Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Fedora "Fadwa" Kurban
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 in this series. This week’s article features Arab American music legend, Fedora “Fadwa” Kurban.
Maloof Records has fascinated 78 rpm, record collectors, for decades. Ethnomusicologist Richard K. Spottswood painstakingly documented much of what had been recorded on Alexander Maloof’s label and we know that some of the last recordings on the Maloof Record De Luxe Orientale phonograph label are credited to Mme. Fadwa Kurban. Like other musicians who emigrated from or are descendants of those who left Greater Syria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we know very little about Fadwa Kurban, her connections to Alexander Maloof, or her music – until now.
Fedora “Fadwa” Kurban was one of seven children born to Navum Kurban and Saada Kurban on 11 May 1898 in the coastal city of Acre, Palestine (now Israel). She started singing when she turned five but her father, Navum, a professor at the Syrian Protest College (later the American University of Beirut) expressed skepticism about Fedora’s ability to make a career of singing. The family seems to have become Presbyterians through the work of American and Canadian missionaries in Palestine, and young Fedora sang as a soloist in the Presbyterian and English churches in Beirut. Her younger brother, David, first moved to Canada and worked as a coffee inspector, but by the time he turned 21, he became a representative of the French Consul in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Fedora followed David and relocated to Windsor, Canada, in 1913. While David still worked as a coffee inspector, Fedora met and married Joseph Hallett when she turned 20. The couple had one child, Eleanor, on 21 April 1921.
Fedora Kurban’s residence in Windsor placed her just across the river from Detroit, Michigan, a city that would come to have one of the largest concentrations of people of Arab descent in North America. This meant she’d have an Arab American fan-base as well as one rooted in the striving middle and upper-middle-class Anglo and Italian communities of the Motor City. Fedora made her radio debut on Detroit’s WWJ 317 accompanied by Herbert E. Blythe and the Detroit News Orchestra. Radio exposure led Kurban to musical teacher and talent scout Alfred Blackman, who less than a year after the WWJ performance, recruited Fedora Kurban to sing in a concert on 2 April 1925 that feature singers from the US, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Russia, Italy, Canada, and various Ottoman millets. Just over twenty days later, she performed with violinist Fred Vallance and pianist Ethel Scott Clark in a 23 April recital at the Detroit Board of Commerce. Around this time, Kurban started to work with Syrian American composer and record label owner Alexander Maloof. With that success, Alfred Blackman began to use her name in ads to recruit other classical singers, Fedora, on the other hand, was off to Europe, the Middle East, and Northeast Africa. Already, the press and critics started to compare her to the deceased Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind, and the Italian coloratura soprano, Amelita Galli-Curci.
During her time outside North America from 1925 and 1927, Fedora Kurban performed in Beirut, Syria (later Lebanon) and Alexandria, Egypt, and studied at the American University of Beirut, the American University in Cairo, and in Italy and France. Crowds awaited Kurban’s performances with great anticipation. She performed at the Khedivial Opera House with King Faud I in attendance. According to some accounts, King Faud presented Kurban with a beautiful silk dress, while the governor of Alexandria gave jewelry and a lace shawl. It was in Alexandria, however, that one critic suggested Kurban study with a more talented and expert teacher. She supposedly canceled the remainder of her tour and went to Paris to work with Maritza d’Hellsonn of the Opera Belgique or the Brussels Opera Company.
Upon her return to the United States, Sidney Deitch worked with Kurban to help her master Italian classical standards. She also worked with Edith de Lys to developed a more powerful stage presence. She floated from teacher to teacher Deitch, Emil Tiffero, and Albert Jeannotte. The Ladies Aid Society of Giles Boulevard Church sponsored a recital featuring Kurban and the Westminster Orchestra on 17 April 1929. She also serenaded the Windsor Kiwanis Club and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that spring.
In Brooklyn and Detroit, Fedora maintained a solid fan base. For years, the Arab-language press in the United States and some English-language papers such as the Detroit Free Press, Boston Globe, and Brooklyn Eagle lauded her achievements to date. The primary focus of many of these stories remained, if and when Fedora Kurban would audition for the Metropolitan Opera, but Kurban continued to perform in venues large and small. For example, she performed both at a Utica, New York, pageant “depicting the life and history of Syrian people” and as a soloist at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Utica, New York, along with Rev. K.A. Bishara of the Brooklyn Syrian Presbyterian Church. In May 1930, Dr. and Mrs. H.S. Rasi hosted a large Manhattan dinner party in Fedora’s honor. The offer to audition at the Met finally came in October 1930 with little fanfare and no major news coverage. Yet, Fedora Kurban’s career and notoriety blossomed especially when, along with Alexander Maloof, she attended and sang at the party for Rabindranath Tagore on 7 December and Albert Einstein on 14 December 1930.
The newly-organized Italian American group Virtus Musical Club put together a concert of arias from the leading Italian operas and invited Fedora Kurban to perform in August 1931. The Detroit Free Press, considered Kurban homegrown talent, and of course, showered her with praise. Three months later, she sang for a private party for Mr. Abraham Hitti, a prominent member of New York’s Little Syria. Among the guests were Naoum Mokarzel, editor of Al-Hoda, the longest continuously running Arab American newspaper at the time.
In spite of Fedora and Alexander Maloof’s first concert collaboration back in 1925, as Mme. Fadwa Korban she recorded seven songs on Maloof Phonograph Records in March 1932 including “Sooria Biladi,” “Al-Jazayer,” “Ya Hind,” “Arabic Lullaby,” “Last Rose of Summer,” “Walie Menal Gorami,” and “Marhaban,” all in two parts. She followed up by recording at least three other double-sided songs in June 1932. She was one of the last singers to record on Maloof’s label – these were for a series of funeral parlor songs that had low matrix numbers.
Fedora Kurban would gather again, with many of the same individuals when an Egyptian envoy of dignitaries including Sesostris Sidarous Pasha, the Egyptian minister to the United States, visited New York in January 1933. This time, Salloum Mokarzal, priests from the local Melkite and Orthodox churches, Muslims, all came together and Alexander Maloof, Helen Rozek, and Fedora Kurban provided the entertainment. Two years later, the Italian-American organizations of Morris County, New Jersey held a classical concert with four different opera singers including Fedora. Among the several songs she sang was one that she’d integrated into her regular performance repertoire – the “Mad Scene” from “Lucia di Lammermoor.” The fact that the United States was in the midst of recovering from the Great Depression didn’t put a damper on Kurban’s schedule. Fedora appeared on the program of the Elim Society at the Ashbury Park Convention Center in New Jersey in December 1935 with actor Richard Bennett and she opened Toronto’s Canadian Grand Opera Series in 1936. As the 1930s came to a close, Canada offers fewer opportunities for Fedora to sing at concerts near home and in a June 1937 interview she claimed Canadians were unappreciative of high-brow art. In the United States, the 300-member Michigan legislature honored Fedora on 15 June 1937 and Arab American groups like the Ladies Aid Society of Boston secured Fedora for their benefit concert to raise funds for the Tuberculosis Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, Syria (now Lebanon) in October 1937. The Women’s Civic Club of Brooklyn invited Kurban to a similar event in December 1939.
From roughly 1942 to 1945, Fedora Kurban toured South America. Concert took her to Santiago, Buenos Aires, and San Paulo. In Santiago and at the Teatro Municipal in Vina del Mar, Chilé, she performed to packed houses. In Argentina, she filled the Ateneo Theater. World War II prevented her from returning to Europe and Egypt, but she made a return trip to US in 1944 and Canada in 1945. In fact, when in the US in 1944, she sang a solo at the morning service of Saint Ann’s Church and broke new ground in Boston.
In the 1940s, fans witnessed Fedora Kurban at one of her career’s heights, yet reviews eventually sent her career plummeting. On Tuesday, 11 July 1944, Kurban made her first appearance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s “Pops”. Eugene Plotnikoff conducted the symphony for its “Oriental Night” fundraiser concert for the Syrian Relief Association of Boston. It was reportedly the first time in fifty-nine seasons the Pops hosted an “Oriental Night.” Fedora appeared in custom, self-designed costume and sang a number of Arabic songs accompanied by musicians on the oud, kanoon, and derbeke, including,’ “Be Happy My Heart” and “The Story of the Shepard” by Acabgi. She also performed the famous “Bell Song” from “Lakme” and the “Mad Scene” from “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
Fedora Kurban decided she’d move to the United States permanently to join her daughter, in July 1944, although the mention of Eleanor hardly, if ever, came up in the press. Eleanor lived in Brooklyn, New York, among thousands who shared her heritage and cultural practices. By the year, Fedora applied to come to become U.S. permanent resident, on a path to citizenship, cases that hinged on the question of whether the U.S. government considered Syrians (1915), Armenians (1909), Saudis (1944), or Afghanis as racially white had already been settled. It would take years for Kurban to have her citizenship granted, incidentally, this occurred one year before the U.S. removed its “whites only” requisite from the naturalization requirement.
The brutal, but mostly complimentary newspaper reviews, relayed an interestingly complex account of events. One Boston Globe reviewer wrote, “Miss Kurban has a strangely weighted coloratura voice which, though sometimes ill-placed, produced astonishing and admirable vocal colors because of its individual character. The folk songs, employing narrower intervals than are familiar to Occidental ears, produced some extraordinary effects.” Fedora Kurban impressed enough people that less than two years later, on 25 January 1946, she starred in the New Jersey Opera Associations production of Leo Delibes’ “Lakme” – a French opera set in British colonial India where Lakme (French for Laksmi), the daughter of a Brahmin priest, falls in love with a British soldier against her father’s wishes, but commits suicide after her lover has a change of heart. The Brooklyn Music Academy hosted the event directed by William Spada.
If the reviews of the Boston Pops concert contained measured praise, a writer for the Brooklyn Eagle savagely derided, “Fadwa Kurban sang the title role with considerable unevenness in quality and strength of tome and in fidelity to pitch so far as a hearing of Act I was concerned.” He continued, “She appeared self-conscious in her acting, giving little illusion of the role she was portraying. Hers was an earnest performance, at time creditable vocally.”
Fedora Kurban Hallett became a naturalized U.S. citizen 16 January 1951 in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. The year before Congress enacted the McCarran-Walter Act or the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act noted above. Press coverage of Kurban’s career was sparse in the early 1950s.
When the press finally caught up to Fedora Kurban in 1955, she had abandoned her career in the opera and only sang religious songs at churches. She remarked to the Miami News, “Singing for God is the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Despite past performances in New York, Paris, Cairo, Lebanon, Buenos Aires, and Santiago, she instantly declared, “I am content in the life I lead. I gave up the other because I wanted to serve God and because my father, a Presbyterian and former teacher at the American college in Beirut, Lebanon, who died at the age of 100, wanted me to. Then, too, I have had much sorrow and the spiritual life is the only one which brings me satisfaction.” She sang “The Lord’s Prayer” that year at the Little River Baptist Church in Miami.
Fedora moved from Detroit to Long Island, New York, and continued to travel around the world. In 1959, she visited Naples, Italy, for a few weeks. We don’t know what became of Joseph Hallett, but he seems to have remained in Canada and the two likely separated early in their marriage. Fedora’s daughter, Eleanor, sometimes travelled with her, but by 1951, Eleanor moved to Colorado Spring, Colorado to work at the Ent Air Force Base. Fedora eventually joined her daughter in Colorado, although it’s difficult to determine when exactly.
Fedora Kurban Hallett died in November 1986 at the age of eighty-five. She rests in an unmarked grave at the Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs. Eleanor married, had children, and retired in 1992. She relocated to Arizona where she died on 26 November 2013.
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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