Global hit – Umm Kulthoum

The World
The World

When Umm Kulthum died in 1975, her funeral in Cairo attracted some four million people. It remains among the biggest funerals in history. But the three men who composed some of Umm Kulthum’s best-known songs weren’t as well known. Now a new recording of their great works has just come out. Here’s The World’s Marco Werman with today’s Global Hit.

Egyptians knew them as the Three Musketeers. Their names were Zakariyya Ahmad, Muhammad al Qasabji, and Riyad al Sunbati.

The first exposure Egyptians had to their music was often through the songs that Umm Kulthum would perform for movie soundtracks.

Like this one “Ifrah ya Qalbi” which appeared in a 1937 Egyptian film. This version of “Ifrah ya Qalbi” was performed and recorded last year by Chicago’s Arabesque Music Ensemble. The group set out to reinterpret the work of Ahmad, Qasabji and Sunbati.

The aim was to shed some light on three individuals who were crucial to Umm Kulthum’s enormous popularity. George Sawa is a specialist in Arabic music.

�She surrounded herself by magnificent performers, poets, you know, and then by the Three Musketeers, composers. And she would always work with them, I mean whatever they give her was not the final product. She always worked with them to change things around, and the results were really wonderful.�

Sawa says today, if you ask even young people on the streets of Cairo who the Three Musketeers were, they’ll know. But in the heyday of Umm Kulthum before 1960, the attention was focused on her. In that sense, the Arab music world is not too different from the rest of the world.
It’s usually the performer — the singer — who gets much of the credit…
…while the songwriters remain faceless, toiling away on complex music notation that audiences don’t see either.

In the case of composer Zakariyya Ahmad — who was the most traditional of the Three Musketeers — that meant he had little to show for his labors. He died a poor man. And even though the other two composers tried popularizing the traditional music, they also had financial difficulties.

�Yes, yes, it’s sort of not fair. (laughs) I don’t know what contract they had, but I know that one of them sued her for awhile because he didn’t get enough money, and then in the end they became friends again.�

Zakariyya Ahmad died in 1961. The other two passed on some years later. By that time, Umm Kulthum was embracing a newer westernized sound.

�In my opinion, the material composed from 1960 onward is OK, but it’s not really of the standard of the pre-1960. She got composers to compose style that was simple that most people could sing, as opposed to the more traditional difficult song of the pre-60s. She sort of forgot the Three Musketeers and went on with other people.�

The Arabesque Music Ensemble did not forget them. Their collection of selected works by Zakariyya Ahmad, Muhammad al Qasabji and Riyad al Sunbati has just been released.

It’s called “The Music of the Three Musketeers.”

For The World, I’m Marco Werman.

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