Syria has been one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse places on Earth for several millennia. The city of Aleppo has been continuously settled for 7,000 years, making it more than 2,000 years older than Stonehenge. Until the 1940s, it was among the oldest continuous Jewish settlements on Earth. Five years of civil war have sent approximately 1 million residents of the city, flying in every direction, outward as refugees and underground, both literally and figuratively, as the city has been bombed into concrete Swiss cheese. No one knows how many are left.
More than a hundred years ago, a wave of hundreds of thousands of immigrants fleeing, at first, draconian taxes, second-class citizenship, and military conscription, and then a systemic campaign of ethnic cleansing under the collapsing Ottoman Empire, came to America. According to the U.S. Bureau of Immigration, in the last decade of the 19th and first decade of the 20th century, more than 100,000 immigrants arrived from "Turkey in Asia," including Syria and Lebanon; between 1899 and 1914, 86,111 Syrian immigrants arrived.
At least 85 percent of them were Christians or Jews. There is little information about the other 15 percent. In his study of the emigration records, Dr. Kemal H. Karpat wrote that, "there is no question that roughly 200,000 Muslims [ . . . ] emigrated to North America in the century between 1820 and 1920." At ports of entry, he says, Muslims represented themselves as either Syrian or Armenian in order to gain entry and avoid discrimination.
"Sometimes I think democracy has succeeded too well," wrote Salom Rizk in his deeply pro-American memoir of emigration, "Syrian Yankee," published in 1943. "It has made success possible to people who did not deserve it. They found freedom here and thought it was only to fulfill their own selfish desires. They used, or rather abused, freedom to achieve power, and now they want to use their power to destroy that freedom."
Seventy years later, it sounds as though it could have been written yesterday. The recent public conversation on the question of Syrian emigration betrays a xenophobic contempt for immigrants generally and an ignorance for the embeddedness of emigrants from Near East especially. In a spirit of helpfulness, we'll describe the case of one great musician who came to America from Aleppo, Syria, lived and performed here, and left an undersung legacy.
He was a violinist named Naim Karakand. He was 19 years old when he arrived by himself at Ellis Island on Oct. 9, 1909. His emigration documents state that his next stop would be a friend's place at 104 Greenwich St. in New York City, near the heart of Manhattan's Little Syria.
Yes, there was a Little Syria, a bustling business district based around Washington Street in what is now Tribeca in Manhattan, only a few blocks from where the World Trade Center stood. In fact, when the WTC was excavated, an old piece of rubble beneath it was a stone from what was a Syrian/Lebanese church, St. Joseph's, established in 1846. In 1940, thousands of residents were forced to leave due to the city's construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.
Karakand lived in a boarding house full of Syrians in east Brooklyn, just few blocks from a Syrian Catholic church to which he belonged. He was invited to record on Sept. 13, 1912 at Columbia Records studio in Manhattan at a session apparently arranged by the Armenian impresario M.G. Parsekian with a band including singers K. Nodar and Dikran Effendi, both of whom are of uncertain ethnic or religious identity. He was then about 22 years old and apparently was the first Syrian-American to have made records. (The first African-American woman to make records, Mamie Smith, did not record until eight years later.) Apart from a handful of cylinders made at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, these were the first-ever Turkish-language performances made in the U.S. and the first for commercial release in the U.S. The following month, Karakand returned to Columbia's studio and cut another series of sides under his own leadership with the Assyrian singer Kosroff Malool (born in Diyarbakir in 1891, he recorded the first Kurdish-language performances made in the U.S.)
Even in the 1910s and '20s, Karakand's music spanned ethnicities and styles. His performances on record are superbly virtuosic, whether they are accompanying classical vocalists from the urban centers of Beirut and Cairo, sawing out down-home dance pieces from the villages from Palestine to southern Turkey, or dancing through solo airs. Among his specialties was his ability to imitate other instruments—flutes or the bagless bagpipe of the Levant, the zamr. He was a virtuoso without being a showoff and a populist without pandering.
During the mid- and late-'10s, Karakand recorded prolifically for both major record companies—Columbia and Victor—as a leader, sideman, and, at times, anonymously. Some discs appeared with the simple designation "Arabic Trio" or "Syrian Instrumental Trio." His band at the time included kanunist Shehadi Ashkar and oudist Abraham Halaby, whose names would indicate that they might be Maronite and Jewish, respectively. Clearly, faith was of little musical concern to Karakand, who certainly performed with Christians and Jews, and possibly Muslims and those of other faiths on record.
The tune of a 1916 performance by Karakand, issued by Columbia as part of both its Greek and Arabic series under the name "Tatos Bishro," was recorded about two decades later in Cairo by the great violinist Sami Al-Shawwa. Sami is still held in the highest esteem as perhaps the greatest violin player of the Arab world in the first half of the 20th century, having accompanied all of the most sublime singers in Cairo at the time—Yusuf Al-Manylawi, Abdul Hai Hilmi, Zaki Murad, etc. While it is possible that a copy of Karakand's performance might have made its way into Sami's hands, it seems more likely that both drew from the same repertoire. Sami was only a few years older than Karakand and was also a native of Aleppo. It is not outside the realm of possibility, as Steve Shapiro of Takoma Park, Maryland—perhaps the most knowledgeable expert on Karakand—has proposed, that both learned the song from Sami's father.
Sami, who emigrated from Aleppo to Cairo and toured America in 1953, has a fame that endures, while Naim Karakand, an Arab-American immigrant, remains marginal at best. Could it be that the biggest mistake that Karakand ever made for his career and his legacy was to come to the New World, rather than to Cairo? Had Karakand taken the path of Sami, would he be remembered as One of the Greats rather than someone known about by only a handful of record collectors?
In the late '10s and early '20s, both major record companies stopped releasing Arabic-language discs. Karakand, meanwhile, continued to record for smaller independent labels, particularly for one owned by an Egyptian Copt named A.J. Macksoud, who produced excellent records on his Washington Street (Little Syria)-based label.
And then, having made scores of discs, he vanished from view in the U.S. for more than 20 years. No one knew why.
Three years ago, a five-minute documentary showed up on YouTube, showing that Karakand had moved to Bahia, Brazil during the '30s, joining his brother Chukri and the Arab community there.
While in Brazil, he married and had children. But by around 1950, he had left his family and moved back to Brooklyn alone, where he began his recording career again. He played with the Al Kalimat Orchestra, known to have accompanied the best-selling Lebanese-American belly-dance performer of the 1950s, Mohammed El-Bakkar. (You may have seen the lurid, crazy, Orientalist covers of those LPs in thrift stores or in the bargain bins of record stores.) He recorded incredible performances, sinewy, brilliant performances under his own name for the Brooklyn-based Alamphon label, which produced both pirate copies of foreign releases and original recordings of immigrants for the Arabic-speaking immigrant market.
His last recording session, at the age of 64, was made not for an immigrant audience but for an Arab-jazz fusion session for Riverside Records under the leadership of bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik (born in Brooklyn in 1927), who was then a member of Thelonious Monk's band, and who spent time as a child near the Arab section of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and had studied violin. Although it remains unwritten in the history of jazz, it had become fashionable during the '50s among some musicians to attend the many "Oriental" nightclubs, particularly up and down 8th Avenue between 30th and 50th streets, where modal music in various time signatures played by Greek, Armenian, Sephardic, and Arab musicians could be heard. It is not a coincidence that in the late 1950s and early 60s many jazz LPs were released that were both modal and in time-signatures other than 4/4. The influence of the Near Eastern musicians of New York is, in retrospect, obvious but has never been delineated.
Meanwhile, the Afrocentric movement of many Black Americans toward Islam worked in favor of incorporation of elements from the Middle East. Karakand's swan-song fiddle solos on Abdul-Malik's record (issued by Riverside, a label that began, in fact, as among the first 78 rpm reissue labels) are powerful and confident improvisations that flow in and out of time. It was never a great masterpiece, but it was certainly the kind of record that might have been owned by contemporaries in the nascent world of "out" jazz—the members of the bands of Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman and Joe Maneri.
A letter in Brazil from Karakand says that it was grief at the death of his son, a U.S. serviceman, that caused him to give up music. He died in Flushing, Queens, in 1973 at the age of 81.