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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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
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.
-Contributed by Joe Kinzer, Curatorial Associate for the AWM
[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.
[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.