Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Constantine Souss
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, Constantine Souss.
Constantine Elias Souss (also Souse, Sooss) was born 16 June 1887 or 1891 in Jerusalem, Palestine. He first traveled via Haifa to the United States in 1903 and sought residency in 1910. Whether he had any formal music training remains unclear. He lived in Charleston, West Virginia, Detroit, Michigan, Brooklyn, New York, Fall River, Massachusetts, and later in Los Angeles, California. Nearly every city he lived in was or became home to fairly sizable Greater Syrian populations.
Remarkably, West Virginia had 3,200 residents of Syrian descent and 300 of these resided in Charleston. Documents don’t reveal whether Constantine moved directly to Charleston or if he lived somewhere else in the United States before he settled here. Souss appears in the 1913 Charleston Directory living at 204 Truslow. Just that January, his Jerusalem-born wife named Betty gave birth to their son, Louis, in Charleston.
The automobile industry grew exponentially during the early 1910s, attracting southern workers and newly arrived immigrants to Michigan and Ohio. Constantine moved to Detroit in the 1910s and for a time worked in an automobile plant. While living in Detroit he was arrested on charges of public drunkenness, though this seemed to be his only time in trouble with the law. Immigrants and refugees from the Ottoman Empire flocked to New York, Massachusetts, and Michigan. Souss followed their lead and never lived in the southern United States again.
The circumstances that led Souss to record with Victor or Columbia remain unclear. Souss recorded his first songs on 2 June 1917 with the Victor Talking Machine Company. In total, he cut about fourteen different songs for Victor between June 1917 and October 1917 and nine songs for Columbia Records in 1919 and 1920. During the 8 October 1917 Victor recording sessions, Naim Karacand on violin, Abraham Halaby on oud, Shehadi Ashkar on qanun, backed Souss. He also performed two songs for the Maloof record label 4 April 1923. His career in the 1910s paralleled that of Louis Wardiny, although Wardiny recorded more for Maloof.
In January 1919, when the Aleppo Relief Committee of Brooklyn’s Masonic Temple hosted a dance and music fundraiser, Naim Karacand supplied the music, and Constantine Souss sang among a host of other speakers, dramatic presentations, and performances. One of the organizers of this event, Joseph Beilouny, went on to host the Arabian Nights Radio Program from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Souss moved to Los Angeles and officially became a naturalized citizen in 1953. At least three songs in two parts, “Aseedah Parts 1 & 2,” “Moowal Bagdadi 1 & 2,” and “Tatuah Parts 1 & 2” seemed to have been recorded on a personal label pressed by Hollywood Music City Records. He disappears from the public record for eight years, with no trace in the mainstream or Arab American press in Los Angeles such as The Star-News and Pictorial or the Lebanese American Journal. According to Social Security documents, Souss died 3 September 1961 in Los Angeles.
Louis Souss, Constantine’s only son, served in World War II in the United States Army Sir Corps from April 1943 to February 1946. Although Constantine listed Louis as his son on his naturalization documents, Louis did not list Constantine as his next of kin on his World War II draft card. We do not know whether the two were estranged from each other, but Constantine seemed to always know his son’s whereabouts. Louis married worked as a millwright and had two sons, one of whom preceded him in death. Louis died in Wayne, New Jersey in March 1998.
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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