Music was a powerful tool for early Arab American immigrants, growing in popularity and prestige throughout the 1920s-1950s. It created and maintained a sense of community and collective identity for Arab immigrants in early twentieth century America. Mahjari musicians, often referred to as “old timers,” and their audiences acted as an extended multicultural family. Performers shared homeland musical and cultural traditions, reaffirming them for younger generations, even as they experimented with new musical language, instruments, and forms.
Tony Abdel Ahad and band. Courtesy of Anne K. Rasmussen.
Professionally oriented musicians gave life to weddings, picnics, rites of passage, and most family gatherings. Churches, community leaders, and social clubs, sources of patronage for Arab musicians, sponsored haflat, large music parties, and the mahrajan, a weekend communal festival, to gather the community for charitable causes and social events. Musicians, like Joe Budway, Russell Bunai, Tony Abdel Ahad, and Hanan Harouni traveled up and down the East Coast and beyond on the hafla circuit to perform Arab music and song at community engagements. Arabic music became widely accessible through vinyl records, both produced in new Arab American recording houses in the U.S. and imported from the Middle East.
Records of four Arab owned labels: Cleopatra, Arabphon, Maloof, and Macksoud. Courtesy of the Richard M. Breaux Collection.
Before Arab American record labels were established, many mahjari musicians signed with major American labels. Companies like Columbia and Victor signed Arab American musicians both for their “exotic” sound, as well as their potential marketability within and beyond the growing Arab American community. In the 1920s, musicians like Alexander Maloof, and later Abraham Macksoud, created their own 78 RPM labels to promote Arab music. By taking production into their own hands, producers created opportunities for less prominent musicians to enter the industry and for established musicians to experiment with, and innovate beyond, traditional styles. Some popular labels included Alamphon, Cleopatra, Abdel Ahad, Orient (El-Chark), Arabphon, and Maloof.
Because Arab American music lacked formal institutional support in the U.S., a reflection of the exoticization it suffered under mainstream record label managers and audiences, early recordings reflect the unique circumstances that led to modern, hybridized Arab American styles. Limited to the size of the record, classically long Arabic songs were condensed into popular, 3-4 minute tunes. Small studios led to smaller groups, 3-6 musicians (takht), as opposed to large ensembles. Musicians sought single-take recordings due to limited resources, which explains the spontaneity and imperfections that filled early recordings.
Alexander Maloof's Hybrid Music
Syrian American musician Alexander Maloof aligned much of his music with popular early twentieth century trends in Orientalist imagery and dance styles, including Harem Dances (Najla), Call of the Sphinx, and Tango Egyptienne.
In 1912, Maloof responded to President Taft’s call for a new national anthem with the song “America Ya Hilwa.” Subtly, Maloof incorporated hints of Middle Eastern sound in the song using notes to simulate the sound of an oud. His song was never adopted as the U.S. National Anthem, but New York public schools officially embraced it as a patriotic song for assemblies.
While popular among Euro-American crowds, the next wave of Syrian American musicians, led by artists such as Bunai and Abdel Ahad, rejected Maloof’s Arab-Western music for catering too much to American audiences.