Umm Kulthum, considered to be the greatest Arabic female singer ever, had her golden age in the 1950s and 60s. Half a century later, however, the legendary Egyptian diva’s music remains deeply popular across the Middle East and beyond — and nowhere more strikingly than in Israel, even though she was closely aligned with Egypt’s ruling elites and regarded the Jewish state as an enemy.

The songs that Umm Kulthum made famous, although she was an ardent Arab nationalist, are “very important for Jews in Israel who come from all the Middle Eastern countries… It is impossible to separate her music from the culture of all these people,” according to Tom Cohen, music director and conductor of the Ashkelon Andalusian-Mediterranean Orchestra, which recently completed an extremely successful national concert series featuring Kulthum’s music.

Many traditional Israeli Jews whose origins lie in Eastern countries still listen to traditional Arabic music, and know the words by heart — it “would not be natural” if Mizrahi Jews couldn’t sing in Arabic, just like “an Ashkenazi rabbi knows songs in Yiddish,” Cohen told the Times of Israel.

Umm Kulthum, who was born at the turn of the 20th century in a small Nile Delta village, began her career as a teenage religious singer, during which time she performed behind a curtain so as not to offend the conservative sensibilities. Later, in the 1930s and 40s, she turned to more secular material and attained great international success and the patronage of Egypt’s King Farouk. After the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, she threw in her lot with military ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser and become an iconic symbol of his pan-Arabic movement. At the height of her influence, her monthly live radio broadcast, listened to by millions, would be followed immediately by a speech by Nasser.

Umm Kulthum (Photo credit: Nasib Bitar / Wikipedia)

Umm Kulthum (Photo credit: Nasib Bitar / Wikipedia)

After the Egyptian defeat by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, Umm Kulthum, like much of Egypt, entered into a period of soul-searching and in order to raise morale and funds for Egypt, she embarked on a tour of the Arab world which resembled “a state visit,” according to ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson. Kulthum largely retired from performance in the early 70s and died in 1975. Her funeral was the largest ever recorded in Egypt.

That Umm Kulthum is highly, even increasingly popular in Israel, despite being an iconic symbol of the 20th century Arabic nationalist movement, is no surprise to Elad Gabbay, a prominent qanun (eastern zither) player and a teacher of Middle Eastern music and piyutim (Jewish religious poetry) at the Musrara School of Eastern Music in Jerusalem.

“For us, music is art, music is joy,” Gabbay said. “We love her, because her songs are beautiful. We grew up on them and we sing them. It doesn’t matter who she was.”

There was “never a question” in Israel, he added, of rejecting Umm Kulthum because of her background, because in the East, music and politics “are two different things.”

In the Western world, music gets mixed up with “spirituality, politics and ideology,” Gabbay asserted, but in the East, music is just “a job, a profession.” Just like “a Jew will go to an Arab carpenter to buy a good table… the Jews have no problem to listen to Umm Kulthum. We love her music, and that’s it.”

Of course, Israel’s Mizrahi Jews are not politically naïve and know very well “who our enemies are,” Gabbay said. Some people “look at old photographs of Arab and Jewish musicians playing together in Morocco or Iraq,” he said, and think that back then it was all “shalom and kumbaya, but it wasn’t. They played together, but afterwards one was a Jew and one was an Arab. The communities were separate, and there was anti-Semitism, and later they [the Arab countries] wanted to get rid of the Jews… but it didn’t affect the music.”

Those old photographs are part of the vision of conductor Cohen, for whom it is important to give Middle Eastern music “a place of honor, because we are living in this culture. All the time, we are looking at differences and problems between Israel and our neighbors, but we can look at our connections as well, for example this music.”

The orchestra he directs, The Ashkelon Andalusian-Mediterranean Orchestra, which was formed in 2010 as an offshoot of the original Israeli Andalusian Orchestra during a funding crisis, has Jewish, Muslim and Christian members, and according to Cohen, “it is a real combination of all the people in Israel.”

Conductor Tom Cohen and the Ashkelon Andalusian-Mediterranean Orchestra (photo credit: Yoram Blumenkrantz)

Conductor Tom Cohen and the Ashkelon Andalusian-Mediterranean Orchestra (photo credit: Yoram Blumenkrantz)

Musical love poems

The music of Umm Kulthum is 20th century Arabic classical vocal music, demanding of both listener and performer — essentially epic love poems whose performances can last for hours. According to Cohen, the popularity of this genre “is changing” and average Israelis, including decision-makers at the Sport and Culture Ministry, “are starting to understand it better, and put it in the same world as [Western] classical music.”

The response to the orchestra’s recent concert series of Umm Kulthum’s music — which featured guest artists Nasrin Kadri, an Israeli-Arab singer who achieved national prominence in 2012 after she won a televised singing contest sponsored by pop star Eyal Golan, and Ziv Yehezkel, a religious Mizrahi Jew who sings primarily in Arabic — was “hysterical,” Cohen said.

Singer Kadri, of course, grew up with the genre and, according to Cohen, is one “of the best interpreters” he has ever heard, despite her focus on the Arabic and Hebrew Eastern-style pop music known in Israel as “musica Mizrahit.” Kadri told The Times of Israel that the concerts were “a challenge,” both because of the difficulty of the material and because of the “big shoes” to fill, but also were “very exciting and moving.”

“It seems to me that every household in Israel, both Arab and Jewish, grew up on Umm Kulthum’s music,” she said, noting that “the crowd stands at the end of every performance… which pushes us for [more] success.”

Qadri succeeded in winning the singing contest “Eyal Golan is Calling You” not just for her renditions of Arabic material, but for her emotional singing in Hebrew, including some songs with overt Jewish religious content. The last two years have been “a huge change” — previously she served as a wedding singer in northern Israel’s Arab communities, which she still does occasionally, but now she performs all over Israel and has released a successful album. Qadri said that since the television show, “Arabs and Jews, the two communities, give me a lot of love,” which motivates her to continue.

Qadri’s diva power was in full effect at a Jerusalem Theatre performance at the end of December, which brashly opened with “Enta Omri,” by far Umm Kulthum’s most well known piece and one which in its original performance context could last for more than an hour. Rendered here much shorter, Qadri sang every word with her whole body, gesturing wildly during the more impassioned sections, as the capacity crowd egged her on.

Making an appearance at the Jerusalem concert was Qadri’s mentor Golan, who could be seen in the crowd singing along in Arabic with much of the material. Despite his recent front-page scandal involving after-hours sex and drug parties with underage fans, he was greeted by the audience with cheers and cries of “We love you Eyal!” Also attending the concert was pop/ethnic superstar Idan Raichel, who was welcomed with cries of “Where is he?” because Raichel, who is currently negotiating with Qadri over a possible collaboration on his next album, has shaved his trademark long dreadlocks, making him harder to spot in the crowd.

The concerts also featured young singer Ziv Yehezkel, whose latest album is a live recording in London of Umm Kulthum pieces. Yehezkel, who comes from an ultra-Orthodox background, has forged a career for himself as an interpreter of classic Arabic song. He is a soloist with the Arab Orchestra of Nazareth, and a “huge vocalist” who makes “the combination between us a big success,” Qadri said.

Qadri related that only recently, through Yehezkel and others in his community, she has been exposed to the world of Jewish Eastern-style religious singers, whose “huge knowledge” of maqam, the complicated system of Arabic musical scales, is “like the ocean.”

Singer Ziv Yehezkel performing with the Ashkelon Andalusian-Meditteranean Orchestra in Jerusalem, December 2013. (photo credit: Yoram Blumenkrantz)

Singer Ziv Yehezkel performing with the Ashkelon Andalusian-Meditteranean Orchestra in Jerusalem, December 2013. (photo credit: Yoram Blumenkrantz)

Much of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi community still speaks Arabic, and Yehezkel, who is also a paytan (religious poetry singer) and hazan (prayer leader) in the Eastern tradition, has been looked at as a bridge between the two cultures, although he himself, like Gabbay, denies a political dimension to the music. Some people see him as “a symbol of peace,” he said on stage in Jerusalem, but “I just want to make music.”

The success of the Umm Kulthum program, held over December and early January, has led the orchestra to add two dates to their concert schedule: January 30 in Netanya and February 5 in Ashkelon.