A Voice Like Egypt

Here's a rare treat for music lovers, armchair travelers, and those who value the cultural background of current events: the 68-minute DVD documentary "Umm Kulthum: a voice like Egypt", narrated in English by Omar Sharif.

Umm Kulthum was an immensely influential Egyptian classical singer. For decades she performed to sold-out houses across the Arabic-speaking world, reviving and expanding the tradition of sung poetry. She was a patriot and a nationalist -"Music must represent our Eastern spirit", she said -  but she was an artist above all. Learn by ear, play by heart, she instructed her musicians; and like "a preacher inspired by her congregation", as novelist Naguib Mahfouz described her, her hours-long concerts would bring her audiences to a state approaching ecstasy. She has no counterpart in the West. She swayed kings and presidents; when she died in 1975, four million people came out for her funeral; and even now, every day at five o'clock Cairo radio plays a song by Umm Kuthum. This short, well-edited film is a fine portrait of a great singer, but it also provides a remarkably compact, insightful look at the evolution of modern Egypt.