Ensemble celebrates songs of Umm Kulthum

By Miko Sloper Daily Planet correspondent
Friday June 15, 2001

It is quite appropriate that this concert in honor of Umm Kulthum will take place at the International House, because her music profoundly crosses borders. 

Although Kulthum was Egyptian, her music is loved by all Arabs, and indeed by all people who appreciate great songs. This music transcends national, cultural and even temporal borders: a quarter-century after her death her recordings continue to sell, and her voice is still often heard on radio broadcasts. There is no real parallel in the West to Kulthum’s stature in the Arabic world. She is more crucial than Bob Marley in Rastafari culture or Caruso in the world of opera. Most Arabs sing along with her songs whenever they play on the radio. Yet her musical legacy is a treasure of all humanity, for it is easily accessible to all with ears to hear. The Lammam Ensemble keeps alive this legacy by performing Kulthum’s most cherished songs, many of which were composed specifically for her, in a style deeply informed by her. 

Georges Lammam is a master violinist and singer, who is devoted to the great traditions of Arabic popular and classical song. He is joined by his brother Elias Lammam, who sings and also plays the rare and exotic quarter-tone accordion, and his cousin Tony Lammam, playing percussion. Other members of the Lammam Ensemble include Fouad Marzouk and Mimi Spencer al-Khayyam on kanuns, Farah Gubran playing oud and Nicole LeCorgne on percussion. The Ensemble will present several suites of songs just as Kulthum would have performed them, mixing composed sections together with improvisation, repeating and expanding melodic fragments as the moment dictates.  

The style is like a cross between folk ballads and jazz, with elements of standard arrangements richly seasoned by exciting on-the-spot invention.  

The scale systems of Arabic music provide melodic contours and colors which are unknown in the Western tradition and yet remain delightfully accessible. Kulthum chose exquisite material whose melodies cut straight to the heart, expressing themes which resonate with all who hear them.  

Many listeners are surprised at how inviting and entrancing Arabic music becomes as it unfolds its perfumed tapestries and whispers its ancient secrets. 

This concert will feature the best local musicians paying tribute to the greatest legend in modern Arab cultural history. These musicians all have an ongoing love affair with the musical heritage of this majestic singer Kulthum. This love is infectious and will surely captivate all who allow themselves to melt into this universal landscape of the heart. Kulthum was famous for championing political and social causes, especially during the last decades of her brilliant career. So it is completely appropriate to her legacy that the proceeds of this concert will be used to help Palestinian refugees. 

Kulthum is the subject of a documentary film called “A Voice like Egypt” (USA 1996) which was shown recently on KQED and can be rented from several local video rental shops.  

Although the film stressed Kulthum's crucial role in helping Egyptians resurrect national pride in the post-colonial world and in developing a new sense of unifying pan-Arabic culture, her lasting legacy is even greater than these lofty achievements.  

In this concert, the Lammam Ensemble will present Kulthum as a voice of and for Humanity.