Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Abe Messadi
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 in this series. This week’s article features Arab American music legend, Abe Messadi.
Most of our posts have focused on popular Arab American musicians or well-known Arab American record labels. On occasion we’ve highlighted the stories of little-known or less popular musicians on popular labels or well-known musicians on less-common labels. In this case, we’re featuring a far less-common label and far less-discussed musician. The Arabic Recording Company, Inc. was a little-known 1940s record label which, according to one newspaper advertisement, operated out of its 107 Lorimer Street address in Brooklyn, New York. Its parent company was the New York Record Corporation, an obscure start-up record business that operated from 1946-1952 from the fourth floor of the same address. The New York Record Corp ran a few want ads for a “press operator” and a “packing and shipping clerk” in the Brooklyn Eagle in 1946, but more impressively it paid to have ads published in Billboard Magazine in May 1948 and July 1949.
ARC (the Arabic Recording Co. Inc.) was one of the so-called folk or foreign record labels established under the New York Record Corporation. Finding the actual owner posed quite a challenge and the few ads which mention any employee or associate by name simply says “ask” or “write Wally”. With greater certainly, however, we can say that ARC and other labels produced by the New York Record Corporation are pressed on early vinyl rather than shellac discs.
ARC used the star and crescent as a symbol on it record label, but this same symbol did not appear in their ads. Whether meant to symbolize the former Ottoman empire (previous home to most Arab Americans), the Islamic faith (a small but sizably represented group among Arab Americans), or served as a general Orientalist stand-in for all things Arab in the United States remains debatable.
An ad from Al-Hoda and the label of one of physical discs note that Nahum Simon appeared on at least a recording. ARC seems to have sold at least five Arabic 78 RPM discs in 1947 and possibly more. As of yet, we have not uncovered who owned ARC or the New York Record Corporation, but two of the records we have on ARC noted that an “A. Messadi” orchestrated the music on the recordings. This was a name totally unknown to us except for its association with the label. “A. Messadi” was shorthand for Abraham “Abe” Messadi, born 3 September 1914 in Union City, New Jersey to John and Anna Messadi (immigrants to the United States from Greater Syria in 1911 and 1910). Abraham was one of at least eight children born to Anna and John Messadi and the first of six born in the United States according to the 1930 United States Census. John, Anna, and their oldest child worked respectively as a machine operator, finisher, and shipper at a kimono manufacturer – one of the more lucrative businesses for Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to the US in the first few decades of the 20th Century.
The Messadi’s moved to Brooklyn in the late 1920s and by 1930 they resided in an apartment at 120 Atlantic Avenue in the heart of Brooklyn’s Arab American community. Nativist, fear-based legislation in 1924, limited immigrants from Syria and Lebanon to about 100 per year. The stock market crash in 1929 sent the economy and employment opportunities spiraling to new lows. Work became increasingly difficult to come by as employment opportunities dried up during the Great Depression. Abraham met and married Jean Moubaid 12 July 1936. Jean was the daughter of oudist Toufic Moubaid (b. 1888 – d. 1967), who recorded for Maloof Phonograph Company in May 1924, regularly appeared on radio from 1924 to 1929, and recorded eight sides with Elizabeth Awad on Columbia Records in May and December of 1928 (some even believe Moubaid played oud on some of Columbia’s pioneering Arabic-music recording sessions in the 1910s). Where Abraham learned to play violin remains unclear. It is likely, but unknown whether Abe Messadi recorded with his father-in-law, although they no doubt played together during family gatherings. Is more than likely that Moubaid was a member of Messadi’s orchestra in the 1940s. A photograph given to us by Abe Messadi’s son shows Moubaid and Messadi along with other Arab American musicians confirming our suspicions the two played together.
The Messadi family began to grow a few years after Abraham and Jean married with the birth of Joyce, Wayne, and Bruce; Abraham’s musical career gained its footing, leading to a few recordings and gigs on the hafli circuit in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area. Then, sometime between 1946 and 1951, Messadi and several other musicians teamed up with Nahum Simon (b. 1891) and and several other musicians to record for ARC.
The year after ARC appeared to have shutdown, the US Congress finally eliminated its “whites only” clause for those who hoped to become naturalized citizens. While Syrians and Lebanese immigrants had long won legal battles that determined they were racially white, many darker-skinned Arab Americans contended with the daily slights, insults, and flat-out expressions of white Anglo-American supremacy that influenced parts of the United States.
Of course, recording 78s boosted the visibility of and demand for many Arab American musicians of the middle period. In addition to recording on ARC, when Saint Nicholas Men’s Club held its annual dinner at Son of the Sheik Restaurant, 132 Greenwich, in February 1954, entertainment featured Louis Kawam on oud, Abe Messadi on violin, Eddie Kochak, Albert Saman, and Atallah Shaker as vocalists. By 20 November 1954, Messadi performed for another Saint Nicholas Men’s Society event at the Hotel Saint George which also included Fadwa Abeid, Hanan, Anton Abdelahad, Naim Karacand, Philip Solomon, John Nazarian, Louis Kawan, and Mike and George Hamway among others. Approximately 1,900 people reportedly attended the event. The Holy Name Society Committee at Virgin Mary Melkite Church, of which, Abe Mesaadi was also a member, secured Messadi, Louis Kawam, Ray Beilouny, George Hamway, and Eddie Kochak for its annual hafli in January 1955.
Not every event Arab-American musicians, like Abe Messadi, played during the height of his/her music careers turned out to be mega-fundraisers or celebrations, some were smaller, private affairs like wedding reception, wedding anniversaries, and birthday parties. For example, when Eli Raheb proposed marriage to Yvonne Khouri in December 1956, about 50 people turned out for the engagement party where Abe Messadi, Louis Kawan, and George Dolaty played violin, oud, and sang respectively. Fact is, most Arab American musicians maintained full-time, non-music related jobs during the week and performed on the side to earn additional income doing what they loved on weekends.
Few years topped 1956 and 1957 for Abe Messadi, but not all news about the Messadi family was cause for celebration. Of course, Abe played his regular annual hafli for the Holy Name Society along with, at least, Louis Kawam on oud. Other entertainers on the January 1956 program included Hanan, Elia Baida, Naim Karacand, Joe Budway, and Eddie Kochak. The enormous Emergency Flood Relief hafli held on 11 March 1956 became a who’s who of Arab American musicians, only the most observant people might note Abe Messadi’s name among the lesser-known musicians booked to perform at this star-studded event. The event raised over $1500.
In June 1956, Jean Messadi and family friend George Fadool sustained injuries in an accident. Fadool broke his knee and Mrs. Jean Messadi broke her collar bone.
The year closed with Messadi on the entertainment roster for the Aleppian Foundation of Brooklyn’s Gala Premiere Dance held 16 December 1956. Many of the names that played the Emergency Flood Relief event were out in full force again. The two major hafli and dances at which Abe Messadi performed every year from 1954 to 1959 were those hosted and sponsored by the Holy Name Society of the Virgin Mary Church and the Saint Nicholas Men’s Club, connected with Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Brooklyn. Although never the headliner, his presence on the program along side violin virtuoso Naim Karacand speaks to Messadi’s talent as a violinist. It becomes quite evident that if you needed a violinist for your hafli or mahrajan on the east coast in the 1950s you booked Naim Karacand, Philip Solomon, or Abe Messadi.
Things slowed down for Abe Messadi after 1960, while he was booked for several smaller engagements such as the graduation parties and wedding receptions, the death of his mother in November impacted the entire Messadi family. Abe continued to work full-time as a jeweler and in other jobs throughout the remainder of his life, but he never appeared to record again or reach the level of notoriety he had in the 1940s and 1950s. For a time, Abe, his wife, and children lived with Moubaid’s at 208 Kane Street in Brooklyn. Toufic’s mother also lived with them for a time.
Abe and Jean Messadi raised their children and lived out their lives at 6623 Ridge Blvd in Brooklyn. Joyce finished schooling, became a legal secretary, and married. Despite the loss of her husband and poor health, she lived into her seventies. Both Bruce and Wayne graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Navy. An injury forced Bruce onto disability, however, he married several times, and worked as a dealer in Las Vegas. Finally, after he left the Navy Astronaut Program in 1958-59, Wayne ran an auto shop, married, earned two college degrees, and became an educator. Abe Messadi died 5 October 1987. Jean lived nine more years and died 7 December 1996. Outside his family and those deeply connected to Brooklyn’s Arab American music scene in the 1940s and 1950s, Abe Messadi is not a named deeply discussed or mentioned in the annals of Arab American history. Thanks to a little bit of luck and the chance acquisition of a few Arabic Recording Corporation’s 78 RPM records, we relay this sliver of Abe Messadi’s life.
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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