Celebrating the Recorded Music of the Early Arab American Diaspora

Harvard’s Archive of World Music (AWM) contains myriad sounds from the Arabic-speaking world, including recordings of Qur’anic recitation, popular music from Egypt and the Levant, and the fusions of early Arab American records. Today we are highlighting the Arab American subset of our 78 rpm sound disc collection that reflects a vibrant recording industry of so-called “ethnic” records in the United States. During the first half of the twentieth century, record labels catered to a diversity of local niches in cities like Boston and New York. The crosspollination between far flung regions of the world makes this slice of the archive particularly striking.

Early record companies, such as the Beirut-based Baidaphon Records, produced artists across the Middle East and the United States. Members of the Baida family were musicians themselves and recorded for the label. This early era is especially relevant thanks to a recent milestone, the Music Modernization Act and its enactment on this year’s Public Domain Day.  As of January 1, 2022, recordings published before 1923 entered the public domain, making them easier to freely share via digital streaming platforms. In celebration of this change, the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library (in which the AWM is located) is providing access to a selection of early twentieth century Arabic 78 recordings on its newly launched Aviary site.

A 78 rpm sound disc with a red and white label.

Example of an early Baida record from 1910.  Photo by Peter Laurence. Click to listen to the recording.

The Arabic language recordings of this era were often marketed under the category of “Oriental Music,” loosely defined by its connection to countries of the “Near East,” such as Syria and Egypt. In the United States, the phenomenon made such an impact

Newspaper article clipping, with the headline "Oriental Music Is Featured In Concert".

An advertisement for Oriental Music typical of the early twentieth century. Norwich Sun, Norwich, NY, 1926.

that some early twentieth century music journalists surmised that Oriental Music would subsume the popularity of jazz.[i] The music of Arab immigrants certainly fit into this category but was mostly enjoyed by an Arabic-speaking population in those early years. As the popularity of 78s began to decline in the 1940s, the music of Arab immigrants began reaching wider audiences through long-playing (LP) records, radio airplay, and “Oriental” music clubs like Club Zahra in Boston.[ii] The AWM is a fortunate steward of some of these artifacts from the early to mid-twentieth century, records that reflect a rich American past and its connection to the continued legacy of Arab American culture today.

Arab America

The contribution of Arab immigrants and their descendants to American culture is vast and varied with roots in Egypt, the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan), the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Libya), and the Arabian Peninsula. The first major wave of Arab immigration came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the 1920s, there were well over 200,000 Arab immigrants contributing to American society, especially in the garment and textile industry.[iii] Today there are over 3.7 million Americans of Arab descent living in the United States.[iv]  A topic little discussed in the history of this diaspora is the contribution by Arab American professional musicians, producers, and entrepreneurs to the fledgling recording industry of the early twentieth century. With scant information available about the music of the first wave of Arab immigration to the United States (c. 1880s-1920s), [v] some of the best source materials we have are the recordings themselves.

Although much more is known about the music of the second wave of Arab immigration to the United States (c. 1940s-1960s), this fact doesn’t make the early years any less significant. The early recordings of Arab Americans not only reflect an important era in the history of the United States, they also evidence some of the earliest sounds of commercial recording technology. This blog post is intended to celebrate some of the lesser-known contributions by musicians and music entrepreneurs who were part of the first wave, especially the flurry of commercial recording that took place after World War I by mostly Levantine immigrants settling along the East Coast of the United States.

Below is an example of what some Arab Americans might have been listening to in the early twentieth century, as local shops carried a range of American and international labels. The quality of the recording is low by today’s standards, but even at the time, the promise of “high fidelity” recordings was years away. Yet even faint musical impressions have a way of triggering memory, and sounds of home would have transported people to a place of nostalgia and comfort. This recording is a good example of that because of the prominent sound of the mijwiz, an iconic double-reed woodwind instrument associated with Levantine countries like Syria and Lebanon. The instrument’s sound would evoke memories of social celebrations and festive dancing. The genre is dawr, which was especially popular throughout the Arabic-speaking world in the 1920s when this recording was made.

A record with white label and black letters. The title of the piece is handwritten in Arabic and Latin script.

Arabic Title: ملك أنا عبدك ؛ زمر يا فل يا فل
Date: 192-
Call Number: AWM 78-234
Click to listen to the recording.

Note the rare handwritten note on the label, especially the Arabic script, which can be transliterated to “Ya Ful Ya Ful,” a type of jasmine that grows in the Middle East. According to the musician, Maged Mikhail, this expression is used to indicate that something is “really good.” In other words, the note is saying this is an especially good song. We do not know who made the note nor when. Perhaps it was one of the record’s early owners, a recent collector, or someone working for the record label itself. Several of the records in this collection have sticker labels to indicate which shop was selling the item, or in this case the initials of a collector, “H.B.” The initials may refer to Hyman Bloom, a  painter active in the Boston arts and culture scene in the 1940s and 50s. He and several others in this scene were known to be avid record collectors.

Like New York City, Boston had its own Little Syria or “Syriantown” in what is today considered Chinatown. Hudson Street was a main artery to this beating heart of Arab American culture. While the Arab American communities spread out after their initial settling down, there remains a vibrant community in the wider Boston metropolitan area, the majority comprising Lebanese Americans.

Arab American Recording Artists

During this first wave of immigration, major record labels were interested in recording “ethnic” artists.  The music of Arab Americans fell firmly into this category. By the 1910s and 1920s, Arab Americans were recording on most of the major labels, including Victor, Columbia, and Gramophone/His Master’s Voice. These early records contain many of the hallmarks of the music brought by the first wave immigrants, including an emphasis on the human voice and heterophonic textures, i.e., multiple instruments improvising variations to a main melody. Common instrumentation included the Arab lute known as the oud, the violin, the end-blown flute known as the nay, and the plucked zither known as the qanun, and various frame percussion instruments, such as the goblet-shaped drum known as darbuka. Much of the music from this era features small, chamber ensembles known as takht.

A sound disc with black label and gold letters and logo containing a phonograph and dog listening.

Example of an early Victor record from 1910. Photo by Peter Laurence. Click to listen to the recording.

One such example of a takht performance accompanying a solo vocalist is the 1918 Columbia recording of Jūz al-ḥamām. The orange record label signifies Columbia’s “ethnic” category.* Recorded in New York City, the song features the Syrian-born vocalist Zekia Agob (1886-1950), who immigrated to New York City in the early twentieth century and is likely the first Arab American woman to record for a United States label.[vii] Artists like Zekia Agob are important because they reveal the aesthetic value placed on female vocalists during the time both in the United States and throughout the Arabic-speaking world, yet documentation about female recording artists is scant.[viii] Similarly with female recording artists of the early twentieth century in places like Egypt, we do not know much about the female artists of early Arab America. One reason for this lack is that many of the singers were married and recorded under different names than what might be associated with historical records, such as immigration and marriage documents.

A sound disc with an orange label featuring the Columbia Graphophone Company logo and text in Arabic and English.

Arabic Title: جوز الحمام : على تخت نعيم كركند
Creator: Ghinaʼ al-sayyidah Zakiyyah Akūb
Date: 1918-01
Call Number: AWM 78-246
Click to the listen to the recording.

*Note the small tear at the top of the orange label. Columbia and other record companies used green labels for their “ethnic” category more widely than the orange. If you look closely, it looks like the orange was overlaid on a previous label for one reason or another, perhaps a kind of rebranding. Hat tip to Peter Laurence for this note.

Other important American female vocalists who recorded in Arabic during this time include Laeteefy Abdou and Marie Bashian Bedikian. Both Bedikian and Abdou recorded for the Maloof label out of Brooklyn, New York.[ix] Much like the case of Zekia Agob, many mysteries surround the lives of these early artists. For example, Marie Bashian Bedikian was Armenian American but recorded in Arabic .[x] The reasons for this phenomenon remain unclear. What is known is that during the first wave of Arab immigration, it was common for those crossing the border to declare themselves Armenian or Syrian upon entry to avoid discrimination as Muslims, since most Syrian and Armenian immigrants were Christian or Jewish. This could be one possible explanation for Bedikian’s recording history, but it has not been properly vetted with historical evidence. Even less is known about Lateefy Abdou, who was one of the most popular singers of this era.[xi] Unfortunately for us, many of the first recordings Lateefy Abdou made for Maloof took place in 1924, just a

Orange record label zoomed in on the name "Z AGOB"

See the name “Z. Agob” highlighted in Roman letters as opposed to Naim Karakand’s name in Arabic. Also visible is another small tear at the bottom, revealing the green label behind the orange.

year away from the public domain cutoff.

It is notable that although less is known about the female artists of this period, their stage names are often featured prominently on the record label in English, while the accompanying musicians, typically men, generally go unlisted or are credited in Arabic script. Such is the case with this recording, where only “Z. Agob, Soprano” is listed in Latin script.  Also featured on the recording with Zekia Agob is the takht ensemble led by the Syrian-born American violinist, Naim Karakand, whose name is listed in Arabic.

Arab American Record Labels

Both Marie Bedikian and Lateefy Abdou recorded for Maloof.[xii] The founder of this record company was Alexander J. Maloof (c. 1884-1956), a prolific composer, bandleader, and record producer that was highly active on the East Coast. His company was one of the first Arab American labels that would help pave the way for later ones like Alamphon, El-Chark, and Arabphon in the 1940s. Another prominent New York label in the 1920s was the Macksoud Phonograph Company established by A.J. Macksoud (1878-1938). Both Alexander Maloof and A.J. Macksoud immigrated to the United States from Greater Syria-Lebanon and recorded many of the earliest examples of Arabic language songs in this country.  Artists like the above-mentioned Naim Karakand recorded dozens of successful records for both companies.[xiii]

The recording below is a typical example of these early independent labels that many Arab American artists chose to work with instead of the major global labels like Columbia. The song is performed by the vocalist Saliim al-Duumaani and the takht ensemble led by Naim Karakand.  The song, Ya Nanah Hilwah is a love song about a woman named Nanah. Many of these early records are written as odes to individuals with the word “hilwah” in the title, meaning “sweet.” Alexander Maloof himself wrote many such poems set to music that would later be recorded on his own label and beyond. Although there are many similarities between the early Arab American recordings and the wider Arabic speaking world, these producers and artists carved their own niches and made a dent in the local American markets—all while competing with the biggest names in the early commercial music industry.

A record with purple label and gold letters. A logo resembling the Egyptian sphynx at the top.

Arabic Title: يا نانه حلوه / ‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪
Creator: Salīm al-Dūmānī ʻalá takht Karakand
Date: 1920
Call Number: AWM 78-239
Click to listen to the recording.

-Contributed by Joe Kinzer, Curatorial Associate for the AWM

 _______________________________________________________________________________________________
Sources

[i] For examples of this kind of music journalism, see the “All Sorts” Column on page 14 of the Boston Post, August 23, 1922 by Newton Newkirk, or the article “‘Close up’ Dances Dead” on page 6 of the Boston Post, August 21, 1922 (author not named).

[ii] Gershon, Livia. 2018. “When Middle Eastern Nightclubs Swept America.” JSTOR Daily.

[iii] Arab American Stories

[iv] Arab American Institute

[v] The first wave effectively ceased with the end of World War I and the subsequent Congressional limitations placed on immigration. The second wave was spurred on by the 1948 Arab Israeli War and wider conflict in various regions of the Arabic-speaking world. Despite more press coverage, this wave was smaller than the first wave due to strictly enforced U.S. immigration policies.

[vi] Habib, Kenneth S. 2012. “Arab American Music.” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Oxford University Press.

[vii] Breaux, Richard. “Zekia Agob: the scarcity of sources in documenting Arab America’s First Woman Recording Artist.” Midwest Mahjar: The Recorded Sounds of the Greater Syrian Diaspora in the United States at 78 RPM. April 1, 2020.

[viii] Danielson, Virginia. 2008. “16. Artists and Entrepreneurs: Female Singers in Cairo during the 1920s.” In Women in Middle Eastern History, pp. 292-309. Yale University Press.

[ix] Breaux, Richard. “Mme. Marie: Recovering the Story of an Incredible Armenian American Singer Who Sang in Thirteen Languages but Recorded Only in Arabic on Maloof.” Midwest Mahjar: The Recorded Sounds of the Greater Syrian Diaspora in the United States at 78 RPM. October 31, 2019.

[x]Breaux, Richard. “ Alexander Maloof: Guardian and Protector of Syrian Music in America.” Midwest Mahjar: The Recorded Sounds of the Greater Syrian Diaspora in the United States at 78 RPM. June 27, 2019.

[xi]Songs of nostalgia in New York City’s long-lost ‘Little Syria’

[xii] Breaux, Richard. “Alexander Maloof: Guardian and Protector of Syrian Music in America.” Midwest Mahjar: The Recorded Sounds of the Greater Syrian Diaspora in the United States at 78 RPM. June 27, 2019.

[xiii] Breaux, Richard. “Syrian-born Naim Karacand: One of the Twentieth Century’s Most Prolific, Yet Little Known Violin Virtuosos.” Midwest Mahjar: The Recorded Sounds of the Greater Syrian Diaspora in the United States at 78 RPM. February 2, 2020.

“Snowflakes” by Mary Mapes Dodge (not Anonymous)

It’s the season for snow in New England and there is no better time to highlight another new acquisition – a lighthearted song about snowflakes. “Whene’er a Snowflake Leaves the Sky” was composed by Liza Lehmann (1862-1918), a soprano and composer, mostly of vocal works, including many for children. She was the first president of the Society of Women Musicians.

Sheet music cover attributing the words to anonymous.

Lehmann, Liza, and Mary Mapes Dodge. 1918. Whene’er a Snowflake Leaves the Sky: Song. London: J.B. Cramer & Co. Ltd. Merritt Room Mus 735.6.713

The piece, also known as the “Snowflakes Song”, was included in a publication Three Snow Songs in 1914, with music and lyrics credited to Lehmann as indicated in the Catalog of Copyright Entries: Musical Compositions. Part 3. The Harvard Library copy was published in 1918, with the music attributed to Liza Lehmann; however, the lyrics are attributed to Anonymous. The lyrics are not unknown as this printing suggests, and as such the rest of this post will be dedicated to recognizing the poem and its author.

Mary Mapes Dodge (1831-1905), in full Mary Elizabeth Mapes Dodge, was an American author of children’s books and first editor of the children’s publication St. Nicholas Magazine.

Cabinet photograph of Mary Mapes Dodge.

Warren, Warren. 1875. Mary Mapes Dodge. Special Collections, Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library. Object Number 119.1976.5179

The poem features an individual snowflake as it travels bravely from the sky to its landing place until it melts away in warmer weather. For added entertainment, read the poem below while listening to a performance by soprano Gwen Catley.

Snowflakes

Whenever a snowflake leaves the sky

It turns and turns to say “good-bye;”

“Good-bye, dear cloud, so cool and gray!”

Then lightly travels on its way.

And when a snowflake finds a tree,

“Good-day,” it says —“Good-day to thee!

Thou art so bare and lonely, dear,

I’ll rest and call my comrades here.”

But when a snowflake brave and meek,

Lights on a rosy maiden’s cheek,

It starts— “How warm and soft the day!

‘Tis Summer!”— and it melts away.

 

The poem was published in the 1879 book Along the Way, a publication that included poems published for the first time and several that previously appeared in various magazines. “Snowflakes” was again printed in When Life is Young: A Collection of Verse for Boys and Girls in 1894. The poem also appeared in Mary Mapes Dodge’s final published book of poetry, Poems and Verses in 1904, which includes the following author’s note, “This book is, in the main, a republication of a former volume of verse entitled ‘Along the Way’, which is now out of print.”

The popularity of the poem is indicated by its use in other poetry compilations, including American Anthology, 1787-1899: Selections Illustrating the Editor’s Critical Review of American Poetry in the 19th Century and The World’s Best Poetry Volume 5: The Poetry of Nature.

For additional information about Mary Mapes Dodge see Gannon, Susan R., and Ruth Anne Thompson. Mary Mapes Dodge. Twayne, 1992.

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