Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78 RPM: Mohammed El-Bakkar
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 American music legend, Mohammed El-Bakkar.
The popularity of Arab and Arab American music in the 1950s and 1960s United States coincided with a number of cultural and political developments resulting in the synthesis of Arab, African, African American, and Arab American cultural expressions. To some cultural critics, this fusion was little more than Arab kitsch — a centuries-old tradition of westerners stereotypically imagining the Middle East. To others, this synthesis was revolutionary, improvisational African American jazz met improvisational Near Eastern taqsim on a late-night stroll down Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue.
Mohammed El-Bakkar or Mohamed El-Bakkar or Mohamed Backar was born on 12 September 1913. Most sources published in the last twenty years list him as Lebanese, but sources contemporary to El-Bakkar’s time argue that he was Egyptian. Obituaries and the travel document submitted by Mohammed El-Bakkar’s brother, Yousef El-Bakkar, suggest Mohammed was born in Beirut. Despite the arrival of 100,000 Syrian/Lebanese immigrants to the United States between 1890-1924, El-Bakkar reached the United States in 1952 as a part of the second wave (1944-1965) of Arab immigrants to the US.
Like Naif Agby and Olga “Kahraman” Agby, Mohammed El-Bakkar already enjoyed a well-established film and recording career in the Middle East. In fact, by 1953 he reportedly appeared in approximately “thirty-five motion pictures and recorded over one hundred hit records.” The reason El-Bakkar gave for his coming to the United States was to tour and make both make records and films. Sadly, his tireless dedication to entertainment led to his early demise, but he left us with an abundance of music on 78 and 33 1/3 RPM records.
Both Farid “Fred” Alam of Alamphon Records and Albert Rashid of Al-Chark Records sold music by Mohammed El-Bakkar dubbed from Egyptian and Lebanese record labels such as Baidaphon. Some of El-Bakkar’s records on Al-Chark included his photo at the top center of the label. Cleopatra Records, too, followed suit with a similar design that displayed El-Bakkar’s printed photo on its label. El-Bakkar also cut at least four sides on the Sphinx Record label and his dubs on Alamphon listed him as “Mohamed Backar.” (We are unsure if El-Bakkar recorded any new material on Alamphon). One of the records Albert Rashid advertised in 1953 was Bakkar’s “The Glory of Christmas.”
Mohammed El-Bakkar performed in one of his earliest documented US gigs on 31 October 1953 at a hafli hosted by the American Legion Four-Star Post 1659 at Washington Hall in Buffalo, New York. He appeared with Najeeba Morad Karam, Russell Bunai, and Hikel Karam. Philip Solomon, Joe Budway, and Mike Hamway who were also noted entertainers hired for the same event. The media coverage for events featuring El-Bakkar remained sparse for his first few years in the United States, which would change in 1954 and 1955.
In April 1954, the Elk’s Club and the Syrian American Charities of Passaic County in Clifton, New Jersey, held a fundraiser for its Cerebral Palsy Treatment Center. Fans of Mohammed Bakkar, Naim Karacand, Mike Hamway, and M. Kaloky packed the venue and made this a successfully noteworthy event. In July 1954, El-Bakkar headlined at Saint Basils Church’s “A Day in Cairo” mahrajan in Utica, New York. By November 1954, El-Bakkar made his Broadway debut in the role of a singing Oriental rug merchant in the hit production “Fanny.” According to Philip Kae’s review in The Caravan newspaper:
“The show opened with an Arabic theme, showing a market place in Marseilles. Mr. el Bakkar appeared on the scene as a rug peddler sing-songing his goods. Late during the first act, another Arab scene was presented, featuring Nejla Ates, a Turkish charmer, as an Arab dancing girl., with Mr. el Bakkar supplying the “Shika Shiks” music and vocals.”
“Fanny” ran for an astounding 888 performances and the title role went to a relative newcomer named Florence Henderson (who went onto greater fame on Broadway and in television). The musical was based on a trilogy of plays by Marcel Pagnol’s called “Marius, Fanny, and Cesar.” These plays were adapted into three movies and finally condensed into a book by Joshua Logan and Samuel N. Berham. Harold Rome composed the play’s music and wrote the lyrics to the songs. “Fanny” is the story of the pregnant girlfriend of a sailor who is disowned by his father. The father arranges for the girlfriend to be with another man while his seafaring son is away and the sailor’s teenage son reunites his parents despite his grandfather’s wishes.
On weekends and days free from “Fanny” performances, El-Bakkar worked the mahrajan and hafli circuit familiar to other Arab-language musicians. He also found himself in trouble and the subject of newspaper headlines when he arrived “backstage many minutes past the o’clock deadline” for a particular night’s show. Although El-Bakkar apologized profusely, the unimpressed and snippy stage manager quipped, “I know, I know. I understand how difficult it is to drive a camel through theater-hour traffic.” Less than a month after his less than timely arrival to work made news, Mohammed El-Bakkar wed Antoinette Ayoud (Anglicized as Antoinette Roberts), a New York magazine writer.
A few weeks after he married, a charity benefit hosted by the Young People Muslim Society of the Islamic Mission of America featured Mohammed El-Bakkar, Djamal Aslan, Naim Karacand, and a slew of other lesser-known Arab American entertainers. On 15 May 1955, the annual YWSS and the Lebanese American Club of Danbury, Connecticut advertised that film and music star Mohammed El-Bakkar and his accompanists would perform at the Lebanon American Club in town. If the increased press coverage and his role in “Fanny” didn’t boost El-Bakkar’s notoriety among non-Arabic speakers Art Mooney’s recording of Mohammed El-Bakkar’s “A Happy Song” in July 1955 did. Word has it that El-Bakkar and the Cairo Conservatory Orchestra recorded the original in the 1940s in Egypt. Mooney heard the side on one of the imported 78 sides played during an Arabian Nights broadcast on WJDA in Boston in 1953. After four months, Mooney tracked down El-Bakkar and obtained rights to use the song, then researched, rewrote, recorded, and released the song on an MGM 45 RPM disc backed by “Twenty Tiny Fingers.”
It seemed Mohammed El-Bakkar couldn’t get any busier than he had been in 1955, but in 1956 he remained on the hafli and mahrajan tour circuit and continued pushing out record after record. One of his first major appearances of the year arrived when the Syrian Young Man’s Association held its gala hafli on 26 February at the Towers Hotel Grand Ballroom for victims of the Tripoli flood. The lineup at this event included Najeeba Morad Karam, Naim Karacand, Elaia Baida, Djamal Aslan, Russell Bunai, Philip Solomon, JamilMatouk Deeb, Mike Hamway, and Eddie Kochak and his Orchestra.
When summer rolled around, El-Bakkar played a number of smaller affairs such as the annual mahrajan sponsored by Our Lady of Purgatory Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He helped Arab American singer Lila Morad Stephens record four songs scheduled for release later that year, and the two of them plus Hanan, Kahraman, Naif Agby, and Naim Karacand celebrated the 24th Anniversary of the Arabian Nights Radio Program in June. A group resembling that which entertained at the Flood Relief event played for a special show on July 1 at the Green Grove Manor in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Eddie Kochak and his Orchestra and Mohammed El-Bakkar and his Orchestra closed out the summer at the Green Grove Manor during Labor Day weekend. The Green Grove Manor Labor Day festivities and the Rhode Island Mahrajan at Pawtucket grew to be the largest of the Arab American music and culture events on the East Coast.
Finally, El-Bakkar closed out 1956 with several shows. He appeared at the “Hafla Arabia” hosted by the Cathedral Social Club of St. Nicholas Syrian Orthodox Church in Brooklyn on the 29th of September, a hafli on 14 October with Odette and Nasser Kaddo and Semi Sheheen sponsored by the Lebanese Women’s Aid Society of Syracuse, the 35th Annual Entertainment and Dance of St. Nicholas Young Men’s Club, and the New Year’s Eve celebration of the Akkar Young Men and St. Moura Ladies societies of Utica, New York.
Between 1957 and 1959, El-Bakkar and his Oriental Ensemble released at least four LPs on Audio Fidelity’s Music of the Middle East series – Port Said (Music of the Middle East) in 1957, Sultan of Baghdad in 1957, Music of the African Arab in 1958, and The Magic Carpet in 1958. Today these are known more for their cover art than the music on them. All reflect the belly dance craze that swept the US in the latter half of the 1950s. The model on the cover of Port Said is Nejla Ates, who had a role in “Fanny” as a belly dancer. On two of these LP covers, El-Bakkar is flanked by harem maidens/belly dancers, perhaps Arabs, dressed garishly, while he strums on an oud.
The most outlandish and disturbing cover is Music of the African Arab which shows a partially nude black woman dressed as a belly dancer/harem maiden being auctioned off to Arab traders while strikes a pose on an auction block. There is no question that all played on the stereotype of the Middle East as hypersexualized and exotic. That the cover with the so-called African woman is the most objectifying and raises a host of questions about gender and race beyond the scope of this essay. This gets complicated especially because El-Bakkar occasionally hired African American jazz musicians, Thelonious Monk bass player, and Ammadiyya Muslim Ahmed Hussein Abdul-Malik (born Jonathan Timm, Jr.) to play as a part of his ensemble. According to historian Robin D.G. Kelley in his Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times, people like Ahmed Abdul-Malik abhorred the use of women as sexualized props in El-Bakkar’s album cover art and the “vulgarization, secularization, and sexualization of Arab music.” In the end, some believe El-Bakkar was the ultimate satirist rather than a perpetrator of Arab stereotypes and exploitation.
When we understand that many non-Arabs in the United States bought into the myth that Arabs were exotic, violent, warmongering, religious fanatics, El-Bakkar’s prankishness takes on new meaning. J. Sam Jones, a Florida music reviewer wrote of the Music of the African Arab LP, “If El-Bakkar’s offerings are true indications of Arab music, the listener is in for a surprise. There is no thunder of war in this music, no dark shadow of violence. It is as gay as a college picnic on a spring day.” Was Mohammed El-Bakkar being subversive and self-deprecating to combat stereotypes about violent Arabs? It is all-too-well possible he was, but what do we make of how El-Bakkar deployed gender stereotypes?
In 1958, Mohammed El-Bakkar played the 50th Anniversary celebration for Saint Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Danny Thomas and Mohammed El-Bakkar performed at the Golden Jubilee of Saint Elias Melkite Church in Cleveland, Ohio on the 13th, 14th, and 15th of June. The Arab poet Wajih Salah penned lyrics to El-Bakkar’s musical composition, “The New Dawn, “to cut a record dedicated to the newly created sovereign state of the United Arab Republic – a thirteen-year political union between Egypt and Syria which formed in 1958, but dissolved in 1971.
Nineteen hundred fifty-nine started out like the previous three years for El-Bakkar as his music, popularity, and career soared to new heights. In March, he completed recordings for the next two LPs in the “Music of the Middle East Series.” He joined Kahraman and Jalil Azzouz on a live broadcast in May and summer brought a host of performance at Green Grove Manor on the 8th, 9th, and 23rd of August. As usual, he, Elie Baida, Philip Solomon, Najeeba Morad, and Kahraman headlined at the Rhode Island Mahrajan held on Labor Day weekend. This was the East Coast’s biggest, although not its longest-running, Arab American cultural festival. On the festival’s last day, El-Bakkar took to the stage to perform songs from his most recent LP, mid-performance he collapsed and was immediately rushed to Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket. Doctors worked on El-Bakkar through the night but were unable to save him. Mohammed El-Bakkar died from a cerebral hemorrhage on 8 September 1959.
The Arab and Arab American music and film world were shocked. El-Bakkar’s brother, Yousef, flew in from Lebanon and Antoinette was his only relative living in the US at the time of his death. Thousands mourned and well into December businesses like the Lido Theater in Brooklyn celebrated Mohammed El-Bakkar’s life by showing some of his films including “My Heart, My Sword.” Audio Fidelity posthumously released Dances of Port Said (1960) and Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer (1966). The release of Exotic Music introduced new audiences to El-Bakkar some eight years after his death.
He was one of the best-selling Arab-language musicians in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Port Said (Music of the Middle East) sold 75,000 copies and The Sultan of Baghdad sold 35,000. Antoinette A. El-Bakkar died in October 1989 in Brooklyn.
The website: http://www.el-bakkar.com is dedicated to Mohammed El-Bakkar’s life and career and includes a “Sightings” page with humorous pictures El-Bakkar photoshopped into well-known historical photos.
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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