The singer who changed Robert Plant’s “understanding of vocals”

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Robert Plant, the iconic Led Zeppelin frontman, once asserted, “My vocal style I haven’t tried to copy from anyone. It just developed until it became the girlish whine it is today.” This distinctive vocal delivery, often described as a “whine,” revolutionized the music scene, placing Plant at the forefront of Led Zeppelin’s musical tapestry with his formidable four-octave range.

As Led Zeppelin burst onto the scene in 1968 with a groundbreaking concert in Gladsaxe, Denmark, Plant’s vocal prowess left audiences in awe. His style was unprecedented in the rock genre, standing alone in its fearless, high-octane expression. While Plant’s inspiration was not drawn from every corner, he acknowledged the influence of singers with a similar operatic flair, notably Oum Kalthoum, a rare voice that bridged the gap between operatic grandeur and pop structure.

Describing Kalthoum’s vocal artistry, Plant emphasized, “The way she sang, the way she could hold a note, you could feel the tension, you could tell that everybody, the whole orchestra, would hold a note until she wanted to change.” Kalthoum’s ability to command attention amidst a full orchestra without descending into grandiosity left an indelible mark on Plant, shaping his perception of the voice as an instrument.

Contrary to performances within Led Zeppelin that Plant deemed “exaggerated” or “pompous,” he found Kalthoum’s sincerity and majesty to be devoid of such excesses. Recalling the impact of hearing her music, Plant noted, “When I first heard Om Kalthoum, it was a very important day for me because it opened, it just enriched my life so much. Even though I hardly understand a word she’s singing because it’s in Arabic, I had to take some of the effect it had on me and put it into the music.”

The pinnacle of this influence manifested in Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” a track where Plant admitted to drawing inspiration directly from the Egyptian vocalist. Expressing his fondness for the song, he declared, “I wish we were remembered for ‘Kashmir’ more than ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ It’s so right; there’s nothing overblown, no vocal hysterics. Perfect Zeppelin.”

Later in life, Plant fulfilled his desire to perform in a style reminiscent of Kalthoum. In 1995, he collaborated with an Egyptian orchestra, showcasing Led Zeppelin’s diverse sources of inspiration. Reflecting on this unexpected journey, Plant remarked, “I never ever thought I’d be singing against that back in 1960-something when I had records playing… playing with Oum Kalsoum doesn’t mean much to people in video press kit land, but to me, it means a hell of a lot.”

Oum Kalthoum, born in 1898, emerged from a humble background in a religious household in Egypt. Joining the family vocal ensemble at the age of 12, her extraordinary talent eventually led her to Cairo, where she became renowned as ‘The Voice of Egypt’ and ‘The Fourth Pyramid.’ Disguised as a boy during her early performances, Kalthoum’s voice transcended societal norms, capturing the attention of artist Mohamed Abo Al-Ela. Under his tutelage, she mastered a classic Arabic repertoire, captivating audiences with her unmatched vocal power. Her legacy endured until her passing in 1975, leaving an indelible mark on Egyptian and global music.

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