Oum Kaltsoum

Volume 2 (1926-1927-1928)

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A lot of music and recordings get hyped as historic, but like the first of the two installments in Artistes Arabes Associes' set of early recordings by Oum Kaltsoum, Volume 2 genuinely is. These are tracks from 1926-1928, when different labels in Egypt were vying to release her discs; the tracks are arranged chronologically by year but it's hard to tell if it's by session date, which doesn't really matter anyway as the collection seems to be programmed for the listening experience. Everything else -- the scratchy 78 sources, the Arab music icon with influence extending to Khalèd and Natacha Atlas, the voice of Egypt's national figure -- holds over from Volume 1 (1926), and the liner notes are identical except for changing final paragraphs to fit the song details. As "Kam Baatna" shows, so are the minimal instrumental backings for her voice, the six- to seven-minute length imposed by the 78 era, and the sense that in many ways this music is so historic it defies criticism or analysis. "Dzikra Saad" has another sound-quality jump that makes the music much livelier and more present, and Kaltsoum's singing is very strong. The lone 1927 track, "Ala Aini Elhagr," is one of two songs the Arab music icon ever wrote (here in collaboration with favored poet/lyricist Ahmed Rami) and sounds a bit tentative, but "Qol Lilbakhilati" immediately gets the assurance back with an uptempo instrumental intro giving way to a spare arrangement with space for Kaltsoum to fly in. "Afdihi in Hafidza Elhawa" boasts some seriously soulful singing, and no less impressive is the way she handles the quick, slippery lines opening "Echek Yahyi Elgharam," a complex melodic weave Kaltsoum negotiates with flair and grace. She's really riding the oud melody roller coaster lines again by the end, and "Amana Ayouh Al Qamar" sports another strong introduction bookended with a dive-bomb swoop near the end. By now, the performances are generally building to a climax both vocally and instrumentally, complete with surprise changes of pace to keep listeners off guard, too. Volume 2 (1926-1927-1928) shows a measurable growth in confidence and sureness -- it's starting to feel like Oum Kaltsoum is hitting her artistic stride on these tracks.