Looking for Oum Kulthum

Amine Bouhafa

" Amine Bouhafa’s score to Looking for Oum Kulthum is very moving. "

Written by Joep de Bruijn - Review of the download only release

Looking for Oum Kulthum is a 2017 film directed by Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari. Not surprisingly, as the film is not a traditional biopic of the iconic Egyptian singer, but presented as a film within a film, with the Iranian female artist Mitra exploring the legacy of Umm Kulthum, as well as the price that Arab women have paid in a male dominated world, with all so well interconnects the issues that the singer and Iranian directors had to face. Knowingly, she was secretive about her personal life, the film takes another angle, no more or less fictional than the endless series of mythical stories being told to this very day. Tunisian born composer Amine Bouhafa provided an original score and worked on re-recordings of Kulthum’s songs.

It must be said, Kulthum wasn’t just important to people in Egypt, but alluded to the entire Middle East and Maghreb region, and is undeniably the greatest female singer of the 20th century, perhaps slightly matched by the also great Lebanese singer Fairuz. I do have some issues with her relying on compositions by composers, in particular Mohamed Abd Elwahab and others, as well as lyrics by poets such as Ahmad Sahafiq Kamel. Her performances and improvisations are truly one of a kind, but the core material wasn’t originally hers.

One of the director’s stated that from an Egyptian’s point of view, an Iranian female director, or anyone else from the therefore mentioned regions, can never really understand Kulthum, no matter how ‘others’ grew up with her influential iconic songs. This seemingly small, and yet familiar cultural debate is also addressed in the film itself. Naturally, Amine Bouhafa, originating from the Maghreb region, also grew up with her music, and for this film was challenged with recreating her songs.

Before addressing the original score, the songs, as presented on this release, are intriguing. Inarguably, a film about a singer must at least feature one, preferably more, songs representative of one's legacy; Enta Omry is there, as well as Alf Leila wa Leila (the song that resonates the most with me personally). I do have one issue; no film such as this could do justice to the original concert recordings. In either one of them, Kulthum focuses on a few selected songs and lengthens the live experience, often for a very long time, extending a single line and improvisation, by which it became exuberantly evocative and hallucinating. Since the film recreates several live performance events, the original recordings were technically and practically unusable. Bouhafa went to a large extent to do research, and eventually recorded these songs in the same studios, using techniques and people who worked with Kulthum. Having heard so many reinterpretations, few do justice to the original, but Bouhafa’s efforts are amongst the best.

Amine Bouhafa’s mundane score largely reflects all the emotions Mitra embarks on in her journey to get to know about Kulthum, slowly realizing more deeply how well her subject of choice mirrors her own life. The composer excels in these conflicting elements and creates a score largely reflecting a sense of soul-searching, introspectiveness and nostalgia. The inclining orchestral strings, with nuanced little musical accents by the harp, cello, piano and shimmering electronics are either reflecting this through a certain lyricism or by very introvert writing. Looking for Oum Kulthum includes pieces of minimalism in which appealing textures, nocturnal and complemtative music comes into play, as heard in Walking Gracefull, Blurred Vision and The Haunted Square. These pieces have something in common with electronics by composers such as Craig Armstrong, especially his score to The Great Gatsby, but they are more spectral. In the end, all the different elements of the score mingle throughout, and above all, the sense of a deeply intense, sober emotion is the central ingredient to this score.

Amine Bouhafa’s score to Looking for Oum Kulthum is very moving throughout, and while his qualities as a composer feel fresh to this day, it also shows all the usual traits of Bouhafa, including his very recognizable orchestrations, which is only natural.  The music to the 2017 film received a digital release by 22D Music.

1. Beredak Ya Khaligui 3:10 (Oum Kulthum song)
2. Looking For Oum Kulthum 4:03
3. Historical Moments 3:15
4. Mitra's Grief 2:01
5. Seashore Horizon 1:40
6. Walking Gracefully 3:20
7. Blurred Vision 2:38
8. The Dream 2:25
9. The Speech 1:13
10. Anger 1:37
11. The Haunted Square 3:13
12. Mysterious Oum Kulthum 2:30
13. Mitra's Anxiety 1:42
14. The Mirror 1:39
15. Mitra and Oum Kulthum 1:35
16. Enta Omry, Pt. 1 6:23 (Oum Kulthum song)
17. Enta Omry, Pt. 2 7:00 (Oum Kulthum song)
18. Leilat El Eid 7:09 (Oum Kulthum song)
19. Ana Fe Intezarak 7:57 (Oum Kulthum song)

Total duration: 64:30

(click to rate this score)  
(total of 2 votes - average 4.75/5)

Released by

22D Music (download only release 2021)