Umm Kulthum's hologram performs stellar concert in the desert of Saudi Arabia

The late Egyptian diva's physical movements were stunningly detailed, but the lack of emotion showed the drawbacks of hologram gigs

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Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum performed to an audience in Saudi Arabia last night (January 25). How can the late, great diva have done such a thing, you ask? Via a hologram gig.

From rapper Tupac Shakur to Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum – such is the trajectory of hologram gigs that the latest concert craze arrived in Saudi Arabia five years after a digitised version of Shakur asked a stunned festival crowd in the US to throw their hands up in the air.

The regional ground-breaking event was a far more regal affair, with Umm Kulthum performing her hits in a glimmering new glass performance space located amongst the stunning sand-stone mountains of the ancient Saudi Arabian city of Al Ula.

The desert locale, just over 1,000 kilometres from the capital city of Riyadh, is currently home to Winter at Tantora, a month-long festival running until February 8 that includes everything from music performances to art exhibitions and sporting events.

Virtually Spectacular

Dubbed Virtually Spectacular, the Umm Kulthum concert was the centrepiece of the festival's performance stream (which has also included gigs by Chinese super-star pianist Lang Lang and Lebanese singer Majida Rumi) and the crowd arrived to witness what will go down as a landmark moment for the region's entertainment scene.

The performance hall was fitting for the sold-out concert: it was luxurious, with plush white seats available for the 500-strong audience, which included regional royalty and diplomatic ambassadors.

A hologram of the late Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum performed as part of Winter at Tantora festival in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia. Picture by Suhail Rather
A hologram of the late Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum performed as part of Winter at Tantora festival in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia. Picture by Suhail Rather

The stage, with its crimson velvet curtains and orchestra seated behind candelabras, was elevated and covered by a screen. Meanwhile, the spotlights were supplemented by digital projection cameras and the venue’s lights were kept dim at all times.

And so it begins

All of these elements came together when the Sounds of Egypt Orchestra began to warm up the crowd with a medley of classical Arabic compositions.

Musical notes and multi-coloured patterns were projected on the screen. They danced along to the heaving percussion section and erupted in scrawling splendour once the string sections came into play.

It was impressive. It all provided a hint of what popular classical music concerts could be like in the future: there would be no need for a performance guide, as the name and composer of the piece flashed on the screen when the opening notes rang; those prone to snoozing during such gigs would experience a new-found focus, as eye-catching graphics zip on and off the screen.

Umm Kulthum 2.0

In what resembled a scene out of a sci-fi film, stark, shining white light – digital fairy dust, if you will – floated up from the ground to embody the shape of a heavy-set woman. Then Umm Kulthum appeared, dressed in red a gown – it was the first of four "costume changes" that required her to disappear into her digital wardrobe.

"Ooohs" and "aaaahs" were heard from the crowd before they slowly erupted in applause.

All of Umm Kulthum's greatest hits were included, and they featured the best available vocal takes for each song. Such was the clarity of the recordings that the music phone app Shazam was able to identify the tunes within seconds.

It's perhaps redundant to say Umm Kulthum sang flawlessly.

Songs such as Alf Leila Wa Leila (1969) and Enta Omri (1964) remain a showcase for a voice that carried the emotion of the historic, revolutionary times Umm Kulthum operated in. From the fervour and passion of pan-Arabism to the quiet indignation of a woman challenging societal norms, all of these elements are found in the diva's voice, which ranged from a plaintive wail to a resigned hush.

All in the detail

It was her physical performance, which was built from scratch by the organisers, the UAE-based television broadcaster MBC and the Dubai-based production company NDP, that was most interesting.

Egyptian actress Sabreen, who starred as Umm Kulthum in the popular 1999 eponymous TV ­series aired during Ramadan, acted as a body double for the singer during the creation process, and so the end results were spectacular.

From the swaying of her body to the cascading string sections, and her nods to the orchestra to get started, right down to the way her fingers twirled as she sang the high notes, the attention to detail was stunning.

The major flaw, however, lay in Umm Kulthum’s lack of emotional presence. While she was not known as a physically dynamic performer, she provided enough subtle acknowledgements – a nod here, a grin there and in some cases clapping back to the audience – to let the crowd know she was aware of their presence.

There was none of that interaction with the hologram. Instead, it was designed solely to perform. This resulted in an abrupt ending to the concert, when she simply vanished in a puff of dust and the house lights went on.

Human nuance

It all goes to show the difficulty of capturing the small yet vital nuances of human behaviour that make a concert an emotional experience. It may also be the reason why hologram concerts will remain a niche endeavour for some time to come.

But with the ever-forward march of technology, that gap between the digital and real world will surely decrease. And with the hologram set to tour the region for the rest of the year, we will undoubtedly see more improvements made to the performance over the following months.

Umm Kulthum 2.0 will surely get better with time.

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