Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Elie Younes
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, Elie Younes.
In the last four years, we have seen hundreds of Arab and Arab American 78s from throughout the diaspora. Because certain types of music, like the well-known and improvisational taqsim, traditionally don’t last for the typical 3 to 5 minutes consistent with 78 rpm technology, dozens, if not scores of artists, recorded single songs on double-sided discs. Some artists may have even gone as far as to record a single song on two double-sided discs. Nonetheless, before now, we had never come across an Arab or Arab American 78 rpm album set by a single popular artist (there are a few 78rpm album sets by priests and church choirs). This particular set contains five (it may have contained six given the number of sleeves in the album booklet) 78 rpm records recorded by Elie Younes.
Elie Younes or Elias Younes was one of six boys born to Khazen Younes and Salima Khatar Younes in Nabiyeh or Nabay, Greater Syria (today Lebanon) on 17 July 1924. He learned to play the oud by the time he was ten years old while listening to his father’s phonograph records and graduated from the Conservatoire International de Musique de Paris. By the time he was twenty, he toured much of the Middle East and North Africa. Like many Arab musicians in the World War II era, Younes’s largest following lived as a part of the Ottoman diaspora in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico.
In Argentina, the 377,00 Lebanese immigrants lived in cities like Buenos Aires, Chaco, Cordoba, Tucaman, Salta, and Los Rioja. Most people assimilated within a generation or two, but music remained one of the ways people retained facets of their expressive culture. Similarly, in Mexico, Lebanese immigrants who began to arrive in the late nineteenth century settled in places large and small, however, the total number of Lebanese/Syrian immigrants to Mexico was one-third smaller than in those who went to Argentina during the same stretch of time. Here they took up residence in Mexico City, Vera Cruz, Tampico, and other cities. Brazil became the greatest recipient of Syrian/Lebanese immigrants in South America. New arrivals founded communities in Sao Paulo, Rio, and Para. By the time, Younes arrived in 1947, most Syrian/Lebanese communities in these countries had at least two generations born outside Lebanon living there.
Elie Younes first traveled to Brazil in 1948 from Dakar, Senegal. Lebanese immigrants in Senegal totaled in the hundreds until the French Mandate when their numbers surged. Lebanese people in Senegal worked as street vendors, small business people, and in the peanut trade. Unlike in North and South America where they intermarried, Lebanese immigrants tended to marry only other Lebanese. Their numbers increased again after World War II’s end as Younes departed.
In Argentina, Younes recorded with a company contracted to record for the RCA Victor Argentina, S.A. studios in Buenos Aires. Labels included Spanish, Arabic, and transliterated Arabic. He recorded RCA Victor #P-1276-A “Weinu El Nabib Wenu” (Dónde esta mi Amor/Where is my love) & RCA-Victor #P-1276-B “Bagdadi Ahwak Ia Man Maha” (Yo te quiero/ I love you). RCA-Victor rival, Columbia Records, established Discos Columbia De Mexico in 1947. It pressed personalized Younes Records for Elie Younes which included TC-467-8 “Tanza Oriental” backed with TC-468-8 “Azibi Ma Checti Albi.” The violin on “Tanza Oriental”sounds remarkable and is likely the work of Naim Karacand (although we cannot say for certain).
Lebanese/Syrian musicians like Hanan, Jamili Matouk, Naim Karakand, and others traveled between South American, Mexico, and the United States rather freely and frequently. Although Younes’s immigration documents list 9 June 1954 as the date of his lawful admission to the United States “for permanent residency” he appeared in a WBRC Radio Birmingham International Christmas Concert representing Lebanon in December 1953. Younes also married his wife, Stella, on 15 March 1954 in Birmingham, Alabama. Just over a month later, the Southern Federation of Syrian-Lebanese Clubs hired him as the primary entertainment for their three-day open house and convention in Tampa, Florida. George Aide accompanied Younes for the performance. May 1-3 the Al-Kareem Club in Orlando, Florida, booked “Naim Karacand, violin, William F. Abihider, singer and oudist, Elie Younes, singer and oudist, and Jamili Matouk Deeb.” Sadly, during his return trip from Orlando to Birmingham in May 1954, Elie Younes flipped and wrecked his car. Fortunately, Younes was not injured and walked away virtually unscathed.
By October 1955, Elie Younes had visited twenty US states, South America, and parts of Europe, yet news articles often focused as much on Younes’s performance attire than the skill and dexterity he demonstrated while playing the oud. Even though Younes could hold his own with other oudists of Arab descent, he did not gain the same notoriety he had in Argentina or Brazil. At this point in his career, Younes claimed to have some 372 songs as in his repertoire. The same article noted that Younes was “dressed in a Middle Eastern costume with a sheik’s headdress…on an “ood” [sic] or lute, which he says originated in the time of David, the Biblical psalmist.” One can imagine Younes resembled the one known photo we have of fellow musician Louis Wardiny. This event in Saint Louis came to be one of Elie Younes’s last public performances.
Married, settled in Birmingham, Alabama, and a member of the historic Saint Elias Maronite Church, once pastored by one of the first Arab Americans to record for Columbia Gramophone Company, Rev. George Aziz, Younes retired from music and established Younes Construction Company. Birmingham’s Syiran/Lebanese population grew from a few families in the 1890s to a vibrant community that established its Phoenician Club in 1905 (later the Cedar Club), a Maronite Church by 1910, and a Melkite church by 1920. The city even had a small Syrian/Lebanese Muslim community, although not big enough to sustain a mosque at the time. Despite the courts declaring Syrians white in 1915 (for the final time), early immigrants faced restrictions on businesses they could patronize and suffered verbal harassment. According to historian Anthony Toth, in 1907, in a bill introduced to prohibit the entry of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Asian immigrants, U.S. Representative John L. Burnett of Alabama declared Syrians “the most undesirable of the undesirable people of Asia Minor.” Burnett led a full legislative attacked on Syrian and other immigrants pushing for the 1917 Immigration Act, and its infamous Asian Barred Zone provision, until his death in 1919. The subsequent, 1924 Johnson-Reed Act limited Syrian immigration to 100 per year. Congress did not overturn the notorious “whites only” naturalized citizenship requirement until 1952 and it took til 1965 for a massive overhaul of the immigration quota system.
In 1959, Younes officially gained naturalized United States citizenship. His notoriety and standing in the general business community and the Syrian/Lebanese community of Birmingham led to his selection as president of the Cedar Club, the local organization with ties to the larger Southern Association of Syrian and Lebanese Clubs.
After completing his term as Cedar Club president in 1963, Elie Younes disappeared from the press. His company and, more specifically, his company’s various bowling teams popped up in the amateur sports news from time to time. He and Stella had one son named Elias Jessy; Stella Younes passed in 1986.
Elie Younes remarried and lived out the rest of his days in Birmingham. He died 23 April 2017 in Birmingham, Alabama. Although Younes Construction is long gone. We are lucky enough to have several of Younes’s commercial singles and his uniquely self-produced album set on his own Younisphon label to appreciate his contribution to mahjari 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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