Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Lila Stephan
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 Lila Stephan.
In 1952, the United States lifted its restriction on naturalized citizenship. Previous to this time, only those people classified as racially white had a path toward naturalized citizenship. Arab American music was four decades old and only a handful of the earliest Arab American musicians remained actively connected to the music industry. Historians of Arab immigration to the United States consider 1952 as a year within the second waves of Arab immigrants which spanned from 1944 to 1965. On 25 February 1952, three adolescents left Beirut en route to the United States. Although they arrived in New York, the oldest of the three, 15-year-old Suham, listed 1662 Washington Street in Boston as their future home. According to immigration documents, the youngest of the trio, Lila, was fourteen. There is no evidence that Lila expressed the slightest interest in singing or music, in just over two years, however, young Lila Stephan performed at the Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Mahrajan alongside the most recognizable names in Arab American music – Fadwa Abeid, Elia Baida, Emil Kasses, Philip Solomon, and Mike Hamway.
We don’t know for certain, but Lila Stephan may have participated in the singer talent competition of this Pawtucket Labor Day Mahrajan in 1952 or 1953. She cut her vocal chops at weddings, haflas, and other events around Boston and in Worcester and Shrewsbury. As her contemporaries, Nick Anthony, Paul Anka, and Richard “Dick Dale” Monsour, began recording English-language pop and rock music, Lila took her place among the older generation of Arab American musicians who performed in Arabic. Fluent in Arabic and English, she honed her performance skills in Boston’s music scene and caught the attention of Tony Abdelahad or Philp Solomon. Her name does not appear in the Arab American or mainstream press prior to 1954 and she seemingly came out of nowhere to establish herself as singer worthy of attention and recognition. The Caravan took notice of Stephan’s budding career noting that Lila was a “Rising Young Star,” although still 15 and in school. Despite rumors that she was from Beirut, she and her family came to the United States from Zahle. The few government records we could find suggest Lila was born to Saleem and Marie Obde Stephan in 1940, the fifth of what would be six children. Lila’s mother was born in 1909 in Brada, Nebraska to Syrian immigrants. Because Marie was a U.S. citizen by birth according to the natural-born portion of the 14th Amendment, all her children, even those born in Lebanon, were U.S. citizens. This is why Lila and her siblings had US passport numbers on their arrival documents in 1952. In Boston, Lila attended Roxbury Memorial High School and during the school year she performed on weekends. Her most busy time, of course, was summer which began with hafla and mahrajan over Memorial Day weekend. The season peaked during July 4th and slowed to a crawl after Labor Day weekend with occasional gigs Thanksgiving weekend and New Year’s Eve. The 10th Annual Convention of the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese met in Boston in 1955 setting her singing career on an upward trajectory.
Nineteen hundred fifty-six transformed Lila Stephan’s life forever as she hit the larger hafla circuit on the East Coast. The Emergency Flood Relief Gala Hafli on 8 March 1956 at the Knights of Columbus grand ballroom in Brooklyn introduced Lila Stephan to a much larger audience and marked her first appearance in New York City. Slated for this this mega-event was Elia Baida, Najeeba Morad Karam, Russell Bunai, Mohamed El Bakkar, Naim Karacand, Philip Solomon, Mike Hamway, Eddie Kochak, and Abe Messadi. The hafla raised $1500 for flood victims in Tripoli, Lebanon. Months later, Stephan played the Sixth Annual Hafli of Saint Mary’s Orthodox Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and the 24th Anniversary of Sabri Andrea and Joseph Beilouny’s Arabian Nights Radio Program on WWRL featuring Hanan, Kahraman, Djamal Aslan, Mohammed El Bakkar, Naif Agby, Naim Kararcand and Mike Hamway. The year closed with Lila’s first appearance at the John Raad Post #438 in Paterson, New Jersey, on 20 October, a hafla performance on 16 November at Saint Mary’s Church Hall, and finally, a 16 December concert with Hanan, Naim Karacand, Joe Budway, and the Hamways. Lila recorded two discs #812 and #815 on the Cleopatra Records label. “Teir Teir,” “Awha El Hawa” and #815 “Ya Habayab” and “Ya Farhehtek.”
Family commitments came first, even as demand for her performances increased and required more of her time. The marriage of Lila’s older sister, Suham Stephan, to John Maloof on 3 March 1957, caused Lila to take a break away from the performance schedule for much of that winter or spring. Summertime included the two-day Saint Nicholas Syrian Orthodox Church of Bridgeport, Connecticut hafla on 27 and 28 July accompanied by Tony Abdelahad, the 4 August engagement Saint Mary’s Orthodox Church in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a concert date in the Catskills in late August with Emil Kasses, Naim Karacand, and Mike Hamway and a 29 September 1957 performance at Saint Elias Roman Catholic Church in Cleveland. Throughout the summer of 1958, Lila made stops at many of the well-known Arab American-owned hotels and lounges including the Cedar Hotel in Asbury Park, New Jersey, with Jack Ghanaim and Philip Solomon and the Green Grove Manor in Long Branch, New Jersey with Kahraman.
It’s quite easy to forget that despite her remarkably busy performance schedule, Lila Stephan entered her senior year of high school at Roxbury Memorial High School for Girls during the Fall of 1958 and graduated in May 1959. Just over a month into the school year, Stephan sang at Worcester’s 2nd Annual Arabic Music Revue and shared billing with Wadih Safi, Kahraman, and Antoine Hage. About a month later, she serenaded the crowd at the Lebanon Syrian American Club in Willimantic, Connecticut. New Year’s Eve kept her at home in Boston for the hafla hosted by the Society of Kfardebian, and in February, 1959, Lila sang at events sponsored by Our Lady of Purgatory with Tony Abdelahad. Spring break provided the opportunity to agree a to gig in Miami, Florida over a ten-day period holiday and her senior year wrapped up with celebration at Saint George’s Orthodox Church in Boston. Graduation from high school meant the prospect of new possibilities and included more travel and writing the Boston column in the Caravan newspaper a few times.
The Stephan family made fast friends with the Shaghoury family and on occasion the families traveled together to New York and New Jersey. Charles Shaghoury and his daughter Nancy created and owned the Arabian Nights Radio Program. While it was typical for Lila to accompany her mother and brother to Brooklyn, especially to visit her sister Suham, as Lila got older, sometimes she took time for herself when she didn’t have singing engagements. Besides she now deadlines to meet as the Caravan’s Boston correspondent.
In 1960, Lila and her Arabian Knights released a self-titled “Lila – A Thousand and One Nights”on 33 1/3 RPM LP on the Orient International Label. Lila sang on all the songs and she was backed by a who’s who of Arab American musicians, most of whom she had performed with over the years including – Hakkie Obedia and Naim Karacand on violin, Jack Ghanaim and Joe Budway on Oud, Eddie Kochak and John Hidar on derbekee and Mohammed El-Akkad on kanun. What made this work partially a family affair was that Lila’s younger sister, Eleanor Stephan, accompanied the ensemble on zylia or xylophone. The album notes by Val Arms, were, as was growingly typical for the time, filled with Orientalist embellishments and exaggerations, but the music was authentic. The record label and the album cover did not contain any Arabic script, but the song titles appeared in English and transliterated Arabic. There were ten tracks in total including “Ahna Shift – Will My Dream Come True?” “Teer Teer – I Fly to My Love,” “A-la Selom – Song a the Beirut Streetcar.” Three of the songs had been previously released as single sides on Cleopatra at 78 rpm. Eleanor Stephan also co-produced the album.
With high school behind her, Lila’s career and popularity grew. For short time she taught ballroom dance at the International Dance Study in Boston. In 1960 and 1961, there were more gigs on the east coast and southern mahrajan and hafla circuits and bookings for regional SOYO and ALSAC (American Lebanese and Syrian Associated Charities) conventions including the Daytona Beach meeting March 6 – 8 in 1960. Stephan even made a brief television appearance on a station in Jacksonville during the same visit. In addition to subsequent engagements in Columbia, South Carolina, Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Glen Falls and Brooklyn, New York. By 1961, Lila relocated to New York City and appeared “nightly at the Arabian Nights nightclub with Mohammed El-Akkad and Djamal Aslan. She also continued to make time for charitable performances such as that held by the United Syrian and Lebanese Women’s Club of the Brooklyn YWCA.
The discontinuation of the Caravan marked the time when we begin to lose track of Stephan’s career and when she re-emerged she was married, with child, and raising her own family. On 6 May 1967, Lila married Wadi N. Suki in Marshfield, Massachusetts. Wadi was six years her senior, born in Khartoum, Sudan, raised in Texas, a divorcee, and a physician. By this time, Lila no longer performed publicly and settled into family life. After a few years of marriage, the couple had Lenora Marie in April 1969 and Wade Anthony George Suki in 1971. Lila remained actively busy, raised the children, and earned her realtors’ license. She and Wadi divorced in June 1985 leaving Lila the responsibility of raising the children.
Eventually, Eleanor Stephan married Wilhelm Krolls, had four children, and she, too, divorced in the 1980s. The sisters travelled back and forth between Massachusetts and Texas to visit relatives and they regularly spent Thanksgiving together.
In 1988, Lila made news when she rented Clear Lake Park for a seven-hour benefit concert to raise money for abused and battered women and children. “I really feel that children are helpless against physical and mental abuse…if there is violence in the house, the abused becomes the abuser. I think with proper public education, we can break the cycle.” The concert, “Rock & Jazz Festival ‘88” in addition to ticket sales benefiting domestic violence survivors, Lila donated beer and concession sales also.
Lila and her sister Eleanor live in Houston, Texas. According to Eleanor, Lila still has a beautiful singing voice although they stopped performing publicly by the 1970s. Eleanor, who still has a copy of the LP she co-produced for her sister, says she wished they’d had the chance to record more, but the opportunity never arose. She remembers the Shaghoury family who ran the Arabian Nights Radio Program from Boston and still closely followed the program enough to know the COVID-19 had taken it off the air. Eleanor also fondly remembers Emil Kasses and recalls that for a short time he tried to teach her how to play the oud.
Special thanks to Eleanor S-K.
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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