Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Albert Rashid
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, Albert Rashid.
Depending on whether you’re an old-timer who purchased your 78 RPM Arabic music discs via mail order in the 1930s from Detroit or you visited one of the brick and mortar locations of Rashid Sales Company on E. 28th Street in Manhattan or the 191 Atlantic Avenue site in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, or 155 Court Street store in the 1990s and 2000s, Albert Rashid became known for one of three things – Arabic-language film and soundtrack distribution, his Al-Chark or Orient Record label, or his world-famous record and music store Rashid Sales Company. By World War II’s end, in Brooklyn, New York, Rashid’s Al-Chark label and Fred Alam’s Alamphon engaged in a friendly but heated competition that rivaled that of Alexander Maloof’s Washington Street-based Maloof Records and Albert J. Macksoud’s records in the 1920s.
Based on which sources one uses Abdel Rashid, anglicized Albert Rashid, was born 26 December 1905 or 8 August 1908 in Marjayoun, Greater Syria (now Lebanon) to Gattas Rashid and Ajaia Rashid. The Rashid family acknowledges that the 8 August 1908 date is most accurate. Family lore has it that the Rashid’s trace their ancestry back to 15th century Saudi Arabia during which time the family migrated to Lebanon. Other families’ oral history suggests the Rashid lineage goes back to the Crusades of the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Whatever the case, the earliest Rashid immigrated to the United States in 1896 and traveled on to Bloomington, Illinois. Others made their way to the Dakotas. Ajaia and at least three of her sons George, Mitchell, and Albert immigrated to the United States and settled, not in Boston or New York City, but in Davenport, Iowa. Technically, George (Mohjelly) and Mitchell came before their mother and sibling and lived with their aunt and uncle for a short time. Albert immigrated in 1920 and attended high school in Davenport, Iowa, but by 1930, Mitchell, his wife, Albert, and Ajai left Davenport and relocated to Detroit, Michigan. Albert completed his last year and graduated from Southeastern High School in Detroit where he participated in speech contests and held membership in the Maybee Club, the Maybee Club Clean-Up Committee, and the Senior Banquet Committee. He hoped to attend the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor but instead enrolled at Wayne State University. Albert completed his degree at the University of Detroit with a degree in Business Administration in 1934. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, opportunities existed in the automobile industry, however, an opportunity to screen Egyptian filmmaker Mohammed Karim’s 1933 musical film, “Al-Warda al-Beida” or “The White Rose” starring a relative-newcomer Mohammed Abdel Wahab changed Rashid’s life forever. The film about love across social class barriers launched Wahab’s career despite criticism of the film’s more westernized focus.
How Rashid managed to acquire the first film in 1934 remains unclear- was it connections at Wayne State? The Detroit Institute of Arts? Or the nearby Egyptian-themed artist hangout The Scarab Club, frequented over the years by the likes of famed artists Diego Rivera, Pablo Davis, Marcel Duchamp, and Norman Rockwell, to name a few? According to Albert Rashid’s oldest son, Stanley Rashid, his father acquired the film from a Syrian immigrant who had hoped to establish an Arabic-language film distribution business. The business failed and Rashid purchased the fledgling enterprise vowing to grow it into something more robust. In the early years, and equally as often in the later years, Rashid worked with Syrian Orthodox, Melkite, and Maronite congregations in Arab American communities across the country to stage his first film screenings there. As business began to grow, and time moved on, Rashid responded to viewer demand to also buy the movie’s soundtrack. Rashid wrote executives at Baidaphon Records to gain permission to sell music in the United States from the growing industry of Arabic-language films and to host traveling screenings in Syrian/Lebanese American communities throughout the US. There were some ten songs featured in “The White Rose.”
Although some people, even the editors of the Caravan Arab American newspaper, believed Rashid was the first to distribute Arabic-language films in the United States, friend and later business rival Fred Alam recalled that the first full-length, Arabic film to be screened in the United States was “Songs of the Heart” (Unshudat al-Fu’ad) the 1932 Egyptian film hailed as one of the first Arabic talkies. “The White Rose” was also distributed by Isak & Levy and followed shortly on the heels of ‘Songs of the Heart.” Vladimir Halaby screened “Sharjaret el-Dur” and two more films were distributed by Fred Bistany, “The Substitute Wife,” and “Daughters of the Pasha.” “Melody of Hope” traveled across the United States thanks to Mrs. Wadia Gorra and Brooklyn’s Malko Brothers helped circulate “Long Live Love,” “Wadad,” and “Behind the Curtain.” Technically, then, Rashid’s business emerged in a cultural moment when Arab Americans interested in making films accessible to Arab American communities blossomed, Alam reminded Caravan reporters.
Albert Rashid not only made business contacts, and grew a customer base through screening and distributing films and music, he also became increasingly involved in Syrian/Lebanese cultural and political circles. Rashid traveled to Cairo in 1937, the same year he became a naturalized United States citizen, and met Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The two would become lifelong friends. Moreover, Rashid’s involvement in groups like the Arab National League brought him into direct contact with Arab and Arab American intellectuals, musicians, film stars, and dignitaries. Rashid was among a group who organized a 1939 Midwest visit by F.K. Mufarrij, professor at the American University of Beirut, and delegate to the Geneva Peace Conference from 1932 to 1934.
In 1939, Albert returned to Marjayoun where he married his second cousin, Josephine. Some of Albert’s relatives, who had already immigrated to the United States, had returned to what by the time was becoming Lebanon. Now married, Josephine arrived in the United States in March of 1940 with Albert. Josephine became a naturalized citizen in 1947.
In September 1940, Albert and Josephine lived in Detroit at 658 Taylor Avenue and Albert listed himself as self-employed on his World War II draft card. Soon he took work at the Ford Defense plant in Dearborn. Albert remained at the plant for three years. Josephine gave birth to their first child, Stanley, in October 1940.
Because the outbreak of World War II halted the production and the pressing of Arabic records in Germany for the Mashriq, thus eliminating imports that Rashid relied upon, he began to press duplicate 78 RPM records from his existing stock to keep up with demand. He named his record label Al-Chark Records or Orient Records and his business the Al-Chark Records Company. Early Al-Chark pressings included red, blue, black, and tan colored labels with the worlds “Al-Chark Record Co., Detroit, Michigan” printed on the bottom.
The label’s first logo consisted of an eastern sunrise over a mountainscape printed at the center top with smaller sunrises at the three o’clock and nine o’clock positions. By the early-1950s, Rashid replaced the center-top sunrise with three pyramids meant to represent the Great Pyramid (Khufu), the Khafre Pyramid, and the Menkaure Pyramid on the Giza Plateau in Egypt. Sometimes Rashid replaced the center-top rising sun with a printed photograph of the artists. This might be a domestic singer like the immigrant Mohammed Al-Bakkar or of US-born Fadwa Obed. These personalized labels allowed fans to become more familiar with the singers, and the singers, in turn, had a more personalized record they sold to fans while on the road.
Since 1888, the Detroit Art Institute strove to make the visual arts accessible to residents of the city. The breadth of its focus, to include space for the literary and performing arts, expanded the Institute’s reach and provided for a physical venue for Rashid to screen imported Arabic-language films to Detroit’s growing Syrian and Lebanese communities. By 1944, Rashid’s film screenings became a part of the Art Institute’s regular roster of public events, and his reputation for delivering the Arab world’s imported films to communities in the United States came to be unrivaled. “Mr. Albert Rashid has a deserved reputation as a presenter of that splendid part of the dramatic world and its actors, the acting and music of Syria and Lebanon,” wrote one Arab American newspaper. “No one is doing more than Albert Rashid” to put our work before the world. In July 1944, Rashid screened “A Happy Day” featuring Mohammed Abdel Wahab at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.
In January 1945, Albert and Josephine got an enormous fright when they were called home from an evening out to learn that Stanley had been taken unconscious to Receiving Hospital because he managed to get into the medicine cabinet and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. Stanley had been left in the care of his aunt at the family home at 729 Gladstone.
On September 29, 1946, Albert Rashid organized three screenings of “As-saber Tayeb (Be Patient),” at the Detroit Institute of the Arts – the event marked the American premiere of the film and Rashid and the DIA took out a full-page advertisement in Al-Daleel, the local Arabic-language paper in Detroit. The screening theater filled to capacity and the event was a great success. Rashid felt compelled to move his business to New York City – home to what had for decades been the mother colony of Syrian immigrants to the United States.
The Rashids moved to 32 E. 28th Street in Manhattan in 1947 and operated their business from the same location. Josephine gave birth to a second son, Raymond, in September 1947. Working from New York City meant that sometimes Albert Rashid held US film premiers in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Academy of Arts. On April 16, 1950, “Jawhara (Jewel)” opened at the Detroit Institute of the Arts despite the fact that Albert Rashid, his wife, and children now lived in New York. Furthermore, Rashid Sales Company opened a new storefront at 191 Atlantic Avenue in the heart of Brooklyn’s Arab American neighborhood.
In the minds of many people, Syrians and Lebanese occupied all the businesses on Atlantic Avenue, but this was never the case. “Only about four blocks in thirteen miles” comprised the home of the Syrian business on Atlantic. An article in the Arab American press explained, “Atlantic Avenue, from Boerum Place to Court Street, Court Street to Clinton Street, Clinton Street to Henry Street, Henry Street to Hicks Street” as the primary Syrian areas.
Albert Rashid’s notoriety as a mover and shaker in the Arabic-language film and record industry expanded by leaps and bounds as his film distribution and record production shifted into high gear. In December 1950, Albert Rashid purchased and acquired the Middle East Film corporation. Middle East Film was a young startup company only three years old when Rashid acquired it. “Lak Yom Ya Zalan” (Your Day Shall Come), “Mandeel El Hellow” (The Charm of Her Scarf) and “Asmar Wa Jameel” (Dark and Handsome) had been Middle East-turned-Rashid films. Albert Rashid teamed up with Sidney Feldman and Gene Sayet of Mastertone Studios and budgeted the company’s financial books. Al-Chark Records or Orient Records performers used the Mastertone recording studios and resources first on 9th Avenue, then on 42nd Street. When Albert discovered that Sayet had been taking money from the company, Rashid and Feldman crafted a new set of arrangements for Al-Chark and Orient to continue operations.
Turns out Albert’s pay, before you use the facilities attitude towards business, was more transparent and lucrative than Feldman’s more relaxed pay-me-whenever strategy. Record sells started to skyrocket by 1953 and Al-Chark Records like Mohammed El Bakkar’s “The Glory of Christmas,” Fairouz’s “Aatab” backed with “Ya Ba La La,” and songs like # 460-461 “Tall, Dark, and Handsome (Al Shab Al Asmar),” and Little Sami’s # 201 “Stay Single” promised to be big hits and/or perfect gifts for Christmas.
Even from his newer location in Brooklyn, Rashid maintained strong ties to Detroit’s Arab American community and made sure to bring new films to the Detroit Institute of the Arts over the years. For example, “Paradise & Hell” made its US debut at DIA on February 7, 1954. One year later, in February 1955, “The Last Lie,” starring Samia Gamal and Farid Al-Atrash opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but Rashid also assured the film made its rounds to Miami, Detroit, Boston, and Jacksonville, Florida. In cities like Brooklyn and Detroit, with larger Arab American communities, Stanley Rashid recalled that Syrian and Lebanese Americans packed into the morning show in Detroit, and Chaldeans and Iraqis filled the day’s second screenings. Similarly, in Brooklyn, Syrians, Lebanese, and Egyptians watched the morning showings of movies, and Syrian American Jews tended to show up for the afternoon/evening screenings.
Nineteen fifty-five continued on as an unparalleled year for films Rashid helped to distribute and screen around the United States. After the multicity tour of “The Last Lie,” Rashid presented two showings “Divine Justice (Adalet As-Sama)” starring Hoda Sultan and Souhar on 6 March 1955 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In May, Rashid screened “Bewildered Life (Hayat Ha-Era)” with Nour Al Hoda at the Amor Theater on Court Street in Brooklyn.
Interestingly, Albert Rashid’s colleague, Dr. Alif Gebara, served as Lebanese Consul to New York in 1955 and would become his son Stanley’s future father-in-law. We can’t determine whether this connection helped Rashid facilitate the process of bringing films to the United States from Lebanon or not. In addition to film distribution and record production, of course, Albert Rashid arranged for a young Syrian American dance couple, Elaine Shattahy and John Kassatly to appear on Arlene Francis’ “Home” television show which on this particular episode in 1957 focused on “Syria – It’s Food and Music” and Rashid served as Master of Ceremony for a hafla at Brooklyn’s renown Eastern Star Restaurant that starred Mohammed El Bakkar and Wadih Safie 11 October 1958. Rashid closed out 1958 with a “Melody of Love (Lahan Hobby)” featuring recording artists and actors Farid Al-Atrash and Sabah.
A sign in Rashid Sales Company in the 1950s posed the question best; it read, “Do You Know That We Have The Largest Selection of Arabic Records in the World?” In interviews with, Aramco World Magazine, Warren David’s Arab America, and Billboard magazine, Stanley and Raymond Rashid noted they started working in the Rashid Sales regularly in the 1960s. They’ve relayed stories of well-known visitors such as Malcolm X in the 1960s and Andy Warhol in the 1970s. They carried everything from records by Om Kulthum to Fairouz, sacred and secular music, and Arabic Muslim and Arabic Christian and pre-Christian music.
October 1960 brought Albert Rashid and Farid Al-Atrash back together to re-sign a contact allowing Rashid to distribute Al-Atrash’s films for viewing in Arab American communities in the United States. By November 1961, the presentation of Farid Al-Atrash’s film “For My Beloved,” shown by Albert Rashid at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, broke all previous attendance records for an Arabic film.
Following technological changes in the industry, Rashid began to produce and sell 45 RPM singles and 33 1/3 RPM albums by a number of Arab and Arab American musicians on his Al-Ashark/Orient Record Company label. Though most of Stanley Rashid’s memories of this time in his family’s life were positive, he recalls a low in business’s history when bomb threats were called into screenings during and following the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in June 1967. He also remembers humorous times when a faulty wire on the projector caused a screening delay and a Turkish singer and an acrobatic group had to fill time while a packed audience waited to see a film. Eventually, the guy working the projector resorted to manually holding the faulty, shorted wire in place until the repair person arrived to fix the problem and replace the part. The message was clear – the show must, and did, go on. In 1977, Albert Rashid produced the LP “Divine Byzantine Hymns” by Antiochian Archbishop Metropolitan Ilyas Kurban on Al-Ashark/ Orient Record Company. As late as 1979, Albert’s son Ray Rashid put together a posthumous LP of the music of Mohammed El-Bakkar called “An Arabic Party with Mohammed El- Bakkar.” Most of the songs on the album had been recorded and released by El- Bakkar before his untimely death in 1959. Many had been exclusively recorded for Al-Chark during the company’s 78 RPM days.
The physical characteristic of the record label changed significantly as the company transitioned to 33 1/3 and 45 RPM formats in the 1960s and 1970s. For reasons currently unknown – the spelling “Al-Chark” became “Ash-Shark” though the translation of Orient Records remained the same. Similarly, the more recent label displayed the English word “Orient” and the Arabic script “اسطوانات الشرق.” While Rashid’s 78s contained either the Al-Chark Records or Orient Records name, the later labels included both names at the label’s top-center. Most notable was the elimination of the rising sun and the elimination of the logo of the crowned-Swan swimming on the water. Forty-Five RPM records produced by Rashid read “Orient Records” on the top-center label. Sometimes the address “191 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, NY” appeared at the 45 label’s bottom center.
Mahmoud Al-Hussary recorded one of the last LPs on the Ash-Shark/Orient Records label in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Born in Egypt in 1917, Al-Hussary became one of the most recognizable reciters of the Holy Qur’an in his country. During a special visit to Washington, DC, Al-Hussary paid Albert Rashid a visit and a completed series of Qur’anic recorded recitations. Some of the takes had been recorded in Egypt as it was Albert Rashid’s practice to sometimes go to the artists in Lebanon or other parts of the Middle East for recording sessions. The set by Al-Hussary was a gargantuan feat made up of approximately 46 discs in all.
With each change in recording technology from shellac to vinyl, from 8-track to cassette to Compact Disc, the store adjusted with the times. Raymond took over from his father and there were plans to expand the business’s reach. Rashid Sales Company experienced the adverse effects of ignorance and bigotry when it tried to expand into the larger US retail music market. Retailers were apprehensive, if not hostile, toward Arabic music, although they accepted Greek music. By rebranding Arabic Music as Bellydance music, then slowly introducing the likes Om Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab, the mainstream retailers finally accepted Arabic music.
By the mid-1980s, a video put an end to the film distribution facet of the company and the Ash-Shark/Orient Record label slowed to a crawl. Albert Rashid’s health faded and he died in January 1990 having never recovered from an accidental fall. Josephine Rashid passed on almost ten years to the day in January 2000. The Rashid Sales catalog remained a fixture of the store into the early 2000s. Finally, the development of online and wireless music streaming platforms forced the Rashid’s to close the family business; yet Stanley and Raymond Rashid continue to share with us their deep knowledge and love of music that sustained the family over all these years.
Special thanks to Stanley Rashid, Raymond Rashid, Adam Good, and Charles Clagget.
For Further Reading: The Rashid Legacy: How Music Preserved Arab Heritage in America
Check out Arab America’s blog here!