Culture in France

Ghalia Benali guards the flame of Oum Kalsoum

Audio 04:30
Jean-Luc Goffinet

Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali pays tribute to Egyptian diva, Oum Kalsoum. In her fourth and latest album, she opts for simplicity in choosing to record five songs of the Arab world’s most famous singer with only three musicians. Ghalia takes her public to meet her Oum Kalsoum, whom she loves “more than everything”.

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For this album, Ghalia Benali wanted to go back to where it all started, “to my grandmother”, she says referring to Oum Kalsoum.

Indeed, as a child growing up in a small village in southern Tunisia, she was convinced that the photograph of the diva on the wall was that of her grandmother.

“Oum Kalsoum is my teacher. I learnt how to sing by listening to her”, says Benali. “I’ve been working in music for 15 years and I felt the need to go back to the origins and learn from her again.”

Benali was four years old when she started learning the song "Al Atlal" by heart.

“I was looking at the LP turning and I don’t know if it is that spinning movement that made the song get into my head. Anyway, it was the first song I could sing and it was the only one which could really touch me for a long time.”

The cult of Oum Kalsoum (1904 – 1975) is still very vibrant throughout the Arab world and the legacy of the “voice of Egypt” stretched beyond its borders to influence many in the West, including Maria Callas and Bob Dylan.

“To sing Oum Kalsoum, you have to drink, feel it. The song must become a part of you. Only then, can you really offer it to the audience,” says Benali.

With Ghalia Benali sings Om Kalthoum the singer seeks to introduce the great Arab singer to her Western audience.

“Many people in Europe know about Oum Kalsoum but they can never enter her world or understand why she is so famous in our countries and how we are so deeply moved by her”, says Benali.

Breaking away from the large orchestral ensemble that traditionally accompanied Oum Kalsoum, Benali worked with only three musicians: Moufadhel Adhoum on the oud, Azzedine Jazouli on Arabic percussion and Vincent Noiret on double bass.

“I try to sing her with my limits. With a lot of tenderness and simplicity.”

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