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Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: George Berbari

posted on: Nov 18, 2020

George F. Berbari, photograph courtesy of David Bailey (George’s grandson)
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, George Berbari. 

Just ten miles north of Beirut, in the coastal city of Sahel Alma, near Jounieh, Fayad and Margo Berbari witnessed the birth of one of at least four of their children, George F. Berbari, in 1892 (although his WWI Draft card reads 1896). Silk production and juice production fueled the city’s economy in the late nineteenth century and it was one of the earliest cities in Greater Syria to commercially produce ice. Fayad Berbari was a silk merchant. Competition in the global silk markets drove down the value of Ottoman-produced silk and this combined with population growth and changes in conscription and tax policies served as a catalyst to Greater Syrian emigration.

George was a Maronite cantor for a bishop in Lebanon in his youth. By 1910, George and his cousin Manuel followed George’s brother Nicholas to the United States. George was one of 9,200 Arab immigrants who came to the US that year. Nick immigrated to the US in 1905; his sister remained in Lebanon, and another brother, Yunes, immigrated to Argentina. Nick settled in Zanesville, Ohio, where he manufactured ice cream cones and George first peddled then opened a confectionery store. George’s primary source of income, however, came from working as a barber.

Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: George Berbari
George’s World War I Draft Card, courtesy of Ancestry.com

George relocated to Massillon, Ohio, in 1926 and he moved to Buffalo, New York, where he met Theodora Ghosn while they both sang in the church choir. George and Theodora married within the year and their family grew quickly.  Over the next three years, George and Theodora had their first two children, Mary and Clovis. George continued to work as a barber, but in 1929, the family picked up and moved to Detroit, Michigan.

Today, the Detroit metropolitan area is home to one of the largest concentrations of Arab Americas in the United States. The area includes people who trace their ancestry to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Greece. These communities began to take shape in the 1910s, although some 9,000 Lebanese arrived in Detroit (between 1929 and 1939) at the same time the Berbari family settled there. While in Detroit, Theodora gave birth to a third child, Bernice, and the family resided at 3411 Hendricks Street. After two years in Detroit, George and Theodora loaded the kids and their belongings up and moved back to New York, but this time to Utica. In Utica, Theodora gave birth to Lourice and Sally. The family regularly attended Utica’s Saint George’s Syrian Catholic Church. The rental property at 901 South proved affordable, if small for the growing family. The circumstances which prompted a move back to Detroit seem untraceable, but by 1937 George and Theodora were there to stay. The last child, Wanda, came along in 1937 and the Berbari finally put down roots in Detroit at 3720 Henricks Street.

How and where George picked up the ability to play the oud remains unclear, but he was talented enough to develop a following. Theodora played the piano Between 1941 and 1946, George recorded at least four songs for Farid Alam al-Din’s Alamphon label out of Brooklyn, New York. Alamphon released A2006 Mishtak Irgah (Your finger is thin, your lips are soft), A2007 Mein Allak (Who Told You?), A2008 Albi Ferfakti (I Will Bless Your Heart, With Your Hand), and A2009 Shou Halaib.

Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: George Berbari
George was one of a few artists with a personalized Alamphon record sleeve.  From the collection of Richard M. Breaux. https://soundcloud.com/profbro/george-berbari-a2006-1-2-mishtak-irgah
In the annals of Alamphon’s history, George became one of a few musicians to have the company produce a solo artist’s specialty sleeve (with the rare Buy War Bonds Eagle on the reverse). Known primarily for reproducing and repressing songs originally released on other labels, Alamphon developed its own reserve of Arab American artists who sang and played original compositions. Like Amer and Sana Kaddaj, after recording with Alamphon, George Berbari largely performed with his band in Detroit and toured on the haflah and mahrajan circuit in Chicago, Michigan City, Toledo, Columbus, and other Midwestern cities throughout the 1950s.
Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: George Berbari
Alamphon Records ad, Al-Daleel newspaper, Detroit, 19 April 1944. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98066259/1944-04-19/ed-1/seq-4/>
George Berbari stopped performing in the early 1960s and died on 11 September 1966, yet his legacy lived on into the twenty-first century. His son, Clovis, became a well-known oudist and his daughter, Lourice George Bailey, became a classically trained opera singer, who retired but sang in the Ionia Michigan Community Choir into the early 2000s.
Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: George Berbari
Photo of George F. Berbari with family at Belle Isle (George holding his oud), courtesy of David Bailey (George’s grandson)
Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: George Berbari
Ad for George 19 January 1949, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98066259/1949-01-19/ed-1/seq-3/>

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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