Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
The Singer Umm Kulthum in Paris, 1967. Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
The Singer Umm Kulthum in Paris, 1967. Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Music of the Arab World: Classical crooners and songbirds

In the final instalment of our Music of the Arab World series, we take a look at the crooners and songbirds who defined the era of classical Arabic music.

In the final instalment of our Music of the Arab World series, we take a look at the crooners and songbirds who defined the era of classical Arabic music.


It is important to make a distinction when speaking about the term "classical" in Arabic music. Where in the West, the term denotes orchestral pieces from centuries past, the Arab world's version refers mostly to the era of the crooners and songbirds who date back to the early 1920s. The roots of the movement lay in Egypt and other Arab countries that have gained independence from foreign rule. Hence, the first wave of the genre was dedicated to nationalistic songs. As well as his own popular works, the Egyptian singer and composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab wrote the stirring Ya Beladi, the national anthem used by the Kingdom of Libya from 1951 to 1969 and again when it was brought in by the post-Qaddafi National Transitional Council in 2011.

The Big Four

Classical Arabic music does tip its hat to its western counterparts. Pieces are often defined by lush orchestral arrangement, operatic suites and jazz elements. No artists defined this style more than The Big Four, consisting of Egypt's Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez and Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Syria's Farid Al Atrash. These four solo artists established the sound of classical Arabic music through blending evocative poetry, sterling musicianship and dedicated performance.

Umm Kulthum

If you venture to some of the Tourist Club's old shisha cafes, there is a high chance of encountering the deep vocal treasure that is Umm Kulthum. Widely regarded as the greatest singer in the history of Arabic music, Kulthum demonstrated through her near 50-year career - from the early 1920s until her death in 1975 at the age of 76 - that classical Arabic music can be for the people, rather than just for the elite. Her epic performances owed a lot to opera as she incorporated vocal suites and musical interludes. As such, her performances could last for up to four hours and include only two or three songs. Lyrically, Kulthum always aimed for the heart. Working with the celebrated Egyptian romantic poet Ahmed Rami and the composer Mohammed El Qasabgi, her songs were hailed for providing comfort to the downtrodden and for galvanising Egyptian soldiers who were stationed abroad.

Abdel Halim Hafez

Known as The Nightingale, Hafez was the quintessential crooner. His romantic and patriotic songs, delivered in his sensual deep vocals, captured the heart of the Arab world. His death in 1977 prompted an unprecedented outpouring of grief across Egypt.

Farid Al Atrash

Known for his prolific stable of work, the "King of the Oud" recorded more than 500 songs and starred in more than 30 films in a four-decade-long career. As well as his virtuoso playing, Al Atrash was known for his mawals, a form of vocal improvisation sometimes used to usher in the next musical performance.

Mohammed Abdel Wahab

Mohammed Abdel Wahab was the most western-oriented from this classical bunch. He created his classic 1941 Al Gondol using a waltz rhythm while in the 1950s he experimented with other genres including rock'n'roll.

Other greats

"The Lebanese Jewel" and "Ambassador to the Stars" are just two of the many nicknames attributed to the enigmatic Lebanese songstress Fairuz. After making her mark at Lebanon's Baalbek International Festival in 1957, Fairuz went on to perform solo concerts and operettas. Her music reflected her country's fortunes, taking on a more political stance during the Lebanese Civil War. Her international pedigree resulted in massive overseas performances, too, including one in front of 16,000 people at the Las Vegas MGM Grand Arena in 1999. She continues to record and tour internationally.

The late Syrian singer Asmahan posed the only serious competition to Umm Kulthum in the singing stakes. Blessed with a dynamic vocal range, she starred in numerous operettas in the late 1930s but her career never really reached its peak due to personal turmoil.

Meanwhile, the grand title of "The Voice of Lebanon" remains the domain of Wadih El Safi. Throughout his 60-year career, El Safi's poetic folk music inspired future generations of Lebanese stars including Fairuz, Sabah and Najwa Karam.


Here are a few picks to help you journey back in time:

Abdel Halim Hafez: Ala Hasb Wedad (1996)

Hafez was more of a live singer than a studio artist. This soulful live recording is an example of how he could make a packed arena venue feel intimate.

Fairuz: Al Mahatta (1974)

Recorded during one of her career's many peaks, this album is a fine recording of one of the singer's many musical plays.

Umm Kulthum: The Legend (2007)

A great two-hour compilation introducing you to what many deem the finest voice to have ever graced the Arab stage.

Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 Hajer Almosleh, the winner of the last year's short story competition, at her home in Dubai. Duncan Chard for the National

Get involved with The National’s short-story competition

Writers have two weeks to craft a winning submission, under the title and theme "The Turning Point".

 It is believed that the desert-like planet of Tatooine is being recreated for Star Wars: Episode VII. Could that be where filming in the UAE comes in? Courtesy Lucasfilms

Could the force be with us? The search for Star Wars truth

On the hunt for the Star Wars: Episode VII set, which a growing number of people are sure is in Abu Dhabi, but no one can seem to find.

 With an estimated 18,000 comic and film fans having already paid a visit to this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con, organisers are hopeful they will have surpassed last year total, of 21,000, by its close. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

In pictures: Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai

Dubai's World Trade Center was awash with people visiting this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con. Here's some of our best pictures.

 Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, presents Quincy Jones with the Abu Dhabi Festival Award as the Admaf founder Hoda Al Khamis-Kanoo applauds. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival.

A candid talk with Quincy Jones about the UAE, Lil Wayne and the Abu Dhabi Festival award

The Abu Dhabi Festival honoree Quincy Jones discusses his legendary career as a music producer, the return of Dubai Music Week and why he can’t handle the rapper Lil Wayne.

 Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge arrive at Wellington Military Terminal on an RNZAF 757 from Sydney on April 7, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Chris Jackson / Getty Images

In pictures: Will and Kate visit Australia and New Zealand

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge are on a tour Down Under for three weeks.

 A protester gives a victory sign during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2011. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Street life: humanity’s future depends on ability to negotiate and sustain public space

Negotiating our ever more crowded cities and maintaining vibrant public spaces are among the major challenges facing humanity in the coming decades.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National