Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Jalil Azzouz
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, Jalil Azzouz
The second wave of Arab immigration to the United States began after World War II, which officially ended in September 1945. The government continued to enforce quotas on immigrants to the US from Middle Eastern countries. Even immigrants to the US from Palestine, which came under British mandate rule, faced restrictions. No matter Great Britain’s ally status during the second World War, nor small changes in the ability of certain groups of immigrants newly permitted to become naturalized citizens, the second wave of Arab emigrants, especially those from Palestine and Jordan, became more visibly present in their sponsorship of events on the eastern, midwestern, and southern hafli and mahrajan circuits.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Palestinian youth grew increasing impatient with the British Mandate government’s persecution of Palestinian youth protesters and obstructions to Palestinian land ownership and self-rule. In response, some groups armed themselves, went underground and targeted Brits, Jews, and other Arabs. A number of events including the killing of two Jews in the Spring of 1936 by members of a group called the Brothers of al-Qassam, eventually lead to a general strike and subsequently the Great Palestinian-Arab Revolt. In Ramallah, around roughly the same time, the British Broadcasting Corporation created and launched the Palestinian Broadcasting Station. Accordingly, the BBC employees worked with staff in Ramallah and other cities to produce broadcasts in Arabic, English, and Hebrew. The station became known as the “Voice of Jerusalem.”
At some point in 1941, Jalil Ibrahim Azzouz (or Jaleel Azzouz) and singers Sana and Amer Kadaj went to work for the Near East Broadcasting Station or Radyu al-Sharq al-Adna. This station, too, received full funding from the British government and functioned as a pro-Brit tool to maintain the political and class-based status quo in Palestine. During broadcasted performances, Amer and Sana sang lead, as Amer also played riqq, and Jalil Azzouz backed them both on oud. Azzouz was a Ramallah native, born on 9 December 1919, just as Palestine emerged out of the shadows of the Ottoman Empire. We don’t much about his childhood, but by the time he reached 22 years old, he began working with Amer Kadaj and Sana at Radyu al-Sharq al-Adna, the British founded and run radio station in Palestine. Amer and Sana travelled to the United States by invitation to tour, but remained in and immigrated to the United States in 1947 as a result of the Arab-Israeli War. Jalil Azzouz did the same, but had an advantage in that his wife was a natural-born citizen of the United States. Because Ramallah fell under Jordanian rule from 1948 to 1967, Azzouz sometimes listed his birthplace as Palestine and other times as in his life he listed his birthplace as Jordan.
Jalil married Brooklyn-born Najla George around 1945 in Ramallah. Najla and their one-year-old daughter, Analya (born in February 1946), set sail from Haifa onboard the S. S. Marine Carp in 4 January 1947. Despite Analya’s birth outside the US, she was a United States citizen as the child of a U.S. citizen. Jalil arrived 8 May 1947 on the S.S. Marine Carp also. Najla’s parents, like Jalil, hailed from Ramallah. After being back in the States, Najla gave birth to Anwar in April 1949 and Laila in October 1952. Occupationally listed as a merchant on the ship’s manifest back in 1947, Jalil applied for and received U.S. citizenship in March 1951. The Azzouz family lived in New Jersey for short time before heading to Michigan.
Touring with Alamphon’s power couple, Sana and Amer Kadaj, and American-born Fadwa Abeid presented Azzouz with private engagement and hafla circuit opportunities as a solo musician, but primarily as accompaniment to the Kadajs and Abeid. For example, in August and September of 1954, Azzouz joined Fadwa Abeid in playing at the wedding receptions of Nagal and Toufik Absdul Dur in Dearborn and Dorothy Kilano and Samoil Tamar on Belle Island. Moreover, cultural groups like the Young Men’s Society in Windsor, Canada and the Hashmie Society in Dearborn, booked Fadwa Abeid accompanied by Azzouz to provided entertainment at the September and October banquets. Earlier in the year, back in April, Fadwa Abeid, Jalil Azzouz, Souran Bendrian, and Francis Saad played for the Syrian-American Muslim Society of Toledo when the organization laid the cornerstone for the first mosque built in Ohio. Azzouz closed the year Hamelat El Teeb club’s New Year’s Eve Party at the Saint Nicholas Hall along with Amer and Sana Kadaj in December, 1954.
Jalil recorded at least two songs on Albert Rashid’s Al- Chark records #590A “Oud Taksim” and #590 B “Oud Meditation.” We also know that he is the oudist on many of Sana and/or Amer Kadaj’s Alamphon recordings along with Naim Karacand and Mohamed al-Akkad including #2096 “Lamma Yaalbi” and #2073 A-B “Hawwil Ya Gahannam.”
Jalil Azzouz as “Jaleel Azzouz” on Al-Chark. Courtesy of Richard M. Breaux collection.https://soundcloud.com/user-387335530/jaleel-azzouz-al-chark-record-takseem-590a
After living in the Detroit metropolitan area for a few years, Jalil Azzouz made a name for himself and became one of Detroit and Dearborn’s most notable oudists. One of Azzouz’s most noted engagements came in April 1955 when he and his orchestra played at the banquet honoring Dr. Farid Zeineddine, Syria’s Ambassador to the United Sates. The Syrian Masonic Lodge No. 566 hosted the event which included lunch meetings with Detroit’s controversial and divisive Mayor Albert E. Cobo and Ford Motor Company’s Henry Ford II and William Clay Ford Sr. Some 700 people attended the evening banquet where Jalil Azzouz and his Orchestra performed. One month later, the singer Hanan made her first hafli appearance in Detroit at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, where Azzouz and his Orchestra provided the accompaniment. The orchestra supplied similar backup for Fadwa Abeid, who performed at the fundraiser and dinner for a high school in Bent Jbeil, Lebanon, and closed out the year with a hafli sponsored by the Pan-Arab American Club at Wayne State University which featured Fadwa Abeid, Naif Agby, dancer Marlene Saad, and Jalil Azzouz and his Orchestra. We can’t identify all the members but Azzouz’s orchestra included George Bashara, Francis Saad, Philip Saadi, Francis Kerdahy, and Clovis Berbari (son of George Berberi).
In addition to those events held in his resident state of Michigan, Arab American communities in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio kept Azzouz busily on the road. The Lebanese and Syrian American communities in New Castle, Pennsylvania had the opportunity to hear Jalil Azzouz twice in 1957 – once during the two-day mahrajan hosted by Saint Elias Syrian Orthodox Church on July 20 and 21 as a part of its recreation center ground-breaking ceremony and again in August for the church’s third annual mahrajan. Homestad-Braddock, Pennsylvania’s Syrian American Aid Society sponsored winter hafli in February of 1958 which brought together Fadwa Abeid, Jalil Azzouz, western Penn’s own Joe Budway and Edward Khourey. Back home, Detroit’s own Saint Mary’s Orthodox Church hosted a benefit that teamed Azzouz up with the great Wadih El Safi in September 1958. The United North Lebanon Society welcomed Kahraman, Naif Agby, and Azzouz and his Orchestra to its hafli in Cleveland, Ohio in 23 August 1959; the same summer saw Detroit play host to the founding convention of the American Ramallah Federation of Palestine.
On occasion, Arab American communities outside the midwest and national cultural organizations requested Azzouz’s presence. One of the largest events of the summer of 1958 for Azzouz was his gig at the seventh annual convention of the Federation of Islamic Associations in the United States & Canada July 18, 19, & 20.
While 1960 may have seemed to be a relatively slow year for Azzouz, he more than made up for this lag in 1961 when he performed on the southern and midwestern mahrajan circuit. The Midwest mahrajan circuit included cities like Toledo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, Omaha, Chicago, Milwaukee, Michigan City, and Grand Rapids, all usually beginning and ending in Detroit. Jalil Azzouz and Naif Agby headlined at the Midwest Mahrajan an annual benefit for ALSAC the took place in Sioux City, Iowa over Labor Day weekend in 1960. April and May 1961 took Azzouz to the Florida State Syrian Lebanese American Convention in Jacksonville along with Kaharaman and Mohammed El Akkad; he made a side trip to Plainfield to visit his in-laws, then it was back on the regular regional circuit also playing with Kahraman at the Church of Saint Elias hafli in Cleveland. The planning committee for the 3rd Annual Melkite Convention of North America arranged for Amer and Sana Kadaj, Jalil Azzouz, and Joe Budway to perform on the 24th to 26th of June in Birmingham, Alabama. Remarkably, Hanan appeared with Azzouz and his orchestra at the 14th Annual Syrian Orthodox Youth Organization conference convention in Indianapolis a day prior some 480 miles away. A two-day hafli in Toledo, Ohio, on July 3rd and 4th, again featured Hanan, Azzouz, and his orchestra; a month later Azzouz returned to south to Birmingham, Alabama, this time with Kahraman as entertainment for the American-Ramallah Federation’s third annual convention. Finally, Azzouz and Fadwa Abeid travelled to Chicago’s Conrad Hotel for a Thanksgiving weekend hafli which rounded out his year mostly between the south and Midwest United States.
Over the next two decades, Jalil Azzouz remained on the hafli and mahrajan circuit in the Midwest, South, and sometimes the east coast. He primarily continued to accompany his old friends Amer Kadaj and Jack Ghanaim mostly for parties, celebrations, and other events. We get a sense from some sources that he made occasional nightclub appearances as Amer Kadaj’s career also moved into Arab American and Middle-Eastern-themed nightclubs. On many an occasion, the sponsoring organization’s members had connections to Palestine and specifically preferred Palestinian-influenced Arabic music. Of course, Jalil Azzouz, Jack Ghanaim, and Amer Kadaj, knew this music best. It should come as no surprise, then, that in November 1964, Amer Kadaj, Jack Ghanaim and Jalil Azzouz played for the Ramallah Men’s Club in South Plainfield, New Jersey.
By 1980, Detroit was home to over 100,00 people of Arab descent including Lebanese, Palestinian, Yemeni, Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Iraqi, and Kuwati Americans and immigrants. Sadly, by the 1980s, Jack Ghanaim had passed on and Amer Kadaj had been killed in his Detroit store. Azzouz, now in his sixties, found musical comrades among local Arab American musicians such as Abdullah Abbas, Abdul Karim Badr, and John Sarweh. Arab Americans in metropolitan Detroit, now hosted a regular three-day Arab World Festival complete with folk dancers, sword dances, music, arts, crafts, and food representing the various countries of the mashriq, the maghreb, and the mahjar. For Azzouz, playing sets at summer picnics sponsored by Arab American churches, mosques, and other cultural groups continued into the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The early 1990s found Jalil and Najla in West Palm Beach and Jacksonville, Florida. The Azzouz children were all grown and some had grown children of their own. Back in Detroit and Dearborn, Azzouz’s peers such as Abdul Badr and John Sarweh became known as musical “old timers” who preserved the cultural traditions of an earlier generation and passed their knowledge on to future generations. The 2000s saw the passing of many Arab American musicians old enough to have recorded in the 78-RPM era. As of the writing of this blog post, Fadwa Abeid, Emil Kasses, and Lilah Stephan are still with us. However, Najla George Azzouz’s passing in 2003 was followed by Jalil’s death five years later. Although the couple spent their latter years in Florida, both are buried in Beverly Hills, Michigan. Jalil Azzouz’s music and musical spirit? It lives on.
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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