Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: George Aziz
For years, music historians and ethnomusicologists have claimed that pianist, composer, and later record company founder, Alexander Maloof held significance in part because his Victor #17443 A & B, A Trip to Syria and Al-Ja-Za-Yer, represented the first record marketed to an Arabic-speaking audience. This claim took hold because Maloof recorded on Victor before any other known Arab American or Arabic-speaking musician in the United States. Careful examination of the physical 78 rpm disc, however, demonstrably proves this assertion to be inaccurate. All known copies of Victor #17443A & #17443B, are completely in English. There is neither a combination of Arabic and English nor only Arabic on the well-known and sometimes photographed label. We know that when Victor wished to sell songs to an Arab American fan base, it had the ability and capacity to print a combination of Arabic script, transliterated title, and artist’s name. This was not the case.
Maloof’s first Victor disc reportedly sold poorly, but this was likely not a result of an uninterested, apathetic, or cash-strapped audience or clientele. Executives missed the target when they marketed Alexander Maloof to only an English-speaking/reading audience. Sure, some English-speaking Syrian/Lebanese Americans likely purchased some copies of this record, but most, if not all Maloof’s recordings for Victor were printed in English.
The honor of the first Arab American to record on 78 rpm for an Arabic-speaking audience goes to Naheem, Nahum, Nahim, or Naim Simon, the popular Lebanese Jewish singer who recorded on Victor and Columbia. The ubiquity and commonality of Naim Simon makes this performer difficult to track with any degree of certainty or accuracy but it’s believed that the success of his career allowed him to do what others dreamed, and that is to earn enough money to return home and live comfortably. One of the earliest Arab American singers to record for Arab-language customers was Reverend George Aziz, who recorded on Columbia Records 39380/39381 as a part of Columbia’s E series (or Ethnic Series) on 14 May 1914. Until Simon and Aziz came along, Arab-language 78 rpm records were performed by well-known classical Arab musicians Yusuf el Manyalawi, Saleem Higazi, Cemil Bey, or Abdel el Hilmy in Beirut, Istanbul/Constantinople, or Cairo. Aziz recorded at Columbia’s New York studios at 233 Broadway in the Woolworth Building. Until now, little has been written about Rev. George Aziz. From where did he come? Where did he live in the United States? Why is there such little documentation of his death? How is his story different or similar to his fellow Lebanese and Syrian Americans?
Rev. George Aziz was born to Merhi Aziz on 27 September 1872 at Mount Lebanon. After studying for the ministry, he taught University-level music courses, was consecrated, and became a Maronite priest. He immigrated to the United States, where he arrived in September 1902 from Beirut via La Havre for the expressed purpose of ministering to the growing Syrian and Lebanese immigrant populations that settled in Buffalo, New York, along Seneca Street. By 1903, some fifty Syrian and Lebanese families or 200 people resided in the city.
Concerned about his inability to appropriately serve this particular growing demographic, in the late 1890s, Rev. Michael P. Connery arranged, first for a priest from another parish, Rev. Antoun A. Zoghby, to hear confessionals and officiate baptisms, weddings, and funerals at Saint Columba Church. Connery and Mr. K. Ghanim shepherded the campaign to help residents convert a three-story-brick building at 454 Seneca Street, between Louisiana and Spring streets, into St. John Maronite Church. The first floor served as the sanctuary, the second as a school and meeting hall, and the third floor as the residence for Father Aziz. On 23 March 1904, Bishop Charles H. Colton laid the cornerstone, assisted by Rev. Aziz and Rev. Zoghby. Workers hoped to have the remodeling of the sanctuary completed by 10 April 1904 when the church scheduled its first mass the Sunday following Easter; however, the dedication and first services took place 26 June 1904. Catholic clergy came from Niagara Falls, and as far away as Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Syrian community especially thanked Father Connery for his role in bringing the church to fruition and Connery, in turn, remarked, “the occasion seemed happier because of the fact that this church is the result of efforts on the part of people who, we may say, were the first Christians and who now speak the tongue supposed to have been used by our dear Lord himself.”
Before the workers even had time to complete the remodel job, Rev. George Aziz’s reputation as an enthusiastic, golden-voiced priest from the homeland had circulated around the community and throughout upstate New York. Parishioners also knew him to translate Greek and Italian music into Arabic. Several newspaper accounts note that the service did not deviate from traditional Catholic services, but the music had a distinct “Oriental style” and flair.
Regular services administered and led by Rev. Aziz, midnights masses from 11:30 pm to 1:00 am on Christmas and Easter and a host of social events held at Saint John appeared in the press regularly. The church also created an annual bazaar where members of the church and larger community purchased baked goods, food, and other items. With the addition of Saint John and the tireless work by Aziz, the community experienced a surge that doubled its Syrian population to 400.
In February 1906, Fr. Aziz caused a wondrous stir in the community when he supposedly healed the sick and dying infant of one of his parishioners. The infant daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Michel Wehbey fell “suddenly and violently ill” and had stopped breathing for fifteen minutes. Aziz, with a recently received relic, said to have been from Pope Pius X and believed to contain bone fragment from Saint John Maron in tow, prayed over the baby, “dipped the relic in the water”, and placed it on the infant who was then revived “as though she had never been ill.” Interestingly, this was not the only time the newspaper reported on Aziz’s healing ability. A month before, Aziz used the same relic and methods to cure Miss Cathryn Crawley of a tumor.
Reverend Father George Aziz served Saint John Maron Church from 1904 to 1908 when he returned to Lebanon for several years in March 1908, the duties and responsibilities that needed his attention remains unclear, but his absence overlaps with the Young Turk revolution that attempted to put an end to the Ottoman Empire’s absolute monarchy under Sultan Abdul Hamid II and democratize the government under a multi-party constitutional system. As the movement splintered into various competing factions, the so-called “Three Paschas” took control of the Ottoman Empire. Aziz left Lebanon, pastored in Massachusetts for a short time, and in 1913 settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Here, once again, Aziz worked with the local Syrian American community to move Saint Ann Maronite Church into its new home at 204 Sumner Avenue in West Scranton. Among the hundreds in attendance at the new building dedication on 24 August 1913 were Naoum Mokarzel, editor of Al-Hoda newspaper, and Philip Naufal from the Syrian American newspaper in Boston. Saint Ann’s sanctuary could seat an estimated 500.
In the spring of the following year, Aziz recorded two Christmas songs for Columbia Records E-series. While Columbia and Victor had previously recorded professional Arab singers in the Middle East Columbia had yet to record an Arab immigrant to the United States. Victor had only in 1913, recorded Alexander Maloof, but these were 1) only piano solos with no vocals, and 2) Victor only printed Maloof’s labels in English. Aziz with violin accompaniment recorded Columbia E Series 1867, # 39380/#39381 – Sabeho Elrab b/w Samawty Yabatoulatt on 15 May 1914. A number of news accounts described Reverend Aziz’s effort to organize choirs at the church and his extraordinary singing voice. On more than one occasion, betrothed couples or their families requested that Aziz sing and play the organ or piano at a wedding, the most publicized of these being Margaret Kalish’s marriage to Solomon Karam in back in Buffalo, New York in January 1918. Other priests often invited Aziz to direct their church’s choirs for funerals and weddings.
Nineteen fourteen was a busy year in Aziz’s life for other reasons as well, yet his primary job remained the creation of healthy and enjoyable religious and cultural spaces for the Syrian/Lebanese community of Scranton. Fourteen days after Rev. Aziz recorded for Columbia Records, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Ironically, the courts had not settled the issue of how the federal government would racially classify Syrians/Lebanese yet. Rev. Aziz opened the doors of his church to other pastors, but actively labored to make Saint Anne’s a comfortable social space for his church’s members and others Syrian in West Scranton. Aziz instituted regular Euchre tournaments and visitors also played tawleh or backgammon. During the winter months, Saint Ann also held what the newspapers described as “old-time dance and entertainments” and also an annual bazaar or “Oriental Fair.”
Some of Aziz’s personal and professional connections serve as a reminder that the Syrian/Lebanese mahjar stretched beyond the borders of the United States. Rev. Sekrolla Morad, a Maronite priest from Mexico visited Saint Ann in October, 1913. Rev. Morad was a friend of Aziz from Syria. Syrian/Lebanese immigration to Mexico stretched back to 1892, around the same time Lebanese immigrants began coming to the United States in any significant number. By 1930, approximately 100,000 Lebanese/Syrian immigrants had come to Mexico. The majority, like those who came to the United States, identified as Maronite, Melkite, or Orthodox Christians. In 1919, Aziz visited Sekrolla in Mexico City and conducted other business including the collection of personal debt.
Reverend Aziz also visited Maronite churches in other states and traveled south for much-needed breaks. According to the work of Professor Philip Hitti, some 37 Maronite churches operated in the United States in 1924. Of course, cities familiar to students of Syrian/Lebanese American history scholars, maintained congregations including Brooklyn and Manhattan, Michigan City, Detroit, Atlanta, several cities in Massachusetts, and a number of cities in Ohio and Pennsylvania. In fact, Fr. Francis Wakim of Saint Joseph’s Maronite Church at 57 Washington Street, in New York City’s Little Syria, vouched for Rev. Aziz on a 1919 Passport application (The cornerstone for Saint Joseph was uncovered in the rubble of the World Trade Center in 2002 and now sits in Brooklyn’s Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral). In the summer of 1914, Aziz went on a much-deserved holiday in Texas, Missouri, and Louisiana. At the time, there were no Maronite congregations any of these states although they all had Syrian/Lebanese populations.
Officiating weddings, funerals, and serving as a representative of the church at local, regional, and state events occupied much of Reverend Aziz’s time whether it was his early years in Buffalo, his time in West Scranton, a brief stint in Cleveland, or the last twelve years of his life mostly in Birmingham, Alabama. At one funeral in 1917, a robbery of the churches “poor box” exacerbated an already sorrowful event. Other funerals filled Aziz’s schedule as immigrant generation Syrian/Lebanese in the communities Aziz served aged and passed on. Equally somber, but less sorrowful were meeting of the Maronite and Catholic clergy or those such local dignitaries. In 1930, Aziz, along with dozens of other clergy and state politicians, attended the installation of St. Bernard’s College’s new President Bernard Menges. Not only did Aziz serve his own parishioners, but he also married Syrian Maronite couples from as far away as Nashville, Tennessee. For instance, the Boakye and Rasha marriage was the talk of the town in Fall 1931. The Michael Mansour-Mayme Bohorfoush wedding stood out as one of the largest in the city in 1932. Finally, when prominent businessman, wholesaler, and long-time Birmingham resident from Zahleh, Salime G. Tobia died in 1933, Aziz officiated the service. Priests celebrated with families during their joyous highs and grieved with families during their mournful lows.
Birmingham, Alabama’s Saint Elias church retained Reverend George Aziz twice from 1920 to 1923 and again from 1929 to 1934. According to Saint Elias Church history, during his first tenure, Father Aziz “rewrote the music and Arabic phonetically so the choir and parishioners could fully participate in the Liturgy.” Increasingly, second-generation US-born Arab Americans may have spoken and understood spoken Arabic, but were less likely to read Arabic script. These generational changes and assimilation, especially in smaller communities that did not take in newer waves of Arab immigrants, no longer read handwritten or printed Arabic. By providing transliterated Arabic, younger people could hold onto traditions that many smaller communities of Syrian and Lebanese Americans eventually lost.
In between his time in Birmingham, Aziz completed a brief stint in Cleveland, Ohio, at Saint Maron’s where he directed the choir and Fr. Louis Zouain served as the pastor. Aziz recorded Maloof # 6891 Lebanon in Gennett’s New York recording studio. While in New York, Aziz visited with long-time friend and fellow priest, Rt. Rev. Msg. Francis Wakim at Saint Joseph’s Maronite Church on 57 Washington Street in the heart of New York City’s Little Syria.
In 1935, Reverend George Aziz returned to Lebanon for what, it turns out, would be his last time. Exactly why he left Saint Elias in Birmingham, Alabama remains unclear. Despite all the time he spent in the United States and his US citizenship, Rev. George Aziz died in Mount Lebanon, Syria, on 23 March 1936. The only documentation related to his death we could locate was an alone announcement in the Scranton Republican newspaper.
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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