Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: George N. Gorayeb & Arabphon Records
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 N. Gorayeb.
Back in May 2016, long before the creation of Midwest Mahjar, a fellow 78 RPM record collector and I discussed the little we knew about Alamphon Records, Farad Alam’s record label that is as commonly found by 78 RPM collectors of Arab American music as the notorious “red-label Columbia” records are to any person whose searched through crates or boxes of 78 RPM records in general. I closed the conversation by writing to the other collector, “Let me know if you ever come across any information about Arabphon.” He assured me he would and that was the end of the conversation. We’ve never discussed Arabphon Records again.
Since striking 78 RPM Arabic record gold in November of 2015, I have acquired at least two dozen records on the Arabphon label. When I asked other 78 RPM collectors, most interested in Arab American labels assured me that Arabphon was not a highly sought after label. Its duplicate sides taken from other more well-known labels means that Arabphon Records were relegated to their “trade” or “sell cheaply” pile. In fact, the Sami Shawa disc that appears in this story was given to me “free of charge” by a seller from whom I purchased another, completely different 78 RPM record.
As it turns out, Arabphon’s label showcased a man wearing a Bedouin-influenced keffiyeh and thwab astride a horse (center label), leaving a Middle Eastern city, and riding in the direction a rising sun. The powerful rays of the sun radiate through much of the background. The words “Arabphon” are usually printed just beneath the ground on which the horse stands or in a semi-circle across the label’s center top. Most often the label was printed with red, white, and cyan ink with a yellow sun. Sometimes green replaced the red ink and red or yellow replaced cyan. Variations of the label included a brown horse and with a visibly brown-skinned rider with all other elements, the same except the sun is red. There was also a far less common grey on blue and black on red label with the same logos.
The first pieces to the Arabphon Records puzzle came together in December 2018, when William Albert Ansara posted photos of his grandparent’s “Arabphone, Inc.” catalog. Although spelled with the additional “e” at the end, there it was – a list of most of Arabphone’s inventory, the name of Arabphon’s president – George N. Gorayeb, and proof that he also ran a film distribution company – Sunset Film Corporation- from his offices in Brooklyn. At the time, a search for “George N. Gorayeb” produced a marriage and death date, but not much else to go on.
Then in March of 2019, three other occurrences in rapid succession gave us enough to put some pieces together: 1) Canary Records re-issue record producer, Ian Nagoski sent us an old tattered, but readable Sunset Films Corp screening program in trade; 2) we discovered the publication of Detroit’s Al-Daleel newspaper made available online by the Library of Congress, and 3) Newspapers.com digitized Brooklyn’s The Caravan newspaper published by and for Arab Americans from 1953 to 1961. With these and finally some help from George N. Gorayeb’s children, who sadly were only eight and three when their father died, this is what we’ve come to understand.
George Naim Gorayeb was born 25 December 1896 or 1897 to Zahra and Wadih Gorayeb in Damour, Greater Syria (now Lebanon) just fifteen miles south of Beirut. Damour’s economy in the nineteenth century remained heavily dependent on silk, but the collapse of the silk industry in the 1880s, according to author Sara Gualtieri, first as disease ravaged the silkworm population in Greater Syria and then by the availability of silk from East Asia, forced many who were wholly invested in silk production to abandon farming it. The industry’s transformation forced the Gorayeb children to leave in pursuit of other economic opportunities just after the turn of the century. Zahra and Wadih reportedly had eleven children, most of whom eventually left Damour. Some of Wadih’s brothers had previously moved to the United States and settled in New York City, in Lower Manhattan’s Little Syria neighborhood centered around Washington Street.
George, Fred, and Wadie immigrated to the United States, and Joseph, Affie, and Freida immigrated to Havana, Cuba. The year George immigrated to the United States remains unclear it was likely around 1903 with Fred or 1905 with Wadie; however, by 1915 George lived at 101 Hudson Street in Hoboken, New Jersey. George worked for the Broadway Trading Company located at 874 Broadway in New York City. On 5 June 1918, twenty-one-year-old George registered for military service at the Local Board No. 1 at Hoboken’s City Hall.
Although George had reportedly already filled-out and submitted his Declaration of Intent to become a naturalized citizen his paperwork had not yet been approved. Interestingly, George’s brother Wadie became a naturalized citizen on 21 June 1917, and Fred, who took up residence at 51 Washington Street in New York’s Little Syria, would become a US citizen on 30 September 1920. When Fred applied for his U.S. Passport in 1921, he noted that he’d pay a visit to Cuba where some of his siblings lived but he also needed to journey to Panama, Peru, and Ecuador as he was employed as a Commission Merchant by his uncle’s S.S. Gorayeb & Brothers imports and general merchandise business.
Sources vary on the exact year of establishment, but Said S. Gorayeb and his brothers, Assad S. Gorayed and George M.S. Gorayeb, founded S.S. Gorayeb & Brothers in 1908 or 1910 in Little Syria. Although their address changed over the years from 102 Washington Street to 90 to 51 Washington Street, they grew from importers of dry goods to importers of silk and groceries. Moreover, they exported “leathers, shoes, automobiles, dry goods” and general merchandise to and from the “Philippines, Ecuador, Venezuela, Columbia, Cuba, Canal Zone, Peru, British West Indies, [and] Mexico.”
Where Washington, Rector, and Greenwich streets marked the core of Manhattan’s Little Syria, in Havana, Cuba, the portions of Calle Monte that run thru Centro Habana and Habana Viejo served as the heart of the Syrian/Lebanese community there. For a time in the 1920s, the Gorayebs’ owned property at 70 Calle Monte. George and Fred worked as buying and selling agents for S.S. Gorayeb & Brothers and traveled regularly between Cuba and the United States, sometimes living in either place for five or six years at a time.
George returned to Brooklyn in 1930 and his business address and that of S.S. Gorayeb & Brothers were one and the same –59 Washington Street. City officials had big plans in the making for the area near The Battery. As talk of urban development began to move people from Manhattan’s to Brooklyn’s Syrian neighborhood, S.S. Gorayeb & Brothers relocated from Washington Street in Manhattan to 157 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. By 1933, George worked out of his own importer’s office a few doors down at 197 Atlantic and lived in an apartment in the same 537 Drew Avenue building as Said S., Assad S., George M. S. Gorayeb. Long-running businesses like Sahadi’s, in Manhattan’s Little Syria since 1898, eventually followed S.S. Gorayeb & Brothers to Brooklyn and Atlantic Avenue by 1948.
We can’t determine, and sources don’t reveal, whether George N. Gorayeb developed any friendship with Abraham J. Macksoud of A.J. Macksoud Phonograph Company or Alexander Maloof, owner of Maloof Phonograph Company. In 1930, Gorayeb’s business address at 59 Washington Street was literally across the street from Macksoud’s 88 Washington Street and Maloof’s 92 Washington Street addresses. Is it possible that Gorayeb even learned some insights and tips about the recording industry from these pioneers in Arab American recorded music? Did the Gorayeb’s help Maloof and Macksoud’s records reach Latin America?
Even while living in Brooklyn, Gorayeb never remained at one location for very long, but in 1943 in the midst of the shortage in Arab and Arab American record production, George N. Gorayeb purchased a fledgling film distribution company from James F. Doyle and started selling duplicates of imported Arabic records on his own Arabphon Record label. Two different stories offer insight into how Sunset Film Corp got its name. The first is that Sunset Films takes its name from its first location at 4717 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn, which was in the borough’s Sunset Park neighborhood.
Family oral history, however, has it that family surname Gorayeb or Goryeb derives from “Ghwrb alsham” or the Arabic word for Sunset. Gorayeb lived just a few blocks away from his business address at 4303 3rd Avenue. From 1943 to 1956, Gorayeb regularly booked and screened films at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, and Syrian and Lebanese churches, mosques, and social halls across the East and Midwest.
Ads in Arabic-language newspapers in Detroit, Brooklyn, and other cities publicized upcoming screenings. Detroit’s Al-Daleel consistently ran ads for Sunset Film Corp from July 1944 to February 1947. George Gorayeb also took out an occasional advertisement in Motion Picture Daily in the 1940s and the Arab American English-language The Caravan. Sunset Film Corp collaborated with the Brooklyn Academy of Music to bring Ma-Darach (No Can Do) to the viewing public on Thanksgiving Day 1946. The film starred singer and actor Farid el-Atrash, brother of the late singer Asmahan.
Records on Arabphon included the voices and music of Om Kulsoum, Wadih Bagdady, Sami al Shawa, Nadra, Yousef Taj, Sabah, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Leila Murad, Elia Baida, and others. It doesn’t appear the Arabphon signed and recorded Arab American artists, like its rival – Alamphon.
There’s no doubt George N. Gorayeb’s Arabphon competed with Farid Alam’s Alamphon Records for customers by 1944. Alamphon, unlike Arabphon, benefited from an established relationship with the U.S Department of the Treasury. By 1947, the competition got even more heated when Albert Rashid relocated his Al-Chark record label, film distribution, and record selling business from Detroit to Manhattan, then to Brooklyn. Gorayeb moved Arabphone Inc. one last time to 155 Court Street where “All the songs on all our Arabic Films” were available (ironically Rashid Sales Company ran a wholesale division at the same address in the 1980s).
In early 1948, George met 27-year old Mary M. Maroon from Paterson, New Jersey. Mary was the daughter of Shakreb Maroon and Jeanette Roumi Maroon. Shakreb immigrated from Aleppo in 1913. On 9 November 1948, George and Mary were issued a marriage license and they wed on 28 November 1948 at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church in Brooklyn. Father Stephan Mansour officiated the service.
Business continued on as usual for George and he and his new bride settled-in at 247 Rogers Avenue; within the year, however, Mary’s father died and George and Mary moved to Paterson to help Mary’s mom. For most of their time in Paterson, the Gorayeb’s lived at 207 Caldwell Avenue. In June 1950, Mary gave birth to the couple’s first child, George Jr. Six years later, in October 1956, a second child, Loretta, followed.
In the years between the births of his two children, George and his Arabphon company hosted some of their last film screenings at The Armour Theater at 100 Court Street in Brooklyn. The first reported film in the series was “Dananir,” starring Um Kulthoom, one of the most celebrated singers in Egypt’s history and the Arab world. Why Gorayeb seems to have changed his film distribution company’s name to the same as his record label eludes us. Perhaps a single name simplified bookkeeping.
Growing up, George Junior remembers 78 RPM records all around the house and well-known musicians and George’s friends dropped by to chat, drink coffee, reminisce, and listen to music. By the time the younger George developed the ability to have more concrete memories of his childhood, he recalled his grandmother worrying that the celluloid films the elder George kept in chicken coup might catch fire or serve as fuel for a potential fire.
As he aged, George Sr. got into problems with the law related to his driving. In March 1958, George was cited for “driving without a license plate on his car” and in October, he was fined for driving without his license. Late in life, George Sr. returned to the work he knew best, and that which helped his family survive its early years in the United States – selling dry goods and general merchandise.
Sadly, four days after the New Year, in January 1959, and 10 days after his birthday, George N. Gorayeb died of a heart attack in Saint Joseph’s Hospital. There was neither mention of his life spent between Cuba and the United States, nor his Sunset Film Corp. or the Arabphon label. Mary lived until 2016 and the Gorayeb children went to college, married, and raised their own families.
Every once in a while, a 78 RPM record collector comes across an estate sale, second-hand store, or charity shop selling Arabic or Arab American records, and undoubtedly among them is one of George Gorayeb’s Arabphon records. Now, record heads, or those just curious about Arabphon, can connect the story of George Naim Gorayeb to his once-popular record label.
Special thanks to Ian Nagoski, William Albert Ansara, George G., Kristin A., and Loretta A.
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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