Tarab comes from an Arabic word to beat a rhythm. But it has come to denote the ability of the musician to unite his or her audience in a common experience of ecstasy. Some of the most moving moments in this show dedicated to the Divas of Egypt are not the films or stills of Um Kalthum or Warda, but the faces of the audience captured during their performances. One video shows nothing but the enraptured faces of the listeners, old, young, wearing tarbushes, veiled, simple people, boulevardiers, Communists, the pious. Music has a magical ability to transform and unite its public. The current exposition at Paris’s Institut du monde arabe illustrates how the golden age of cinema and music came to Cairo, why it flickered out, and what legacy it leaves.
Restored 16mm film brings back to life Cairene scenes from the 1920s and 1930s, alongside excerpts from early Egyptian cinema. The acting is pure vaudeville, with demure damsels and pashas in white ties. But these snapshots of high life proved irresistibly popular with the Egyptian public. Talkies and musical comedies followed with explosive success in more than 400 cinema theatres across Egypt. This burgeoning industry attracted all the talents. Talaat Harb, Egypt’s biggest capitalist, as well as intellectuals, musicians and above all talented women were sucked into this whirlwind of creative activity. They made light, even silly films, with plots only as a bare excuse for song. But these divas made the most of that excuse.
Raw talent was their key contribution. In the case of each of the divas presented here we learn how, at age 12 or 15, they were discovered by a famous musician or composer, usually a family friend, who heard the pure velour of their young voices from the kitchen or the garden, while the men gathered in the salon. Often it was difficult to convince respectable families to let their daughters take singing lessons, or to perform in public. Asmahan had to fight all her life against her proud Druze family’s opposition to women singers, even as her own brother Farid Al-Atrash enjoyed effortless popularity as singer and matinée idol. All the divas had the ability to modulate their voices in successive crescendos and diminuendos over their refrains of “oh, nights”, “oh, salaam”, or “oh love”, and induce that intoxicating sense of tarab in the listener.
The great stars competed ferociously with one another in virtuosity and popularity. Each has their loyal supporters: Um Kalthum, Asmahan, Hind Rostam and Layla Mourad. They pushed their lyricists to write powerful poetry and their composers to expand the repertoire of sounds. Tahiyya Carioca brought the music of Samba along with her curious stage name back from Latin America. Um Kalthum introduced western symphonic music into her numbers with Armenian instrumentalists. Oriental dancers like Samia Gamal added western ballet steps. The public was fickle and easily jaded by the 60 plus films Cairo produced each year. The golden age was really the product of these battling divas.
The nationalist revolution of Nasser, paradoxically, put an end to this golden age. Nasser himself honored Um Kalthum as a national icon. She returned the favor by singing for the troops and donating her fees for performing at the Olympia music hall in Paris to the national defense, a few months after Egypt’s humiliation at the hands of Israel in 1967. But Nasser nationalized the film industry, leading to a collapse in productions. Many artists without Um Kalthum’s impeccable nationalist credentials had to leave the industry, or like Dalida they left the country. The intellectuals who rallied to Nasser’s socialism were happy to produce art films that won festival awards in Gorky or Havana, but these films never had the mass appeal of Egypt’s pre-revolutionary works.
More worrying for the divas was the reevaluation of women’s position in the new Egypt. By displacing the bourgeoisie, Nasser’s revolution brought the more culturally conservative, rural Egyptian into public life. Movie theatres were burned down for showing immoral works. Oriental dancers disappeared from films. Um Kalthum, already respectably aged, robed herself with fitting dignity. For a time Lebanon remained a beacon of artistic freedom, with divas like Fayruz, but this flickered out during that country’s civil war, during which the Lebanese diva withdrew from the scene.
The exposition draws our attention to the way young artists tackle the legacy of the divas. DJs are remixing old hits. Less blinkered by ideology than their predecessors, the new generation appreciates the old bourgeois musical comedies, and uses them as the point of departure for new creations. I saved my belly dancer is a sensuous video by Youssef Nabil that evokes the art form which Egypt has abandoned.
The show’s organizers have collected a vibrant assembly of posters, videos, costumes and objects belonging to the divas. They have been helped by the divas’ reverential family members and nostalgic fans with a mania for memorabilia. It is extraordinary how vividly all these pieces recreate an era in the dimly-lit labyrinth of the Institut du monde arabe’s exposition space. While aging fans of Dalida will delight in viewing her personal effects and costumes, younger visitors will probably most enjoy seeing how the Divas continue to inspire contemporary artists and performers.
The show’s catalogue, well-illustrated and with many thoughtful contributions in French, is published by Skira.