Said Hekal: violinist, he was a musician in the orchestra of singer Oum Kalthoum. He accompanied the diva in her tours around the world from 1959 to her death. He was the dean of the Higher Institute of Arabic music at the Academy of Arts in Cairo. He has also played with most famous Arab artists at the time as Abdel Halim Hafez and Warda.
On February 5th, 1975, the Arab world, weeping, led "the Star of the Orient" to her final resting place. The singer Oum Kalthoum, which gathered crowds of all ages from Mashreq to Maghreb, has died at the age of 71. Said Hekal himself was 19 when he joined the orchestra of Es Sett. He recounts the disappearance of the icon.
The death of Umm Kalthoum has caused a great shock to all Egyptians. If they saw Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, as their father, they then lost their mother.
The day of her funeral in Cairo was full of Egyptians from all over the country and thousands from the Arab world, in particularly the Maghreb. The crowd seized the coffin. They are who took it through the city. There were even people who had left their houses, barefoot, to catch the coffin.
The procession has progressed during more than three hours. The fans of Umm Kalthoum were crying, they felt like they have lost the one who made the link between Arabs. All known artists in Egypt, all politicians and influential people in the region were united in shock over her death. TV and radio programs were put on their mourning by broadcasting passages from the Koran in honor of the diva. The funeral was broadcasted live.
We walked all over Cairo from the Mosque of Omar Makram (downtown) to the cemetery of El Bassatine, where she is buried. The crowd was spread over nearly two kilometers. It is said that there were more than two million people. A rumor even said that police had used false coffins to disperse the crowd. It had never been such a popular funeral. Those of Gamal Abdel Nasser had been huge, but he was a political idol. Umm Kalthoum, herself, was just a singer.
During the last month of her life, the "Star of the East" was a mere shadow of herself. She recorded her last song sitting, which was not common for her. Her last concert was canceled before she was kept on ventilator in the hospital for weeks. Her death would not have caused such a surprise. People attended her funeral as if it was her last concert.
I spent fifteen years along with Umm Kalthoum. I was a violinist in her band who had about twinty musicians. With my 19 years old, I was the youngest of the band. It was a great honor to be chosen to play with her. She was nicknamed Es Sett (The Lady) because she was already for the Egyptians above all women. She was not beautiful, but had great pace and most importantly, a voice out of common.
When I joined the band, rehearsals were held in the morning at the diva's home. The hours were complicated for me because I was still a student at the Conservatoire. Umm Kalthoum then called the dean of the Institute for me to be away from classes between 10 am and noon. Nobody had the right to be late. These appointments were great momenst for me. The orchestra had to be very focused, Umm Kalthoum was very demanding of herself and to her team.
She always began rehearsals an hour before us. She warmed up her voice and learned by heart the melodies and lyrics. When trained with her, she wanted every note so perfectly. Only three musicians, the most experienced, could speak with her. We only followed, dazzled by her talent. We wouldn't dare to talk to her. She was a myth for us.
On the other hand, she always sought ways to solve our personal problems. It was in such a way that musicians from southern Egypt were transferred to Cairo.
Thursday's Concert Concerts were held every first Thursday of the month. The event was broadcasted on radio. It was a great moment for us as musicians, as all Egyptians. People were glued to their radios. I remember when I was a kid. I used to listen to the concerts.
We met with the family around a good meal and listened to the concert for three hours. Rich or poor, all Egyptians were hanged at her lips. During her concerts, all activities were suspended. The phenomenon was even beyond Egypt: The Arabs from Maghreb to Mashreq, were also captivated by the voice of the diva.
Umm Kalthoum sang only two or three songs. But each lasted over an hour! Suddenly, by leaving the theater, spectators had the lyrics in their heads. What is funny is that even though some tracks were an immediate success as Enta Omri (You are my life), others have not been forgotten. They became classics of the Arabic song after her death.
When I joined the band, I found the behind the scenes of these concerts. She liked to keep a distance between her and the team. It was her way to enforce compliance. She would also ensure that each instrument is perfectly tuned before going on stage.
At the concert, she set the time of the introduction of music that could last 15 minutes. We were very appreciative of the effect she produced on the spectators. They tasted every word.
As for us, her band, we never looked at the notes. It was all by the ear. We had to be very careful because it was rare that she prevents us during the song of what she will do. She could decide to repeat the verses at the last moment. Sometimes when she was not satisfied with her voice on a sentence, even in the concert, she performed it again and again until she heard the fans shout "Allah Ya Sett! .
After the concert, we didn't spend time together. She went through a door and we go through another. Her concerts were always sold out. Umm Kalthoum created unintentionally, the system of charter airplanes: The Arabs from Gulf came to Egypt only to attend her concert.
The concert at the Olympia The event that marked me the most is the two concerts that were given at the Olympia in Paris. The decision to sing in France had been made well before the Six Days War of 1967. When the war happened, we all thought it would be canceled but Umm Kalthoum rather thought it was a good opportunity to organize concerts around the world to raise money destined for the Egyptian army.
To this end, we went to Tripoli, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad ... In all major Arab cities. On the way to Paris, the director of the Olympia warned us that there would probably problems created by Zionists. He had received many threats. Umm Kalthoum did not care but we were very tense.
When the curtain opened, we were all surprised that the theater was packed. In the audience there were many Arab Jews and French. The music exceeded our political discord. All adored Umm Kalthoum even if they did not understand the lyrics! I found it very touching. I remember i have seen Charles Aznavour and Enrico Massias among the audience. President Charles de Gaulle has even sent a telegram to congratulate her.
Umm Kalthoum has such a success over there that a Franco-Algerian spectator who was too drunk jumped on the stage, held onto her feet to kiss them. She fell but it made her laugh and she mocked him during the next song.
Leaving the Olympia, there were ten times more people outside than in the hall. People did not find any tickets but they were still hoping to see the singer. The crowd was such that when the second concert came, the police were everywhere.
I realized then that music can solve a lot of disputes between nations. Umm Kalthoum had managed to unite the Arabs. One thing that neither religion nor language, nor the politicians have never managed to obtain.
This article was written for the french magazine "Courrier de l'Atlas"