In 1964, President Gamal Abdel Nasser awarded the Medal of Honor to Egypt's two greatest cultural icons. They happened to be lifelong rivals. No doubt aware of their mutual animosity, Nasser mischievously chided the two for having never collaborated. We cannot know in what spirit the following promise was offered-- capitulation, or true contrition. Nevertheless: "It would be my greatest honor to compose songs for Umm Kulthum," said Mohammed Abdel Wahab.
Performing for the first (and only) time at Paris' Olympia Theatre in 1967, Umm Kulthum sang Wahab's master creation, the heartrending "Enta Omri (You Are My Entire Life)". An archival film of the performance shows an audience completely transported by rapture.
Given its placement in history, this is an extraordinary concert. Throughout the world, youth culture (with its patented contempt for all things "over 30") had already assumed total dominance. Bookended with appearances by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and James Brown and the Famous Flames, the Olympia debut of this dowdy beehived matron clutching her chiffon hankie might have seemed entirely anomalous. Yet she OWNED that stage. Her voice -- radiating joy and agony, transcending history and the fickleness of fashion -- brought Paris' hottest house down.
Umm Kulthum! Do you know this name? If not, I implore you to acquaint yourself with it. Spell it any number of ways (Oum Kalthoum, Om Kalsoum, Om Koulsum, Om Kalthoum, Oumme Kalsoum, Umm Kolthoum, Om Koultoum, Umm Khoulsum), but by god, spell it. Find it. Follow it back to its source. And if you get lost along the way, spray some HdP Olympia Music-Hall on a chiffon handkerchief and hold it in your left hand. Like a dowsing rod, it will catch in the wind and pull you inexorably in her direction.
True to perfumer Gérald Ghislain's intentions, Olympia Music-Hall contains the "magic of Parisian nights... spirits glowing from the excitement of an unforgettable evening... C’est ça, l’Olympia!" As stage manager of this spectacle, Ghislain wisely allows us a glimpse backstage, where harsh realities hide behind the red velvet curtain. Our leading lady has suffered for her art-- and still does, if certain bitter, smoky notes tell the truth. She's a floral with a past-- well-trained to conceal her vulnerability behind guarded eyes and a glamorous exterior.
Thespians, musicians, and stagehands all know that the mist produced by the fog machine looks beautiful in the stage lights but irritates the throat. Powdery-sweet and acrid, it permeates one's hair and costume to the last fiber with its unique odor, evocative of the joys and tribulations of the performer's life. I'm not sure if anyone has attempted to design a perfume around it before; for all I know, Ghislain's could be the first.
For those interested in learning more about Umm Kulthum (birth name: Fatima Ibrahim, 1898-1975), this online biography is a good place to start. Over at Habiba's Diary you'll find a wonderful television interview with the singer taped just after her triumph at the Olympia. The documentary Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt, directed by Michal Goldman and narrated by none other than Omar Sharif, is a masterful study of the impact Umm Kulthum continues to have on world culture today-- as beautifully symbolized in the recent announcement that a street in the Beit Hanina district of Jerusalem will soon be named after this great lady, whose music crosses all borders.
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