Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78 RPM: Hanan: An Arab Musical Icon
By: Richard Breaux/Arab America Contributing Writer
What do you do when you find several dozen 78 rpm records all in Arabic and you can neither read, nor speak the language? You research the musicians and record labels and write about them.…at least that’s what Arab America contributing writer, Richard Breaux did. The result is bound to teach you something about Arab American history and heritage in the first half of the 20th Century. Arab America highlights some of the well-known and lesser-known Arab American musicians profiled on this series. This week’s article features the Arab musical icon, Hanan.
Only a handful of Arab or Arab American singers were known and are remembered by a single name. There was Asmahan, Karawan, Kahraman, and, of course – Hanan or Hanaan!
Hanaan or Hanan was born by the name, Jeanette Nehme Hayek on 8 November 1929 in Beirut, Lebanon. She was one of five children born to Jacob Hayek and Wadiha Atik Hayek. Ironically, the same year of Jeanette’s birth, the first Lebanese film, The Adventures of Mabrouk, was released. Jeanette displayed the talents of an actor and singer early on and received classical Arabic music training. Jeanette first traveled to Brazil in 1947 and again in 1948 to perform in concert with Wadih Saffi. Jeanette’s mother accompanied her on the trip.
Upon her return to Beirut, she married Michel Harouni in 1948. She and Michel traveled to and from Brazil and Argentina in the 1950s as haflas (big celebrations) took her on tours to cities throughout the Lebanese and Syrian diaspora. It is interesting to mention that In the period from 1890 to 1930, some 370,000 Arab immigrants settled in Argentina and some 130,000 immigrated to Brazil.
Interest in Jeanette’s singing and acting abilities grew and in 1950, she appeared in the movie, “The Bride of Lebanon” starring Mahmud Fawezi Ellas, Mohamed Salman, and Hagar Hamadi. At the time, the entire country of Lebanon boasted some 60 total movie theaters and approximately, 23 of these operated in Beirut. Theaters imported most feature films shown in Lebanon in 1950 from the United States and Egypt. Some 221 of 330 features films came from the United States, the next closest film import competitor was Egypt with 37, Great Britain with 31, France 12, and the remainder came from Italy, Mexico, Sweden, and Denmark.
Jeanette’s gift for song and acting gained immediate recognition in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine/Israel.
Jeanette began to tour places in the Middle East, North Africa, in addition to South America. Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to Brazil and Argentina particularly loved Jeanette as she began to more regularly go by her stage name “Hanan” or “Hanaan.” Television and radio soon demanded more public appearances and Hanan’s popularity soared. In Argentina, she and Michel created and recorded several sides on the self-titled “Hananphone” record label. Michel managed her career and bookings.
In October 1954, Hanaan and Michel first came to the United States where Hanan began to tour. Young Arab Americans and Syrian Jews made up the majority of her fan base. Less than a month after her arrival, Hanan had already developed a large following and appeared on the hafla and mahrajan (festival) circuit with Fadwa Obeid, Antony Abdelahad, Naim Karacand, Philip Solomon, and George and Mike Hamway. To be sure, she headlined with other Syrian-Lebanese American musicians at the Saint Nicholas Men’s Club Annual Entertainment and dance on 20 November 1954.
When the Caravan newspaper hosted a going away party for violin virtuoso Sami El Shawa, singers Fadwa Obeid, Little Sami Jourdak, and Hanan fronted Emil Kassis, Naim Karacand, Joseph Kattan, and Mike Hamway. The Syrian American and Lebanese American community in Brooklyn rang in the new year with the All-Night Eve Party that included Hanan, Fadwa Obeid, Russell Bunai, Joe Budway, and Eddie Kochak.
Within a month’s time, Hanan drew a substantial audience at Saint Basil Catholic Church’s “Oriental Night” in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The thirtieth annual Saint Maron’s Day Banquet at Our Lady of Lebanon Church in Brooklyn reportedly had to turn away 200 of the 600 people who showed up for the event to hear Hanan, Sami El Shawa, and Mike Hamway on Sunday, February 13. Seven days later, February 20, 1955, marked the first time Hanan worked and performed with the renowned Mohammed El Bakkar who in the midst of the media blitz surrounding his role in the Broadway production of “Fanny”, joined Hanan for the “Arabic Hour” radio program in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Following the success of this broadcast, Hanan, and El- Bakkar teamed up to record at least ten sides on the independent Cleopatra Records label. From Massachusetts, it was off to two gigs for the Syrian-Lebanon American Club of Miami for 27 February and 13 March. Fans enjoyed Hanan’s show so much, she added an additional concert on 27 March. Then it was back to New England by April 24, but this time, the first annual hafli for the Saint Ann’s Organization in Danbury, Connecticut where Naim Karacand accompanied her on violin, Mike Hamway played deberke, and Emile Kassis sat in on oud.
As if she did not hit the ground running with her US tour, Hanan’s schedule picked up over the summer months. For example, on June 5, 1955, at Detroit Institute of the Arts, Hanan performed backed by Jalil Azzouz and Elie Baida at Middle East Film Company Festival. Meridian, Mississippi’s Cedar Club brought Hanan for a two-day event the same month, then Saint George Orthodox Church’s annual outing booked Hanan, Joe Budway, Semi Sheheen, Tony Balrimo, and Elias Marnady in Utica, New York, for a 19 of June gig. The event that promised the largest audience, however, was the Southern Federation of Syrian Lebanese Clubs 25 – 28 of August which included Hanan, Amer Kadaj, Joe Budway, and Al Fahma as entertainment for the weekend in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Hanan took the next few months off from performing because she and Michel were expecting their first child. On 22 November 1955, Hanan gave birth to Claire Harouni. Just a few months after Claire’s birth, a funny and light-hearted story about the Harouni’s appeared in the Arab American press. Word was that Claire was quite used to hearing her mother sing, but on an occasion when Hanan asked Michael to hold the crying baby, he started to sing. The story noted out of shear “bewilderment or surprise,” Claire stopped crying, but because Michel was not a great singer, Hanan announced that she’d rather hear the infant’s wailing over Michel’s. Homelife was good at 181 Prospect Park West.
The New Year, 1956, found Hanan back on the hafla and mahrajan circuit less than two months after Claire’s birth, the first of these concerts – a New Year’s Eve Party where Naim Karacand, Emil Kassis, and Tony Tawa accompanied her at the Club 100. The Holy Name Society of the Virgin Mary Church held its Annual Hafla & Dance featuring Elie Baida, Hanan, Naim Karacand, Eddie Kochack, and his Orchestra, Joe Budway, Mike Hamway and other musicians 29 January at the Knights of Columbus Grand Ballroom in Brooklyn. Even though she was a relatively new mother, Hanan agreed to a plethora of concert dates: the Syrian Lebanon Club of Miami 26 February and 11 March; the Maronite Society of Detroit, 18 March; the Saint Ann’s Church in Paterson, New Jersey, 7 April; Utica, New York, on 22 of April; and finally, the Middle East Melody Hour Annual Concert in Detroit April 29. By the end of the year, Hanan had to slow down a bit because, once again, she was pregnant.
Two days into the new year, Hanan gave birth to her second child and first son, Joseph Michael Harouni, at Saint Claire’s Hospital, nevertheless, she was back out traveling and performing by January’s end. To be sure, on January 27, she sang at a private hafli in Miami, followed by gigs at the Syrian Lebanon American Club of Miami on 10 and 17 of February. When possible, she and Michel vacationed in March and April, so she took things rather slowly.
As soon as May arrived, she returned to her regular routine, this time at a hafli for the Lebanon American Club of Rochester, New York. Young Arab Americans founded Hanan’s music extremely relatable and modern. Not surprisingly Hanan, along with Joe Budway, Fred Elias, and Tony Tawa played the 18th Annual New England SOYO (Syrian Orthodox Youth Organization) Convention on 10-12 May 1957 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the 10th Annual Midwest SOYO in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 6 July 1957. Other bookings for the year remained the standard fair halfas and mahrajans around Labor Day and the new year.
Perhaps one of Hanan’s most popular singles came when she teamed up with an equally young and talented fellow Lebanese singer Fairouz in 1953/1954 on Baida Records #110 A & B, “Ya Samira” & “Ghayb Ya Amr.” The harmony when these two collaborated is beautifully unparalleled. (Listen to Hanan & Fairouz on Cliff Bolling’s Vintage Arab 78 YouTube site: https://youtu.be/Mp6Uivy5ed0 ).
Hanan averaged fourteen to twenty performances per year from 1958 to 1961 with audiences ranging from one hundred to just over one thousand. The family, then, moved to a bigger place in 1958; Hanan and family Michael, and the family moved from the Prospect Park West address to 310 Windsor Place. Of course, US concerts took her to Miami, Florida, Wichita, Kansas, Paterson, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Long Beach, New Jersey, Tannersville, New York, and Central Falls, Rhode Island. Larger events, like the SOYO Convention in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1958, the N.G. Beran Veteran’s Association halfi, in Dedham, Massachusetts, and the Eastern Catholic Rites 2nd Annual meeting in Montreal, 27 June 1959, drew enormous crowds. Hanan also toured accompanied by her two children and husband in Mexico and Central America between March and April 1958.
Period Records released Hanan’s first LP in 1959 titled “The Arabian Nightingale.” Wadih Saffi (oud), Philip Solomon and Hakki Obadia (violin), Ezra James and John Hyder (derbke), Jack Ghannaim (quanun), and Ray Beilouny (riqq) comprised the ensemble for Hanan’s first LP. The popularity of her LP translated into bigger and bigger crowds and performances at the SOYO in Montreal 14 May 1961 and at Danny Thomas’ American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) Convention in Washington, DC, from 19 to 22 October 1961.
Between 1959 and 1985, Hanan released at least six LPs. Some of these reflected the trips to and from Lebanon, France, Argentina, and the United States. She sang in Arabic, but also in French and Spanish. The 1960s proved to be a period of low record productivity and output, but she did manage to record two sides on a 7” single with Mehdi Zaarour. Return performances and appearances in Lebanon in the 1970s proved Hanan had not missed a beat nor had her fans forgotten her. By 1977, Hanan recorded six songs for “Ya Asma El Lon” LP on Duniaphon. She followed this up with a rapid succession of LPs on the Vox De L’Orient label including “Oudoud Medley-25 Years in the USA,” in 1979, “Latest Songs,” in 1980 and “Izzani Ani Mani Mechmecha” in 1980.
Hanan’s performance career spanned into the late 1980s and early 1990s. Rare footage of Hanan singing at a dedication for oudist Joe Budway on 8 September 1980 is easily locatable on YouTube. As her children grew up and grandchildren arrived, Hanan assumed the role of the family matriarch. After fleeing the war in Lebanon and moving several times, Hanan’s sister, Aida, immigrated to the United States in 1985.
Aida is a retired real estate agent and community activist who serves on the Board of Saint Nicholas Home. Michel died in 1992 after a severe illness and Hanan remained a loving and supporting wife through these tough times. Hanan, on occasion, sang at haflis in Brooklyn or garden parties at Saint Nicholas Cathedral, but in 1996 she moved to Staten Island. On 8 October 2011, Hanan died at the Staten Island University Hospital in Prince’s Bay. According to most records, she was 81, but some sources suggest she was or may have been 88.
Special thanks to Mark A., Archpriest Thomas Z. and Aida N.
Richard M. Breaux is an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse from Oakland, California. His courses and research explore the social and cultural histories of African Americans and Arab Americans in the 20th Century.
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