Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78 RPM: Russell Bunai
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 Arab American music legend, Russell Bunai.
Rashallah/ Raskallah Bounay or Russell J. Bunai was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 15 September 1903. His parents, like many Syrians who emigrated during the early twentieth century, immigrated to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, moved back to Syria, and entered the United States in December 1920 via France. Between 1880 and 1924, an estimated 95,000 people immigrated to the United States from what was Greater Syria. During roughly the same period, 130,000 emigrated from Greater Syria to Brazil.
Russell settled in Boston, Massachusetts, and worked as a store clerk for a number of years, then met his future wife. Boston, Cambridge, and Quincy, Massachusetts, all came to have small Syrian populations in the 1910s and 1920s. Boston’s Syrian town centered around the Hudson and Tyler streets and Harrison Avenue. Russell met, and later married, Syrian-born Rose Haluey on 15 September 1929. Rose grew up a in small, single-parent household at 264 Harrison Avenue, which included her mother, Asma, her sister, Mary, and her brother, Charles. The family left Damascus in 1912, and like Bunai, settled in Boston and later Cambridge. Russell lived with his in-laws in 1930 and was self-employed as a clerk and janitor.
His self-taught interest in music, especially singing, and his interest in old, but more modern/urban sounds of the former Greater Syrian, brought him into contact with Nassib Aridah, Elia Abu Mahdi, Sabri Andrea, Mikhail Naimy, and Kahlil Gibran, all of whom travelled frequently between New York City and Boston. As Bunai settled down into family life, however, his and Rose’s family grew to include their children: Winifred (1930), Barbara (1932), Russell (1934), and Nancy (1935). The combination of an economic downturn, the collapse of Syrian American record labels Macksoud and Maloof, and the rise of radio, also led to a demand for live music. More stable Syro-Lebanese communities, even in the midst of economic depression, meant greater demands for live music at haflas: church celebrations, wedding receptions, and other causes for festivities in various communities.
In an interview with Anne K. Rasmussen, Bunai remembers, “The Arabic-speaking people, they got after me. They knew that I knew music, naturally, so I started to sing. This was during the Depression. Things were bad; they said ‘Why should you do it for nothing, we will hire you, [you should sing] as a profession.” The Bunai’s lived at several addresses on Crescent and Oxford streets before settling at 146 and then 139 Oxford Street, in the Boston suburb of Cambridge.
Although Bunai reportedly resisted professionalization because he preferred informal sahras over haflas and concerts, he gave in with certain conditions: 1) he maintained the ability to rehearse and book musicians of his liking and more urbane style; associated with Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut, and Cairo rather than rural folk music; and 2) he arranged the order and types of music that would be played at concerts and haflas. By 1940, Russell considered himself a professional concert singer, as indicated by the US census. He was not professionally trained but did tinker with the oud while singing around the house or with friends. Obviously, Bunai conceded the title of professional concert singer, despite his absence of formal training and his preference for the more improvisational styles of Arabic music.
Russell became a naturalized US citizen on 5 February 1945. Sometime around 1947, he established Star of the East records. He recorded several records between 1948 and 1949. As a result of his recordings, Russell emerged as a regular on the Syrian Lebanese Convention/club circuit. In 1951, he performed as a special guest of the Kirby Club of Akron, Ohio. Kirby Club members had ancestral connections to Kherebet Kanarfar, Lebanon. Akron, Toledo, Detroit, Boston, Brooklyn remained a part of this circuit. Like other Syrian-Lebanese musicians of the day such as Joe Budaway, Philip Solomon, and Anton Abdelehad, Bunai could not earn enough as a singer and performer to sustain a living. According to their son, Russell J. Bunai, Jr. MD, Rose Bunai largely supported the family working as a seamstress while Russell worked as a clerk in various Lebanese-owned stores in Cambridge.
The Arab American music scene took a few interesting turns during his time. First, as the immigrant generation passed on, younger people became less interested in continuing to organize smaller haflas. Mahrajan’s grew to be so large in size and formal in format, they did not allow for the post-hafla improvisational jam sessions, that Bunai and others of his generation loved to perform. Moreover, musicians like Mohammad El-Bakkar and Eddie “the Sheik” Kochack took music into the nightclubs. Many clubs emphasized playing for an Americanized audience or for Greek, Armenian, and Lebanese audiences. Records, now in the form of LPs, were largely produced for club belly dancers and belly dance instruction, not for the appreciative audience of sammis–Syrian and Egyptian music connoisseurs. Finally, nightclub owners maintained atmospheres that were less family-friendly than social halls, churches, and hotels.
For Russell Bunai, pay as a musician remained too irregular. The family did not want for much, but they also could never afford to purchase a home (renting an apartment at 146 Oxford). Two of the Bunai children, Nancy and Russell, Jr. graduated from Boston University. Nancy went on to become a nurse and Russell Jr. a medical doctor. Rose’s sister, Mary Haluey, who served in the WAC during World War II and never married, did quite well for herself financially, owned a grocery store, and bought the home at 139 Oxford, which she willed upon her death in 1985 to Russell and Rose. Rose died on the 17th of February 2006, but Russell passed on ten years earlier on the 26th of October 1996.
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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