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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


[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.

Early Arabic Sound Recordings and the Public Domain

Happy Public Domain Day! Copyright has a limited duration, and it’s a moving wall – every January 1st, here in the United States, more items enter the public domain, meaning that they can be freely shared, reused, and remixed into new works by anyone. This year, books, musical compositions, and films from 1926 join the public domain.

A calendar display showing the last digit of 2021 rolling over to 2022, and the text "Public Domain Day".

Public Domain Day logo by wikipedia user Cienkamila, slightly modified by wikipedia user odder, CC BY-SA 3.0

And thanks to the Music Modernization Act (technically, one of its components, Title II, the Classic Protection and Access Act), sound recordings published prior to 1923 enter the public domain in the United States. This is a really big deal! Since pre-1972 sound recordings didn’t have federal copyright protection until the passage of the MMA, they’ve been languishing in copyright limbo for decades – in some cases, for well over a century – and there are a lot of them: by some estimates, over 400,000 early sound recordings are now part of the public domain. This change to the law dramatically expands our ability to share early 20th-century sound recordings from our collections for listening, research, and reuse.

The Arabic 78 Collection at the Loeb Music Library

The label of a record produced by Columbia Records, with a drawing of a woman in a headscarf and two solemn-faced children clutching her skirt. The woman is looking backwards, at a building being consumed by a raging fire.

Visit our new digital collection to listen to selections from the Arabic 78 Collection!

To celebrate, we’re releasing a small subset of our early 20th century Arabic 78 collection on our new Aviary site. Acquired over many years, the Arabic 78 Collection currently contains nearly 600 cataloged recordings of Arab and Arab-American music spanning the first half of the 20th century, from roughly 1903 through the 1950s, valuable not only for their musical content, but also as artifacts of the early sound recording industry. We’ve been working to digitize this collection over the past several years, and we’re excited to begin sharing it!

A blue paper record label in English and Arabic, reading "International Talking Machine Co. m.b.H. Odeon Record.

“Asl al-Gharam nazra,” recorded in 1905 on the German label Odeon. Loeb Music Library, AWM 78-101

Many of the earliest records date to the late Nahda era, a period of “renaissance” in Arab literature and culture. Among the renowned performers represented in the collection are Egyptian singers Yūsuf Al-Manyalāwī (1847-1911), Abd al-Ḥayy Ḥilmī (1857-1912), Salāmah Ḥijāzī (1852-1917), Sayyid Al- Ṣaftī (1875-1939), Munīrah Al-Mahdiyyah (1884-1965) and Sayyid Darwīsh (1892-1923), and instrumentalists such as Sāmī Al-Shawwā (violin, 1889-1965) and Naʻīm Karakand (violin, 1891-1973). Stars such as Umm Kulthūm (1904-1975), Muḥammad ʻAbd al-Wahhāb (1902-1991) and Asmahān (1912-1944) are also represented, alongside less well-known performers like Faraj Allāh Afandī Bayḍā, Aḥmad afandī Al-Mīr, and Zakiyyah Akūb, likely the first woman to record in Arabic in the US.

A record label with a drawing of a seated, mostly nude woman playing a lyre. The label reads "Opera Disc Company. Syrian Male Song."

This rendition of “Khallayānī bilawʻātī” was recorded in 1910 on a Gramophone Co. master. The pirate label Opera Disc operated in New York in the early 1920s; the original Gramophone matrix number, 11-12490, is barely visible underneath the right side of the paper label. AWM 78-232

The recordings were made by large multi-national American and European record companies such as Gramophone Company, Columbia, Victor and Odeon, but significant local companies such as Baidaphon (the first independent record label in the Arab world) and Fabrik Mechian are also included, as well as Maloof and Macksoud from the US. The collection even includes discs issued on early pirate labels like Opera Disc Company. Later Arab-American record labels such as Alamphon, Arabphon and Al-Chark are also to be found in the collection. Genres cover a wide range of Arab musical forms including al-mawwāl (vocal improvisation), qaṣīdah (sung poems), taqsīm (instrumental improvisation), film music, ṭaqṭūqah (pop songs) and Qur’anic recitations.

For more about the collection, see our 2017 post, Arabic 78 RPM Records Collection: A Newly-Catalogued Treasure by graduate student assistant Farah Zahra, who researched and catalogued many of the recordings.

How We Dated These Recordings

Resources for dating the early discs in this collection are limited. In only a few cases has data come down to us from original company records, as is true with the multinationals Victor, Columbia, and the Gramophone Company. In those cases, a wealth of metadata was painstakingly researched by early discographers and has now made its way into database form for use in determining recording dates. Two examples are the Discography of American Historical Recordings and the Kelly On-line Database (Gramophone Company). But in some cases, ethnic or foreign series are missing or incomplete in these resources, which means we rely on the work of discographers who have focused on ethnic recordings. In the case of Arab-American recordings, we have used Dick Spottswood’s Ethnic music on records: a discography of ethnic recordings produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942 (University of Illinois, 1990) and his online Columbia Records E Series, 1908-1923 discography.

It is important to note that U.S. copyright law, including the new Music Modernization Act (MMA) that has now taken effect (as of January 1, 2022), is based on publication/release date rather than recording date. Precise data about release dates is even more scarce, though we do have information about U.S. Columbia releases. In theory, we can also use dated record company catalogs and supplements to help confirm release or publication date, but these are rare for ethnic/foreign releases. Although it cannot be taken as definitive, or as universal practice for the period, it seems an average of 8 to 10 weeks passed between recording and release date for early popular artists on Columbia (according to Allan Sutton’s Columbia Record Recording and Release Dates (1896-1934), p.6). But this timeframe could be rushed or held up based on the artist or demand.

We have made our copyright assessment based on all available data and specifically for use in the U.S. with regard to the new MMA laws. When we’ve made a reasonable determination that release dates occurred before December 31, 1922, the recording will be available to the public (and downloadable). For all others, users can request permission to hear the recording for a limited period (no download).

How to Listen

To share them, we’re using Aviary, a system that gives us a user-friendly way to create themed collections and add supplemental material, like high-quality images of the disc labels and matrix numbers (important sources for discographers and other researchers). As more recordings enter the public domain and we evaluate the copyright status of the discs in our collections, we plan to continue adding 78s to the collection. Many of the recordings on the site now are available for streaming and download; some are restricted. To request temporary listening access to those recordings, you’ll be prompted to register for a free Aviary account.

We hope you’ll enjoy this peek into the collections, and we look forward to sharing more!

Explore Further

-Kerry Masteller and Peter Laurence

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