Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Elia Baida
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, Elia Baida.
Only a handful of musicians maintained relevance in Lebanon, Egypt, and the United States from the 1930s until the 1960s, and Elia Baida is one of those musicians. More than forty years after his death, Baida is remembered as one of the most significant and prolific performers of his generation.
Born in Beirut, Greater Syria (today Lebanon) Elia Baida was born to Gibran and Tamam Baida on Aug. 6, 1907. Elia Baida started his musical career in Lebanon. Ethnomusicologist Ali J. Racy, notes that Elia Baida was an “immediate relative,” but not one of the five founding cousins, of Baida Records. Elia, of course, recorded for Baida Records (later Baidaphon) and Cairophon records in the 1930s and 1940s. Sometimes he recorded solo as Professor Elie Baida or Elie Baida and others he recorded with Laure Dackache.
He also appeared on Alamphon Records and Arabphon, an Arab American label that dubbed and distributed Arabic film soundtracks owned and operated by George N. Gorayeb. When Baida arrived in 11 November 1946 by way of Cairo, Egypt, he told United States immigration officials that he was only here visiting for ninety days. Baida was well known by Syrian-Lebanese Americans who had heard him on Baidaphon records.
His earliest documented performance in the United State was at a hafla, which reportedly drew hundreds of people into an extremely tightly packed space. Members of the Glen Falls Syrian Ladies Club arranged one of his first US performances at the Blue Sky Restaurant in October 1947.
Word spread fast in Arab American communities and on the Arab American music circuit that Elia Baida was in the United States and available for engagements. By July 1948, an estimated 1500 people were expected to attend what was billed as the first annual National Mahrajan at John Yaman Park in Cortland, New York. The Cedar, a Greater Binghampton metropolitan area group, sponsored the event. In the end, approximately 1000 people attended the two-day affair.
Following this event, Baida went on a three-month nationwide tour that ended where his first major US gig began – the Blue Sky restaurant. Among those in attendance was the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Toledo Samuel David. Although Baida planned a return to Beirut, he married Mary Saleem, Oct. 27, 1948 and remained in the United States. A little over a month later, Baida traveled to Brooklyn and performed as a special guest at the christening of a friend’s daughter at Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church.
Just less than a year after he and Mary tied the knot, Mary gave birth to a daughter, Tamam Baida at Memorial Hospital in Meyers, New York, near Ithaca on Sept. 28 1949. She was named for Elia’s mother. Elia wasted little time after his daughter’s birth before booking another gig. This time, Saint George’s Orthodox Church of Meyers hosted a concert at the 86 Club in Geneva and booked Baida as its main attraction.
At first, shows paid fairly well, but they were not very steady or consistent. Baida continued to work as a merchant, and a few years later, on July 24, 1953, Mary gave birth to a son, Gibran or Gabriel.
Things really took off for Elia Baida after Gibran’s birth. On November 15, 1953, he appeared with Anton Abdelahad, Mike Hamway, Naim Karacand, Joe Budway, Philip Solomon, and Eddie Kochack at the Saint George’s Hotel in a concert sponsored by the St. Nicholas Young Men’s Club. A newspaper reported that 2,000 people attended the event. The real surprise was the presence of Sami al Shawa at the event, who although not on the bill, musicians compelled to join them on the stage and made time for him to perform a few solos.
The excitement of the event had not settled, when Elia took off to Akron to headline at a hafla at the Hamilat et Teeb Society. At the height of his career, few singers/oud players could sell out a venue. Baida sold out the Virgin Mary Church Hall for a hafli in Brooklyn in 16 January 1954 and the event had to be moved to a bigger venue. Naim Karacand, Abraham Messadim, Louis Kawam, and John Hida also played the event. According to one report, “Elai Baida captivated his audience with his incomparable vocalizing and skill on the oud.”
Between 1954 and 1971, Baida’s career soared. He played small haflas, like those sponsored by the Lebanon American Club of Danbury, Connecticut, in February 1954, and larger mahrajans in Montreal, all over New York, several towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, South Carolina, and in New Jersey. Sometimes he shared billing with Mike Hamway and Anton Abdelahad. Then, of course, there was the mega-Hafli where he appeared at along with Naim Karacand, Philip Solomon, Mike Hamway, Naif Agby, and Leon Abood in April 1954.
Thanks to exposure in the Arab American press and his growing popularity as a live performer, he along with Mohammed Abdel Waheb, Om Kulthoom, Farid al Atrash, and Mohammed El Bakkar became one of the biggest selling musicians on Alamphon records.
Elia Baida’s schedule filled quickly and he remained on the road constantly. In May 1954, one Arab American newspaper declared, “Elia Baida Has Busy Schedule” with dates in Boston, Massachusetts, Brooklyn, New York, Patterson, New Jersey, and a host of other east coast cities with Syrian Lebanese communities. Lilian Mazloom and Elia Baida played the same venue in July 1954. Dare we say, he was one of the busiest and hardest working people in show business.
The places Baida played over the years ranged from social halls in small communities to the Cedar Hotel in Asbury Park, New Jersey, dubbed, “America’s Finest Syrian Lebanese Hotel and Resort.” Here he played alongside and on the same program with Eddie Kochak, Victor Nader, David Saidy, and Louis Hekim.
Music festivals and concerts regularly increased in spring, peaked summer and fall, then decreased to a trickle in winter. Even with a routine schedule, there might be one or two new venues. Other times, familiar clubs like the Green Manor, that was home to Eddie Kochak’s Arabian Night, might find Baida’s name on the marquee with Naim Karacand and Mike Hamway. Baida wrapped up this particular summer at the three-day Labor Day weekend concert in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Baida continued to maintain a jam-packed schedule in 1956. In May 1956, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States taking his oath in Ithaca, New York. He booked performances solidly the next few years, but took a break in September 1956 to return to Beirut for a visit and to record with Baidaphon. When he returned to the US, he picked up right where he had left off. Certain cities became a part of the annual circuit and new names like Ray and Sammy Sheheen joined Baida when he played in and around Binghampton, Ithaca, and Lansing.
Into the 1960s, Baida remained quite prolific and released “Elia Baida Sings Again” in 1966 on a 33 1/3 RPM album. Some of the material was new and other songs are newer recordings of his older material. This album would be one of his last projects.
We can track Baida’s career into the early 1970s, but he disappears from public view by 1971. What was happening in Baida’s life is a bit of a mystery. Did his physical or mental health force him into retirement? Was he injured in some way that went unreported in the press? We don’t know. Sometime in 1974 or 1975, Baida sat for an interview with a budding ethnomusicologist, Ali Jihad Racy for an article entitled, “Record Industry and Egyptian Traditional Music: 1904-1933.”
What we know is that early Saturday morning on Aug. 13 1977, one day shy of a week after his 70th birthday, Elia Baida took his own life. The ambulance arrived, attempted to stabilize Baida enough to transport him to Tompkins County Hospital, but at 8:50am, Elie Baida died en route to the hospital. Later that year, “From Lebanon With Love,” Elia Baida’s last album was released posthumously.
Elia Baida rests in the annex of the Pine Grove Cemetery in Lansing, New York. Whoever ordered his headstone took two years off his life as it reads “1909-1977.”
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.
Check out Arab America’s blog here!