The orchestra sits in a semi-circle around an empty stage. A booming pre-recorded voice welcomes us to the Dubai Opera, reminding us to keep our masks on for the duration of the concert. Then comes darkness, followed by the jingle of tambourines, the dribble of a derbakke and a flourishing melody line I never expected to hear live.
I'm about to see a hologram of Umm Kulthum perform and this is the opening sequence of Alf Leila We Leila, a song that woke me up on countless weekend mornings as a child. A song that has put me at risk of partial deafness during family gatherings at restaurants in the UAE and Syria. A song my grandmother would cite as her favourite. A song I only learnt to appreciate as an adult.
Listening to it at the Dubai Opera, I recall how my grandmother often expressed the impossible wish of witnessing Kulthum perform live, long after the diva’s death.
My grandmother knew a lion’s share of Kulthum’s catalogue by rote, memorising the tunes during long, arduous bus rides from her home in Kessab to Deir ez-Zor where she taught Armenian until the early 1970s.
“They almost exclusively played Umm Kulthum songs during those bus rides,” my grandmother once told me. “We would only get through four or five of them before we made it to a destination. It’s good her songs are so long, it made the commute bearable.”
Red and cushioned, my seat at the Dubai Opera is, without a doubt, much more comfortable than the steel-and-foam bus benches my grandmother had to endure all those decades ago.
I wonder what she would have said about the experience I’m having now?
I keep my focus on the empty stage. This suspense, piling from the stomach to the throat is what Kulthum’s audience must have felt waiting for her to appear. The singer was known to take her time before walking onto the stage. She knew how to enchant and command an audience. She knew suspense played a part.
Almost 10 minutes pass before a wispy swirl of gold and red materialises on stage, transforming into a silhouette of the legendary singer. There she is, in hologram form, wearing a long full-sleeved crimson dress, a matching kerchief in hand, her hair in a bun. She stands proud, her shoulders pulled back. There is a trace of a smile on her face. It is a strange sight seeing the larger-than-life figure in human proportions.
Gasps scatter around the concert hall. Phones are raised to capture the moment. If only they had smartphones in the 1960s: the monochrome videos we have of Kulthum’s performances are all grainy and lack definition, and while her music is still very much alive across the Arab world, the videos we have only give a tiny glimpse of the power the singer had over her audience.
For a moment, I empathise with those who were in Thomas Edison's crowd as he unveiled the phonograph in 1877, or the spooked audience of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, who feared the train in the first ever motion picture was going to drive out of the screen and run them over.
It felt a bit like I had travelled back in time while being simultaneously hurled into the future.
The crowd, of course, burst into cheers and whistles at the sight of the legend. Even on live recordings without video, it is easy to pinpoint the exact moment when Kulthum took to the stage. In the version of Alf Leila wa Leila on the compilation Umm Kulthum 1: Planet of the East, it is six minutes in.
The orchestra, having already run through a series of disparate musical passages, is overcome by the roaring applause in Dubai Opera many decades after her death. The instrumentalists are forced to prolong a momentary silence as the cheering swells and audience members cry words of admiration at the celebrated Egyptian singer’s image.
When Kulthum finally sings out the first “Ya habibi” around eight minutes after "walking" on stage, the orchestra and audience have fallen silent. Only a deep lilting melody is played by the string section in the gaps between her vocals to complement the resonant contralto.
However, at the end of the verse, the cheers erupt again, even more fevered than before.
As was expected, coronavirus-related restrictions were abundant at the Dubai Opera for the rerun of the hologram show, with everyone required to wear a mask at all times. However, even with only a third of the opera’s seating capacity filled for distancing reasons, the audience’s enthusiasm was thundering.
Accompanied by a live backing band, the hologram of Kulthum performed many of the late diva's greatest hits during the two-hour event, including Al Atlal, Enta Omri and Lessa Faker, going through five wardrobe changes throughout the performance.
Hologram technology has brought a number of dead artists to the stage again, such as Tupac and Whitney Houston. It has always been a somewhat uneasy affair, begging the question of whether there are no limits to commercialising a person’s celebrity and image.
However, the Kulthum event, unlike other similar shows, benefits from the direct involvement of her family and official estate.
Kulthum died in 1975, and 13 years later, Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz told fellow writer Gamal Al Ghitani what attending her concerts was like: “She used to put on her concerts in the cinema theatre and she could make herself audible throughout a hall filled with 3,000 people without a microphone. I would listen to Umm Kulthum in the flesh and then listen to the same song recorded and I’d find a great difference. Of course, the real thing was much better.”
Technology aside, it remains impossible to truly experience seeing Egypt’s ‘Fourth Pyramid’ live. The hologram concert is the closest we will get to experiencing the singer live, yes, but would Mahfouz approve? Probably not.
There are insurmountable challenges: live sound mixing is always a challenge. Try to balance prerecorded vocals to a live orchestra and that challenge becomes even more difficult. This was my main gripe with the Kulthum event. The mix felt harsh and lacked definition.
Where the sound shined was during the instrumentalists’ solos between each song. As the oud or the qanun took the spotlight, you could hear the deep-set timbre of the instrument in question, the emotion flowing with every trilling note. This made the main songs all the more jarring.
This musical issue is a bit like witnessing the hologram from an angle. Look at it straight ahead and it is something to be marvelled: three-dimensional and much more lifelike than I anticipated. But look at the hologram at a tilt and the artifice becomes apparent. You will witness the paper-thin edges of the hologram, the lack of emotion.
But, after a while, I managed to suspend disbelief.
In fact, this is one of the concert’s main prerequisites: to picture yourself in the presence of the legendary singer. The moment your imagination falters and you begin to question the authenticity of what you are witnessing, the event falls to pieces.
Still, that is not to say I would not recommend you attend any future iterations of the performance, and I’m sure there will be more. The technology at play here is stunning, but I wondered what my grandmother would have to say about it? Whether she would be more creeped out than astonished?
For me, it was a chance to experience Kulthum’s music in a new way, but just do not expect to be as privy to her prowess as an audience of the mid-20th century.
That, unfortunately, remains impossible.