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Umm Kulthum returns to the Egyptian stage

Egyptians are flocking in droves to puppet shows in Cairo that re-enact concerts by the late legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, complete with a full band.

CAIRO — In the 1960s and 1970s, famous Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum performed her concerts on the first Thursday of each month.

The songs and tunes of this late legendary singer have returned to theater in the Zamalek district, west of Cairo, in a show performed by puppets mimicking Kulthum and her renowned complete band. These puppet shows, which target a new generation of listeners, aim to revive the ambiance of Tarab Arabic music, which is music that evokes powerful emotions from its listeners.

Sawy Culture Wheel is a cultural online platform run by Egypt’s former Minister of Culture Mohamed El Sawy, which launched in 2006 its own puppet theater known as El Sakia Puppet Theatre.

In 2007, the El Sakia Puppet Theatre began “Umm Kulthum Returns Back,” which revives the legacy of Kulthum, who passed away in 1975, and brings her music to her fans as well as to the young generations.

Sawy, the creator and director of the show, which has an audience of more than 500 people at every performance, told Al-Monitor, “Umm Kulthum’s achievements and rich artistic legacy will not be affected by time. We are just trying to express her exceptional great artistic ability.”

When the curtains open, the Kulthum puppet and her full puppet band appear on stage. As soon as the show starts, the audience starts interacting with the melodies and lyrics, forgetting that they are watching just a puppet show and not the real Kulthum.

Sawy said, “When I created the Umm Kulthum puppet, I did not only focus on her physical features. I wanted the puppet to reflect the ambiance and state of mind that Umm Kulthum created on stage, with her famous movements, her clothes and how she felt every word she sang.”

He added, “When I first started executing the project, I was terrified, thinking that the audience will not accept to see Umm Kulthum as a puppet, given her prestigious standing in Egyptian society. But my shows were a success, and I was able to revive the state of musical ecstasy that Umm Kulthum created at her own concerts.”

For Sawy, it is impossible for an audience to see a puppet without interacting with it. “Puppets create a sense of joy and relief among the audience that becomes more receptive of the message than if it were delivered by an artist.”

On Jan. 5, Al-Monitor attended the “Umm Kulthum Returns Back” show. The ambiance of the concert was not the only intriguing aspect of the show. The audience’s shouts and warm, nonstop applause were synchronized with every verse and chorus, as well as with the movements of the puppet embodying the character of Kulthum. The audience was singing along and shouting out slogans and phrases commonly used in Kulthum’s live concerts, such as the famous Arabic phrase “Azama ala Azama ya set,” meaning “Greatness on Greatness Lady.

A video clip of the Umm Kulthum puppet show in Cairo, Egypt. (video by Al-Sawy Culture Wheel)

This was the most interesting effect the puppet had on the audience, most of whom did not live during Kulthum’s days.

At the end of the show, Al-Monitor talked to Mustafa Khotab, 29, who was in the audience. “I was not expecting to get the chance to attend a show that would take me back to the time of Umm Kulthum,” he said.

He added, “At first, I was not sure how a puppet could re-create the same ambiance and state of harmony we heard about in Umm Kulthum’s live concerts. But I became mesmerized as soon as the music started and I saw the puppet of Umm Kulthum sitting on a bench, like the real Umm Kulthum did during long intros before standing up to start singing. I did not realize I was watching a puppet; it felt like the real Umm Kulthum was singing.”

“Large numbers of fans of the late Arab singer dreamed of attending her concerts,” Sawy said. He noted that the audience includes fans of different age categories, adding, “The audience in ‘Umm Kulthum Returns Back’ includes six generations, ranging from 6 to 66 years of age.”

Egypt has witnessed many political and social changes in the past six years since the outbreak of the January 25 Revolution. Yet the Umm Kulthum puppet show has grown stronger, with more people showing up to the shows every month, while other art and musical works have been going up and down, as artists and the Egyptian public were also affected by the general situation in the country.

In this context, Sawy said, “It is only normal for art to be related to the political life. Umm Kulthum, however, had managed to create a [unique] national artistic state through which it linked art to politics, which was reflected in her patriotic songs.”

Doha al-Gundi, 30, has been attending the Kulthum puppet shows since 2010. She told Al-Monitor, “The best shows were the ones that followed the January 25 Revolution. The shows were inaugurated with Umm Kulthum’s patriotic songs, such as the song of 'Ana al-Shaab' (‘I Am the People’), to which the audience reacted with mixed feelings of nostalgia and sadness, especially after the state of despair over the dire political situation in the country.”

Gundi added, “Some prominent figures of patriotic movements attended the shows, and this gave the audience a sense of hope that Egypt will restore its previous glory.”

Sawy noted, “Many people believe that escaping back to history could be an important choice when it is no longer possible to understand the present or predict the future. People usually search for something they love in history, whether arts or politics.”

“But we are no longer trying to adapt our shows to the political status quo or changes, as we cannot have a clear reading of the changing events on the Egyptian political arena. The so-called January 25 Revolution is long gone now. Therefore, our shows have become more about reviving the heritage of Umm Kulthum songs,” he added.

Aside from the Umm Kulthum puppet show, Sawy and his team in Sawy's El Sakia cultural center had different experiences with the art of marionettes to revive Egypt’s artistic heritage. They produced other shows and plays that would convey social and moral values to children. This is especially true after the Cairo Puppet Theater started to fade away after having been the flagship of marionette shows in the 1960s in Egypt.

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