Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Alexander Maloof
One of the most prolific and versatile composers, producers, orchestra leaders, and business owners in the first five decades of the twentieth century was Alexander R. Maloof. Collectors of 78 rpm records have written quite a bit about Maloof. His 78 rpm records are still highly sought after. Much of what has been published about Maloof’s personal and professional life is filled with contradictions about birthdate, death date, and place of death, but it’s our hope to shed some light on the complex life of this father of Arab American music.
Depending on what sources one consults, Alexander Maloof was either born in Jan. 23, 1884 or 1885, the second of six children to Abraham and Hanna Maloof in Zahlé, Greater Syria (now Lebanon). The Maloofs immigrated to the United States around 1894 (though the 1920 Census lists 1892) and settled in the Syrian community in Brooklyn, New York at 90 Amity Street. Alexander developed an interest in music early and by 1901 he had composed and published his first piece of sheet music “Only Mother’s Picture” with words written by George Marguard.
Within two years he composed “The Robin’s Serenade,” he also found work at Henius Studios alongside Joseph Henius, a former member of the Italian Music Conservatory. Maloof married Minerva J. Ferris on 15 July 1905. The same year, he and Henius promised clients instruction with “piano, organ, vocal, harmony and composition.” Anxious to become a U.S. citizen in the midst of larger political climate where Anglo-American’s questioned whether Syrians or Lebanese were Asian or white and could become naturalized citizens, Maloof filed his “first papers” in 1909 and, in the meantime, by 1910 he composed and published two more pieces “Nowhere” and “The Empire State Barn Dance.”
Some budding musicians may have surely rested their accomplishments, but not Alexander Maloof. Over the next three years (1912,1913, and 1914) Maloof’s musical talents catapulted his career into music’s stratosphere. The ambitious Maloof played piano or organ at gigs he found in the Syrian immigrant community including regular work at the Damascus Lodge of the local Free & Accepted Masons in Brooklyn where several of the leading members were immigrant business men from Greater Syria.
In 1912, Maloof adapted and conducted a score to an all-Syrian immigrant cast play at “The Iron Master” held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The play was an adaptation of George Ohnet’s “Le Maître de Forges” except instead of performing in English or French, the cast translated and performed the play in Arabic. The performance drew the press’ attention because reportedly 1,000 people between Syrians in Manhattan and Syrians in Brooklyn saw the production. Moreover, the press exaggerated the fact that in Greater Syria, such a play where men and woman actors shared the stage would have tested the boundaries of gender appropriateness and respectability. Maloof also became a naturalized citizen in 1912, despite the fact that for most Syrian-Lebanese people in the United States this would not be a subtle issue until the George Dow case in 1915.
Maloof worked tirelessly in hopes of getting his big break. He composed and submitted a song that contended for the national anthem of the United States, recorded two sides for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1913, and the E.T. Paull Music Company published two pieces of his sheet music including “Egyptian Glide” in 1914. Maloof kept one foot in the communities of business-class Syrian America and the other foot among the middle and upper-middle classes of Anglo-Americans who presumably appreciated western classical music and the eastern musical scales that Maloof fused to make an interesting hybrid.
The National Anthem
In 1911, U.S. President William H. Taft voiced long-felt need for the country to write, agree upon and select a national anthem. In 1912, the “Star-Spangled Banner” had not yet become the official national anthem of the United States, yet a woman by the name of Jennie L. Chadwick, from Park Ridge, New Jersey, had recently heard a song at a Schumann Club of New York event at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that was “the most aspiring tribute” she had “ever heard.” Chadwick lambasted the “Star-Spangled Banner” as of “foreign make,” impossible to sing, and the melody was once an old English drinking song…musically unsuited and from an aesthetic standpoint unfit for patriotic purposes.”
Francis Scott Key penned the poem “Defense of Fort McHenry” in 1814 and later that year Key’s brother-in-law set the poem to music by English composer John Stafford Smith. By 1831, other songs such as “Hail, Columbia,” and “My Country Tis of Thee” held a place of prominence in the minds of most United States citizens. With its composition in 1895, these same United States citizens elevated Katherine Lee Bates’ “America, the Beautiful,” to the list of songs meant to inspire a sense of patriotism toward the country.
Just six years previously, in 1889, the US Navy formally used “The Star-Spangled Banner” for official use when raising the flag. Meanwhile President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 commanded the “Star-Spangled Banner” to be played in all military and special events. Debates about difficulty singing the “Star-Spangled” waged on for weeks in 1916 in the New York Times. Some letters to the editor alluded to the fact that “Dixie,” “America, the Beautiful,” or the “Star-Spangled Banner” were interchangeable as long as people remained respectful when one of these songs was played. Other readers voiced concern about the meaning of certain verses and questioned if “through the perilous fight” or “through the clouds of the night” captured the best essence of the song. A common critique of the “Star-Spangled Banner” mirrored that of John H. Taylor who remarked how difficult the song was to sing and if we could “eliminate the objectionable high notes” by supposing “the melody was written in the key of C.” Still some like John Henry Blake from Atlantic City countered, “Always the objection is made that its vocal range is too great, but anyone who can sing at all certainly can sing up to the highest note, which is F.” Readers like Dade Thorton, from New York City, argued for Congress to take stand and make the “Star-Spangled Banner” our official national anthem.
Alexander Maloof, an arising composer, pianist, music publisher, and orchestra leader, with words by Elizabeth Ferber Field wrote “For Thee, America” in 1912. According to the “Catalog of Copyright Entries in the Library of Congress,” Alexander Maloof submitted the “America Ya Hilwa” for copyright in 1912. In the spring and summer of 1912, the New York and then the national press got word of Maloof’s song. While it gained regional popularity, the discussion continued on.
In 1916, as a part of this discussion about the US national anthem, Maloof wrote in his own letter-to-the-editor, “In this morning’s issue of the New York Times I happened to glance at the enclosed article relative to a new national anthem. I wish to call attention to the fact that a new national anthem has been composed by me, entitled “For Thee, America,” and has been adopted by the Board of education of New York for use in the public schools, and endorsed by such men as Walter Damrosch, David Mannes and many other musical celebrities in the United States. This anthem is now being used in no less than twenty states with the prospect that it will be adopted in other cities.” ALEXANDER MALOOF, July 14, 1916.
Early twentieth century musician and music scholar, Frank R. Rix, served as Director of Music for the City of New York and authored “The Assembly Song Book,” “The High School Assembly Song Book,” “Voice Training for Children,” (1923) and “The Junior Assembly Song Book” including Maloof’s “For Thee, America” in “Patriotic Songs” section of the “The Junior Assembly Song Book”(1914) along with “My Maryland!”, “Dixie,” “Hail, Columbia,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Flag of Freedom” and other songs.
According to the 1917 Annual Report of the Public Schools Department of Newport, Rhode Island, “For Thee America” along with “The Star-Spangled Banner” held a prominent place in grammar school graduations for the city. Maloof himself included the sheet music to “America Ya Hilwa” in several of his published music books including Syrian Popular Song in 1924. The song was recorded on Maloof’s label in April 1923. Finally, on March 3, 1931, Congress passed a resolution, later signed by President Herbert Hoover, declaring “The Star-Spangled Banner” the U.S. national anthem. Few people, American or otherwise, know the story of how we decided on our national anthem, and even fewer are aware of Alexander Maloof’s efforts as far back as 1912 to contribute to our nation’s cultural traditions.
Maloof’s Recorded and live Performances and Record Label
Just a year after composing “For Thee, America,” Alexander Maloof recorded two sides for the Victor Taking Machine Company – “A Trip to Syria” (recorded 16 September 1913) and “Al-Ja-Za-Yer” (recorded 24 July 1914) as Victor #17443 and #65830 for two separate series. While “A Trip to Syria” is an original composition. “Al-Ja-Za-Yer” appears to have been an Ottoman march that references Algeria that spread across the Near East and had possibly been previously recorded in the United States. Sales for this disc were horrid as Maloof continued to work as a music teacher and by 1918 as Director of Music for Mason & Hamlin Piano Company at 313 Fifth Avenue.
The Maloofs, however, continued to reside in Brooklyn and although the recording of “A Trip to Syria” was not a hit, Maloof provided piano accompaniments and performances for a host of events and occasions. First, Adolph Bolm arranged to have Maloof perform live as a part of Bolm’s Ballet Intime on 9, 10, 11 of August 1917 at the Belasco Theater in Washington DC. Bolm had heard the side a few years earlier, choreographed a dance to it, and contacted Maloof to play live while the dancers performed. The ballet was a benefit for the American Ambulance in Russia. Maloof joined Rabbi Stephen Wise, Henry Morganthau, S. Parkes Cadman, and the Billy Sunday Choir, as music director of the Armenian and Syrian Relief Mass Meeting at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November of the same year.
One month later, as the year came to an end, the Calcutta-born, Anglo-Indian dancer Roshanara (Olive Katherine Craddock) employed Maloof to compose and play music for her performance “The Moon Flower” at the Wilbur Theater in Boston. Subsequently, silent film, turned stage actor, Alice Brady performed Maloof’s song “Moon Flower” during Act I of “Anna Ascends” at the Playhouse Theater in October 1920 (she later starred in the film adaptation of the same play in 1922). Maloof also played on the same bill as a number of other musicians from Spain, Russia and France as part of the YWCA’s International Christmas concert in December 1918.
For whatever reason, Alexander Maloof could neither reconcile his growing notoriety nor the demand for his compositions and music with the poor sales of his Victor recordings. Perhaps Maloof’s most ambitious project yet came in 1920 when he launched the Maloof Phonograph & Music Company. According to the Mainspring Press music blog, the Siemon Hard Rubber Company likely pressed early Maloof De Luxe Oriental Records recordings until 1922 when Maloof took his business to the Starr Piano Company’s Gennett Records. Maloof also changed business addresses from 76 Court Street in Brooklyn to 32 Rector Street in lower Manhattan. Both were in the heart of their respective boroughs as Little Syria neighborhoods. By 1930, the Maloof Phonograph & Music Company relocated once more to 92 Washington Street.
Music historian Anne K. Rasmussen contends that “Alexander Maloof recorded scores of traditional Syrian songs, his own compositions, and even Christian Hymns, either as a solo pianist, with a small traditional Arab ensemble,” and Middle Eastern orchestra. She goes on to argue that Maloof composed music that was “a conspicuous musical hybrid hardly representative of that which immigrants brought with them or that which was created here in the United States.” It was perhaps this hybridity that appealed to the Syrian Democratic Club of King County to ask Maloof to furnish music for their first annual dinner in 1923, and this same crossover appeal that led Republican Alf Landon’s campaign to seek out Maloof to compose his music to his 1936 presidential campaign song, “Let’s Land Landon in the White House.”
Those who recorded on the Maloof label included lesser known artists like Lateefy Abdou, and others like cellist and oudist Prince Mohammed Mohiuddin, Edward Abdo, Anthony Shaptini, Midhat Serbagi, Fadwa Fedora Kurban, and the multi-label singer and oudist, Louis Wardini. While many of these musicians were well known in Syrian-Lebanese communities across the United States, few people of Lebanese or Syrian descent today know their names. Taken as a whole they recorded on the Maloof label mostly from 1920 to 1927. Only Maloof or Fadwa Kurban recorded much of the material produced for funeral parlors and skating rinks in 1930 and 1931 as discussed in the Mainspring Press blog.
Interestingly, at the peak of his label’s tenure Maloof and his Oriental Orchestra recorded #5192 “Pharaoh” and “Egyptian Glide” on the Gennett label in October 1923 and “Call of the Sphinx,” “The Desert Wail,” “Egyptiana,” “On the Beautiful Nile,” and “Kurdistan” for Victor on Feb. 15, 1926. The dates of recording and sale of Maloof’s three or four records on the Music of the Orient label are difficult to determine. These are noted for their intricately detailed label design. However, sometime in the 1930s, he at least released one disc under the Orient label for Maloof Music Company of Englewood, New Jersey (visually similar to the Maloof Record label except the name and color) and Continental Records release a four-disc set “Music of the Orient” by the Maloof Oriental Orchestra in November 1944.
In addition to phonograph records, Maloof released a number of piano rolls which he noted in many of his advertisements. These included Oriental Special #4 “M’t Lebanon March,” “A Trip to Syria,” and “America Ya Hilwa” released my Maloof Studios and Maloof Phonograph & Music Company. His “Berceuse Orientale” piano role was released by Aeolian Company.
Ironically, Maloof’s most consistent work involved he and/or his orchestra playing on the radio, the industry that nearly destroyed the phonograph record business. As early as October 1925 and through 1926, listeners could tune in to hear Alexander Maloof’s Orchestra during WEAF New York’s “Oriental Hour” at 10 p.m. In 1927, the station moved Maloof to the 7:30 p.m. slot. Maloof or he and his group gave regular solo and group performances on WGBS in 1928 and in 1929 and 1930 audiences could catch Maloof on WOR where he directed the Bamberger Salon Orchestra. Maloof and Fadwa Kurban were also part of a one-hour block of Arabic music and dialogue from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on WBBR in 1929.
Alexander Maloof seemingly worked non-stop in the 1920s and early 1930s and it should come as no surprise that he collaborated with many of the musicians that recorded on his labels for live performances. For example, in 1923 Maloof and Midhat Serbagi gave a joint recital at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He and Fadwa Kurban teamed up to perform at the Academy of Music in May 1929 for a Syrian Orphanage benefit and the Poughkeepsie Lebanon American Club annual fundraiser in August 1929. He and Kurban performed again at two separate concerts on Dec. 7 for Bengali poet and musician Rabindranath Tagore and Dec. 14 for physicist Albert Einstein in 1930.
The Carnegie School and Music Books
According to a 1935 interview with Alexander Maloof, he planted the seeds for the Carnegie School of Music in Englewood, New Jersey, back in 1920 when he maintained a studio in Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. The studios atop Carnegie Hall were built in 1896 with the intention of providing working and/or living space for active artists. Maloof maintained a workspace there off and on from 1920 to 1938. In addition to all he had done, Maloof worked with arising musicians and provided guidance and support to some.
Sometime after 1930, Alexander and Minerva Maloof either divorced or Minerva died (the records are unclear). Minerva appears in the 1930 Census with Alexander, but on the June 19, 1935, Alexander Maloof married Edith Jane Johnston, an emigrant from Belfast, Ireland.
Alexander Maloof established the Carnegie School of Music in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1934 and in three years’ time the school boasted five faculty members who specialized in piano, voice, and violin. The school targeted primarily young adults and adolescents interested in performing for “public appearances.” In addition to Maloof, Nana Genoevesa (opera singer), Vera Wanamaker (Julliard pianist and organist), Georges Melville Vignetti (National Conservatory of Paris), and Randall Hargreaves (British baritone) made up the faculty. One of the most fascinating resources available to students was that the school was “equipped with a recording machine for the purposes of making a permanent phonograph record of the student playing or singing as they advance in their studies.”
The Carnegie School grew in faculty size and resources and eventually formed a partnership with the Bergen Junior College in Teaneck, New Jersey, in 1951. Alexander Maloof directed the Carnegie School of Music and led a special music department separate from the college’s music department at Bergen. Carnegie teachers and students could use all Bergen facilities. The school housed “six studios” and the college had an additional “seven studios.” Students had access to 15 pianos and a Hammond Organ. Faculty at the Carnegie School increased to 14 by 1950 and just over 150 students.
As he aged, Maloof performed less and less for the public, but he continued to play for small benefits, art events, and Carnegie concerts with his students. Most important to him, he continued the process of composing and publishing music. Maloof’s book publishing exploits began around the same time he started his phonograph record label. In 1924, he published Oriental Piano Music by Alexander Maloof: Syrian Popular Folk Songs with 35 originally composed songs. He had already published two other books on music one with 63 songs called “Music of the Orient for the Piano” and a much smaller book with 15 songs. In total, Maloof had five books of music in print by 1931 and by 1950 he published an additional seven volumes for a total of 12 including Songs from Norway, Chopin in Miniature, and Master Melodies in Miniature. Know Your Music a collection of 26 original compositions in over 160 pages was Maloof’s last published work.
Alexander Maloof worked as a composer and director of the Carnegie School of Music in Englewood, New Jersey, for 20 years having stepped down from his post in 1954. He died after a long illness at the age of 72 years old on Feb. 29, 1956. All five of his siblings (Julia, Mary Emma, Emil and Adele) and his second wife were still living. The obituary in the Bergen Evening Record reminded its readers that Maloof not only composed original compositions, he was a Syrian music preservationist because, like Jelly Roll Morton had done for jazz, Maloof “transcribed many Oriental folk songs and dances, which had never been set down as written music.”
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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