I first saw Virginia Danielson and Michael Goldman’s documentary, “Umm Kalthoum: A Voice Like Egypt,” when I was in graduate school and it deeply shaped my appreciation for Arab popular culture. Before watching the film, I honestly just couldn’t understand why everyone loved the low, almost masculine voice of Umm Kalthoum so much. After seeing the film, it all made sense to me, and so by the time I was sitting in a Cairo nightclub in 2001, watching famous belly dancer Dina perform to an instrumental version of Inta Omri (“You Are My Life”), I could appreciate the reverence of the audience as nearly every person in the room quietly sang along to the music. There was a kind of electricity in the room, a measure of how the singer’s powerful charisma has survived long after her death.
I don’t know why NPR is just now discovering the documentary, which is more than 10 years old (IMDB dates it to 1996, while NPR calls it “recent”!). But it’s a good opportunity to listen to and watch some classic clips of Umm Kalthoum singing, and it will whet your appetite for the full documentary.