Friday, July 21, 2006
As is often the case when I'm unable to sleep but very tired I turned on the radio tonight. The local NPR affiliate was playing some lovely violinist (I didn't catch the name) whose work melded classical and "ethnic" styles. It set me to thinking, given recent horrible events in the Middle East, of one of my favorite musical experiences--seeing a performance of the Egyptian National Orchestra. It also goes by the name of the Oum Kalthoum Orchestra after the famous Egyptian singer, Oum Kalthoum. (There are various spellings of her name. You can also read about her here as Umm Kulthoum.) I did some searching online to see what else was available about her and, behold! a nice overview at Perfect Sound Forever.
Oddest thing--the main source for the article is a book written by one "Virginia Danielson." That was, in fact, my mother's name. It seems that this Virginia wrote a book called The Voice of Egypt. The mention of her and her writing on Oum struck me as quite meaningful, in light of recent events:
"In the 1960's, Riad el-Sounbatti was still writing songs such as "A'qllak Eih" (1961), which is full of Kalthoum's virtuosic, inventive, variations on the same line or phrase. The second half, at first, sounds as though it is a new song. It contains passages of exquisite vulnerability, her voice plaintive while violin, kanun, and ney drift around it as sea-gulls do above the ocean. "El Hob Kedah," also from 1961, is another strong contribution from el-Sounbatti. "Al Atlal" (1966) is a particularly famous work from this period. The text is a love poem, but the words were commonly given other interpretations. Virginia Danielson writes: "Several of the climactic lines took on political meaning: 'Give me my freedom, set free my hands! I have given freely, I have held back nothing. Ah, how your chains have made my wrist bleed. . . .' In 1966, these lines were perceived by some as addressed to the repressive measures of 'Abd al-Nasir's government. After the Egyptian defeat of 1967, they took on a wider meaning, suggestive of the bondage in which many Egyptians felt the entire Arab world to be held." (Voice of Egypt, p. 180) The title itself translates as "The Ruins" or "The Traces." The piece draws heavily on Western classical music, but long stretches of it rock or swing with Arabic rhythms. Instrumentation includes a violin section, a prominently featured upright bass, and kanun. Though late in her career, Kalthoum's singing is quite powerful throughout this work, which is extremely dramatic even by her standards. Kalthoum's vocal delivery is relatively straight, with few obvious improvisatory digressions."
Now, this isn't all about me, of course, but I just want to point out that the song Virginia Danielson writes about as having resonant political meaning for the entire Arab world, Al Atlal, was written in 1966, the year of my birth. More important is the point that Oum's ouevre was and remains so meaningful and resonant for the Arab world. The experience of sitting in an audience filled with Middle Eastern peoples from various countries all singing and clapping along and shouting out requests for familiar songs was an incredibly joyous and moving experience. That love of music, at the deepest and most emotional level, was absolutely something my mother (and father) transmitted to me. My mother, though she didn't see that particular performance, would have so understood and sympathized with the audience's joy and participatory passion. It was one of her great gifts, that deep, visceral connection to music--a gift, I think, often lost on American audiences.
At the moment I write this the music has stopped for the NPR news updates, primarily concerning Lebanon. The report isn't about joy and solidarity and music, but of tears and cries of pain and suffering. Perhaps the coincidence of my meandering thoughts and discoveries is not such a happy one; if anything it is a moving and painful reminder of the many things that are lost in war. I wonder if anyone in Lebanon or Palestine or Iraq is listening to Oum singing "Al Atlal" tonight.