Various Artists

Women of Egypt 1924-31: Pioneers of Stardom and Fame

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An artistic renaissance overtook Egypt in the 1920s and '30s, an explosion of new theaters and cabarets resulting in something of a golden age for female Egyptian vocalists. Suddenly in demand, and finding outlets unavailable to them previously, female actors and singers seized the opportunity to grab the spotlight, and many of them found their way onto recordings -- recordings that, for the most part, have been lost to time. Women of Egypt 1924-1931, subtitled "Pioneers of Stardom and Fame," is a painstakingly compiled, and copiously annotated, compendium of 16 rare sides, a fascinating peek at a time when a feminist movement -- concurrent with the suffrage movement and the Roaring Twenties in the U.S., and the artistic blossoming of Paris -- came to Egypt and freed its women to sing. Of all of the Egyptian female singers of the era, none was more renowned than Umm Kulthum (her name is spelled in numerous ways in the West). Her career began in the mid-'20s, peaked in the '30s and '40s, and by the time she died in 1975, her fame was such that four million fans lined the streets of Cairo for her funeral -- the largest ever in the country. Kulthum is represented here by one track, one of her earliest, "Qal Eh Ya Hilif (He Swore to Me)" dating from 1924. It's worth noting that it doesn't stand out as a highlight, that it's rather typical of the music that populates the set. Whatever Kulthum would soon become, she wasn't there quite yet. It's a point of the collection, in fact, to play down her role and highlight the legacy of the relative unknowns, such as Ratibah Ahmed. Known as a wild woman with a predilection for men and booze, she is featured here in a duet with the unrelated Zakariyyah Ahmed, "Qabadan Qabadan (Never, Never, Mr Ticket Inspector)." According to compiler Amira Mitchell's informative liner notes, the song's dialogue takes place on a bus, its banter between a pompous religious man and our heroine, who soon sets him straight. One can't help but compare the raw recording to its equivalents in American Appalachian and country blues music of the time, except for one primary difference: where those genres arose from rural life, these Egyptian sounds very much emanate from an urban -- and urbane -- society. There's a mournfulness to much of the music here (check out Saniyyah Hassaneyn's "'Ataftu Wardah Hamra (I Plucked a Red Rose)" a vocal so burdened by the weight of the world that Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday could easily have made it their own. But there's also a sense of liberation and joy throughout.

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