Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Emil Kasses
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, Emil Kasses.
Some of the best known, first-generation US-born, Arab American musicians of the 78 RPM era included the likes of Anton Abdelahad and Eddie Kochak. Both these musicians rose to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s – Abdelahad on his self-titled record label and Kochak on Nilephon Records- and both became extremely popular on the hafli and mahrajan circuits in the 1950s and 1960s. Emil Kasses (Kassis or Kassas) stands out as one of their less well-remembered, yet equally talented peers, whose career spanned from the 1940s well into the 1990s. Despite Emil’s popularity among Arab Americans of multiple generations, his 78 RPM disc are rare, although not considered valuable. That we can document, Kassas recorded two songs on four sides of his personal Emil Kasses record label #251 A-B “Mo’Attar Ya Joz Ittinein” and #252 A-B “In Albaraya” with Philip Solomon. He likely recorded as an unlisted band member on a host of other recordings as he performed regularly with Naim Karacand, Hanan, and Sami Sheheen.
Sarah and Peter or Bautros Kasses welcomed Emil J. Kasses into the world on 2 July 1928 in Norwalk, Connecticut. Emil was the third of at least four children. Peter immigrated from Mi’ilya, Palestine (now Israel) in 1910 and Sara arrived in 1911 from Tyre, Greater Syria (Lebanon). The couple married 10 October 1918 in Norwalk, Connecticut and within a year had their first child, Adelaide, in July 1919 and child #2, Edward, in April 1923. By the time of Emil’s birth, Congress had already passed the Johnson-Reed Act giving the United States immigration quotas that limited incoming souls from the mandate territories to less than 100 per year. Peter operated the family business a general merchandise and dry goods shop on Main Street in Norwalk since the late 1920s.
Neither Sara, nor Peter were musical, but Emil recalled that he picked on a few records from a traveling salesperson who came to the family home with a selection of music from the Near East. Mohammed Abdul Wahab became one of the greatest influences on young Emil Kasses who became a self-taught oudist by listening to records on an old windup gramophone. By thirteen, Kasses could play the oud and within three years he began to play professionally. Although not associated with the instrument during his career, Kasses played percussion in the high school band and orchestra.
When World War II broke out, Emil was still in high school and ineligible for the draft, however, he graduated from Norwalk High School in June 1946, and enlisted in the US Army on his eighteenth birthday in 1946, two months before the Japanese officially surrendered. In high school, Emil, or Cash as he was known by his classmates, played in the school band and orchestra his sophomore, junior, and senior years. His Norwalk High School yearbook describes him and offers the following of his time there: “Cash is the tall, handsome senior who is always brightening some dreary place with his smile. His friendly ways and pleasant mannerisms have made him popular with all. Almost all types of music rate high with this drummer-boy. Good luck in the future Cash.” Emil remained in the US Armed Forces for several years in Army Intelligence, worked at the Parkway Open Air Market or for when at home.
Emil’s growing success put him into direct contact with influential musicians and religious figures among Arab Americans including Metropolitan Antony Bashir. The Saint George Syrian Orthodox Youth Organization in Danbury, Connecticut sponsored some of his first professional performances. On 6 December 1953, he, Sami Sheheen, and Fred Kouri entertained audiences at the American Legion Hall. That one of Emil’s earliest music festival performances placed him alongside Anton Abdelahad, Mike Hamway, and Naim Karakand at the 5th Anniversary of the Syrian Society of Union City, New Jersey in October 1954 speaks volumes to his unmistakable talent. Metropolitan Antony Bashir and Lebanese Ambassador to the United States, Charles Malik, attended the 50th-anniversary banquet at Saint Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church 14 November 1954 where Kasses headlined in Johnston, Pennsylvania. The Saint George SOYO Gala Hafli 30 January 1955 in Danbury at the request of the Lebanon American Club quickly turned into more gigs where Emil could feature his vocal and oud playing abilities. A few months later, he teamed up with Hajji Baba to provide music for the Saint Maron’s Women’s Club hafla and dance in Torrington, Connecticut. When Saint Ann’s Catholic Church hosted its first-ever annual hafli 24 April 1955, Hanan, Naim Karacand, and Emil Kasses worked as the featured entertainment. Engagements early in Emil’s career centered around Arab American communities in Connecticut and New York, as word of his ability to liven up a hafla spread, however, groups in Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island helped him become a part of the east coast hafli and mahrajan circuit.
By August 1955, Lebanon League of Progress in Pawtucket, Rhode Island booked Emil for its the Silver Anniversary Mahrajan and Annual Lebanese National Festival. This was a three-day event over the course of Labor Day weekend that other Arab American musicians including Najeeba Morad Karam, Mohamed El Bakkar, Fadwa Obeid, Philip Solomon, Mike, and George Hamway and Armenian American musician John Nazarian played along with Emil. Some 6,000 people reportedly attended the three-day event, which the press proudly noted, had no incidence of unruly or disruptive behavior given the crowd’s size.
Most haflas and mahrajans, of course, took place in churches or were sponsored/hosted by churches in local community social halls, but on occasion Emil Kasses jammed in other venues. “A spontaneous last-minute party held at the Eastern Star Restaurant, 205 Atlantic Avenue,” on New Year’s Eve 1955 rocked well into the morning after Sami Sheheen and Emil Kasses “dropped in late” to keep the festivities going, it represented a taste of things to come in the New Year. March took Emil Kasses and Joe Budway well beyond the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut Tri-State Area. As the Syrian American Radio Program in Miami, Florida, held its Annual Radio Party and its three-hour “Dream Boat” moonlight cruise in March 1956, Eddie Kochak, Antoine Hage, John Fayad, and Al Fahmie kept partygoers wishing the night would go on forever. A few weeks later, Al Fahmie invited Fred Rahal, Joe Budway, and Kasses, to entertain guests at his “newly-purchased Venetian Causeway home” in Oakland, California. The next month Emil traveled back to Florida, followed by several gigs in Columbia, South Carolina and Wilson and Fayetteville, North Carolina. The Columbia, South Carolina hafli, sponsored by The American-Syrian Society raised money for the Lebanese Relief Fund.
As his career took off, things changed significantly in Emil’s personal life as well. Emil Kasses married twice; first to Veronica Kalashian with whom he had two children, David and Susan, in 1956 and 1959. Veronica was born and raised in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and relocated to Norwalk when she met Emil. He later met and married his current wife, Sonia, in 1969.
Many Arab American musicians whose careers blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s, slowed down in the 1970s, but Kasses continued to be a hafli and mahrajan crowd favorite. The Saint George Maronite Church in San Antonio, Texas, announced that “that nationally-known singer and artists of the oud,” Emil Kasis would perform with Fred Elias and Jimmy Simon for the Arabic music portion of its annual Lebanese Festival in July 1971. The church was in the process of raising funds for a new building as the congregation outgrew its, then, current facilities. Kasses and Simon collaborated again on 12 November 1972 for the annual Saint George Orthodox Church’s dinner in El Paso. In October 1975, Kasses played at Detroit’s Saint Ann’s Maronite Church Hafli alongside Semi Sheheen, Awni Rum, and Samir Moucarri. By this time, Kasses moved to the Washington, DC metropolitan area, where he regularly teamed up with Tunisian-born drummer Fathi Mohamed, organist Sami Ansari form Egypt, and Iraqi violinist Haki Obaida. On 13 May 1978, the quartet came together to perform at the 28th Annual Saint Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He returned to the same festival 19 May the following year.
Churches and social groups continued to hold hafla and mahrajans through the 1980s and Emil’s career extended into this era as the bookings to perform persisted. On 7 September 1980, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Hyatt Hotel, Emil reunited with a number of his generation’s musicians for fellow oudist Joe Budway’s testimonial. Those in attendance were large fans of the so-called “middle period” of Arab American music and Kasses backed Hannan for at least three songs. Furthermore, in March 1984, the Al Kareem Club of Saint Petersburg Beach, Florida, hosted an hors d’oeuvres-filled, evening “sahra” featuring Emil Kasses on oud and Nick Kareem on derbeke. By 1987, Kasses and his Ensemble performed at the Saint George Antiochian Orthodox Church’s new church building dedication 21 November in Akron, Ohio. The congregation had been in Akron since 1917, some eleven years before Kasses was even born.
When I asked him which memories, musicians, and singers his enjoyed playing with most, he maintained there were simply too many to choose just one, but Fadwa Obeid and Hanan all came to mind. Although Kasses always had full-time work, music took him to Mexico and Venezuela with Hanan, to Canada, and across the United States. San Antonio, Texas was always one of the more-lively places to play, although Kasses settled in Maryland and Florida. He finally put down his oud for public performances in 2000. Despite leaving the mahrajan circuit, ninety-one- year-old Emil Kasses continues to work full-time for New York Life Insurance.
Special Thanks to: Sonia K. and Emil K.
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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