Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78 RPM: Najeeba Morad Karam
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, Najeeba Morad Karam.
Mary Najeeba (Najeebe/Nageeba) Morad Karam (1911-2004) was born Mary Morad to immigrants Nakhli/Michael and Nazera Morad on June 28, 1911, in New York City. Nakhli had been a musician and played with an Egyptian troupe. He claimed to have been influenced by Sheik Salama al Higazi. Within two years of her birth, her parents moved to Boston which had the second-largest Syrian-Lebanese community in the United States at the time. The Morads immigrated to the United States in 1909 from Mradiyeh, Lebanon, as the legal system in the United States vacillated on the question of whether Syrian Lebanese immigrants could become naturalized US citizens. Mary was the eldest of fourteen children. Like many entrepreneurial families from the Middle East, her parents operated a grocery store by 1920 and laundry by 1930. By the time she was twenty, Mary, with several of her siblings, worked at a shoe factory. Within three years, however, her life would change.
In April 1933, the Syrian American Club of Boston held its 20th Anniversary celebration at the Municipal Building on Shawmut Avenue and West Brookline Street. According to the news report, “The music part of the program would be furnished by the following artists: Miss Najeeba Morad, Sam H. Attaya, Midhat Serbagi, vocal soloists, and Mitry Abdelahad, Nicholas Najjai, Louis Morad, and Earl Chamberline, instrumentalists.” Mary also opened the celebration by singing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and was dubbed “the Syrian Nightingale” by the club’s president. Mary began to officially use her Arabic first name, Najeeba, around this time. Louis, a violinist also on the program, was her younger brother and often continued to play with Najeeba for much of her career.
In the 1940 Census, Mary still lived with her parents and siblings but appeared as Najeeba. The Census also noted that she had one year of high school completed. Najeeba would soon return to school to earn her high school diploma.
It is unclear whether Najeeba or one of her family members started the Morad Record label. Pressings and sides of Morad Records are limited, most included two black drawn birds, four-star (two on either side of the spindle hole), and Nejeeba’s publicity photograph at the top center. Those records that usually show up among 78 RPM Arabic or Arab American record collectors are # 202A-B LAMA AKAWAYET, #203 AL BADER LAMA ZAR, #204A-B YA WARED NASSEM/ NASSAHTAK, and #206A-B JAWAL YA GANNAM.
Najeeba Morad married Toufic M. Karam in 1952 but continued to perform sometimes at a break-neck pace. Within a year of her marriage, she was back on stage in August 1953 when she performed at New Haven Mahrajan along with Mohammed El Bakkar, Fadwa Abed, Philip Solomon, and John Nazarian. Within months she headlined at the American Legion Post 1659 building fundraiser in Buffalo. Others on the program included Russell Bunai, Philip Solomon, Mike Hamway, Joe Budway, Muhammed El Bakkar, and Hakil Karam. By October 1953, Najeeba canceled a number of shows when her mother suffered a heart attack and died. She resumed performing at hafli and mahjaran after hafli and mahjaran until August 1954 when her pregnancy prevented her from keeping a number of engagements including the Lebanon League of Progress mahrajan in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Called “the Daughter of the Mahrajan,” by the Arab American press, when the Syrian Orthodox Church held its 10th convention in August 1955, Najeeba joined the group a number of musicians she toured with regularly including Anton Abdelahad, Russell Bunai, Philip Solomon, Joe Budway, and Antoun Tawa. She worked with the same group a few days later at the Pawtucket Rhode Island Labor Day hafli. Publicity for the event reminded potential attendees, “Najeeba Morad Karam, an ever-popular favorite of Mahrajan, and star of many Mahajan’s of the past, will return to thrill crowds again this year.” Several other concerts and programs booked Najeeba over the next several months.
At the much-advertised hafli for Emergency Flood Relief, Nejeeba, Jamili Matouk, Agnes Hoffar, and Carol Gorra performed as the only women among a host of male performers. Life continued on with gigs at places like The Sheik Restaurant and The Cedars of Lebanon Restaurant and at orthodox, Melkite, or Maronite cultures. Najeeba and her friends performed up and down the east coast of the United States. This routine existed and persisted through the 1960s when, for instance, she teamed up with Anton Abdelahad, Fred Elias, and Antoun “Tony” Tawa for the annual hafla at Our Lady of the Annunciation Church Society in Boston. Never one to slightly smaller communities she’d sometimes agree to be the only featured performer at St. Moura’s Ladies Society annual fundraising halfa.
Nejeeba performed regularly through about 1988 before she retired to her home in Buffalo, New York. She and Toufic settled there in 1953 and when home she attended St. John Maron Church in Williamsville, where she joined the Altar & Rosary Society.
Unlike some Arab American performers who had brief, unknown, or little-known careers, when Nejeeba Morad Karam died in 2004, the family and the Buffalo newspaper celebrated the singing career this “Daughter of the Hafli.”
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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