American bartenders from the United States to destinations in Europe and beyond. This was one of the main contributing factors to the spread of martini culture around the world, including into the venues of North Africa.
It was also still to be several years before Egypt gained independence from Great Britain. As such, cities including Cairo which lay along the strategically vital route between Britain and India were always to be well stocked with alcohol for the many traders and administrators of the Empire.
The nightlife in Cairo at the time was said to be comparable to Paris or Berlin, with a wide array of cafes, bars, cabarets and theatres, to the background of a strong and distinctively Egyptian culture, mixed with many international influences criss-crossing Africa, Europe and the Ottoman Empire, drawn to Cairo’s size and importance.
It was also a period of brewing discontent and the inevitability of great change in Egypt, a country that was to see revolution, nationalisation and war.
Yet despite the turmoil, Oum Kalthoum exceeded all others in her ability to appeal to most sides. She prevailed – and still does.
She managed to skillfully remain an immovable source of pride and inspiration for a changing nation throughout the years.
Her performances are available on Spotify and I would recommend them as distinctive listening, including for a rather rousing, nostalgic yet also sombre playlist for a martini.
One of her most well-known songs is Alf Leila we Leila (A Thousand And One Nights). It lasts for just over 40 minutes. This might seem like a long time for a song but it was fairly standard for “the voice of Egypt” and, like many of Oum Kalthoum’s songs is broken up into distinctive parts of a few minutes each – almost like an opera for one.
Incidentally 40 minutes is the ideal length of time for a martini to last from first taste to final, somewhat remorseful sip so the music can help keep you timed as you enjoy the cultural experience.
In the performance of Alf Leila we Leila she does not even begin singing until eight minutes have elapsed. Indeed if your first taste of the martini is at the beginning of the music, the time you hear her voice will probably coincide with the moment you first notice the alcohol hitting your brain. When the pace of the song changes at around 13 minutes, again you may start to feel a fluttering of your central nervous system.
When she wails “ya-habibi” at around 19 minutes and the crowd echoes back a remorseful cry, you will know that you are around half-way through your martini. Embrace the sorrow for a moment as you mark the inevitable passage of time, but quickly return to enjoying the performance because the music takes an uptick in pace at 21 minutes for the next set of the piece.
By the time the music changes pace again at 29 minutes you should be feeling fairly roused. The audience certainly are. Enjoy the last 10 minutes or so as the martini really hits and eases you through the emotional final bars of the singing.
Alf Leila we Leila was so publicly popular that President Nasser Gamal reportedly timed his radio broadcasts so that they came immediately after her performances.
He would not have been so gauche, or indeed so foolish as to schedule a clash in the broadcasts. He may have been Egypt’s leader but if there was any doubt over who was more popular, fewer people attended his funeral than they did Oum Kalthoum’s.
When the song concludes, she has a whole repertoire of recordings available if you want to continue. Alternatively you might feel like you need a break or a change in tone. Her music is nothing if not intense. Perhaps a film would suit (maybe The English Patient for the feel of North Africa in the 1930s).
A meal might also be a good idea. Your appetite for Egyptian food may have been whet for example. Incidentally, a suitable accompaniment for this evocative martini serving might be Arabic bread, oil and a dish of Egyptian duqqah.
Otherwise, if you did not already know about the incomparable voice of Oum Kalthoum I hope you enjoy the experience ya-habibi!
For more martini music recommendations please see here.
For a guide on how to make a martini in Arabic, please see here.
Cheers to the voice of Egypt!