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.
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.
Sheet music of “For Thee America,” by Alexander Maloof, published in The Junior Assembly Song Book, a collection of patriotic songs used by the New York City school system, 1912. Courtesy of the Arab American National Museum.
Musicians who emigrated to the U.S. after the first wave of Levantine immigrants benefited from the hard work of their predecessors. Arab American recording companies were well-established, hafla and mahrajan touring circuits were wildly popular, and the hybridization and experimentation that resulted in a new, “modern” sound was generally accepted by Arab American audiences.
Arab American musicians, composers, and singers who came to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s had either been born in the U.S. or emigrated after cementing careers in the entertainment industry in the Middle East. Musicians from different ethnic backgrounds toured together on the hafla and mahrajan circuits across the United States in large groups and recorded songs on self-titled record labels. Ensembles started to incorporate American styles, which included adding instruments like saxophones and electric keyboards popularized by African American jazz artists.
Beginning in the 1950s, and gaining popularity in subsequent years, musicians further modernized and Americanized their sound with the advent of the Middle Eastern nightclub. Though Arab American musicians profited and gained prominence from the widespread appeal of these venues, both within their communities and in mainstream culture, they often Orientalized and exoticized their bodies, performances, and musical sound. Non-Arab audiences held stereotypical notions of the Middle East that further “othered” it as a static, homogenous region, which caused musicians to return to more traditional sounds.
Hafla advertisement from Brooklyn’s Syrian and Lebanese community newspaper, The Caravan, April 24, 1928.
To create the heterophonic Arab sound, each musician played the same line on their instrument in different tones and speeds to create a layered sound. Their songs contained rhythmic patterns (iqa’at) and melodic modes (maqamat) aimed to stimulate the senses and immerse listeners into the music, bringing them to a state of intoxication (tarab).
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ARAB AMERICAN MUSIC