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

The iconic Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant once said, “My vocal style I haven’t tried to copy from anyone. It just developed until it became the girlish whine it is today.” Plant’s unique four-octave range marked him as a distinctive figure in the realm of Led Zeppelin, shaping the band’s sound with his high-octane, fearless approach.

Led Zeppelin’s emergence in 1968, with a groundbreaking concert in Gladsaxe, Denmark, introduced Plant’s extraordinary vocal style to the world. Unprecedented in the rock genre, Plant’s voice stood out, although he drew inspiration not only from rock but also from more operatic realms of music. One particular influence on Plant’s vocal approach was Oum Kalthoum, a rare voice in pop music.

Plant admired Kalthoum’s ability to hold a tense note, commanding attention above a full orchestra without becoming overblown. Kalthoum treated her voice as an instrument, a concept that deeply influenced Plant’s approach within Led Zeppelin. Reflecting on his performances, Plant regretted any instances that felt “exaggerated” or “pompous.”

The Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum left an indelible mark on Plant’s musical philosophy. Hearing her dance down the scale to land on a beautiful note opened new possibilities for Plant. Despite the language barrier (Kalthoum sang in Arabic), the emotional impact on Plant was profound, prompting him to incorporate some of that influence into Led Zeppelin’s music.

Plant’s admiration for Kalthoum reached its zenith with the creation of “Kashmir,” a song that he openly acknowledges as his closest attempt at imitation. He expressed a preference for being remembered for “Kashmir” over the iconic “Stairway to Heaven,” citing the former’s lack of vocal theatrics and its perfect embodiment of Led Zeppelin’s essence.

Later in life, in 1995, Plant had the opportunity to perform with an Egyptian orchestra, showcasing Led Zeppelin’s diverse sources of inspiration. Reflecting on this experience, he emphasized the profound impact that Kalthoum had on him, acknowledging the unexpected turns his musical journey had taken.

Oum Kalthoum, born in 1898, was a trailblazing Egyptian singer-songwriter who rose to fame in the mid-1920s. Known as ‘The Voice of Egypt’ and ‘The Fourth Pyramid,’ she hailed from humble beginnings in the countryside. Disguised as a young boy initially, she joined her family’s vocal ensemble at the age of 12. Recognized for her exceptional talent, she eventually moved to Cairo, where her powerful vocals mesmerized orchestras and earned her the status of the region’s most famous vocalist. Kalthoum’s impact on society endured until she died in 1975 at 70.

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