Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Prince Mohiuddin
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 on this series. This week’s article features Arab American music legend, Prince Mohiuddin.
Alexander Maloof and his record label represented the pinnacle of what Arab American music came to be in the 1920s. Louis Wardiny, Salim Doumani, and Fadwa Kurban emerged as the most recognizable and popularly heard musicians of Arab descent, especially in New York and Boston where they performed on radio and attracted a listener base well beyond what they recorded on Macksoud and/or Maloof Records.
Maloof Records, followed by Columbia, managed to record a young Arab Turkish cellist and oud player who went by the stage name Prince Mohiuddin. Although Mohiuddin became well-known in the 1920s and 1930s US, his notoriety in the Middle East, and especially Turkey and Iraq, by the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s far exceeded anything he could have ever imagined for himself.
Prince Mohamed Mohiuddin or Serif Mohiuddin Haydar or Serif Mohiuddin Targan was born either Jan. 21, 1892, or Jan. 8, 1892, depending on whether one relies on his Declaration of Intention he filed with the United States immigration services or most biographies published in the Turkish language. Mohiuddin’s mother was Sabiha Hanim, the first wife of Serif Ali Haydar Pasha. Serif Ali Haydar Pasha held the position of Emir and Grand Serif of Mecca during the early years of World War I. The family claimed direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad.
Most published sources claim that Mohiuddin learned to play the oud in Istanbul by age six and performed in his first professional concert by 1905. The family’s wealth, resources, and connections to Sultan Mehmed V meant that Mohiuddin received private tutoring for much of his childhood and young adult life. Mohiuddin earned law and literature degrees from what became Istanbul University in 1908.
Mohiuddin’s father, after being denied several opportunities to be Emir of Mecca, finally received his appointment and moved his family, including Mohiuddin, to Mecca in 1916. Political turmoil and strife barred the family from Mecca and they found their way to Damascus and then back to Istanbul.
Prince Mohiuddin decided he wanted to come to the United States to pursue a career in art and music, but US immigration restrictions in 1917, 1921, and 1924 changed that. First, the Immigration Act of 1917 barred people from the so-called Asian Barred Zones. In addition to barring those disparagingly labeled “idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics, poor, criminals, beggars” it also blocked “any person suffering attacks of insanity, those with tuberculosis, and those who have any form of dangerous contagious disease, aliens who have a physical disability that will restrict them from earning a living in the United States…, polygamists and anarchists, those who were against the organized government or those who advocated the unlawful destruction of property and those who advocated the unlawful assault of killing of any officer.”
The Asian Barred Zones meant mostly East Asia, specifically, “Any country not owned by the U.S. adjacent to the continent of Asia” the exception was, of course, Filipinos. The 1921 Emergency Quota Act limited immigration to 3% of the number of any group present in the United States by 1910. It was aimed at mostly Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution. Finally, the 1924 Immigration Act, or Johnson-Reed Act, limited immigration from Greater Syria to about 100 persons per year. Prince Mohiuddin’s status likely got him one of these coveted spots.
Mohiuddin caught the attention of the press soon after his arrival in New York City. The New York Times featured him in a half-page story in 1924. The story included a rare photograph of Mohiuddin. According to the article, “Prince Mohiuddin has made several improvements in the ud and has worked out a new method for the use and position of the right and left hands of the performer.
With these innovations entirely new and limitless possibilities have been created for its musical effectiveness. For the first time the instrument can now be used for solo pieces, a radical departure from the old Oriental practices. The Prince is now completing a synthesis of this method whereby the musical range of the ud can be three octaves instead of the one and a half on the old instrument.”
While one biographer notes that Mohiuddin didn’t earn money for his work, most biographies ignore or miss Mohiuddin’s time recording in the U.S. for Maloof and Columbia records. Mohiuddin first recorded for Alexander Maloof records on 5 January 1925. He cut six sides on three records for Maloof; one song, “Sami Pt I & Part 2” was a single song on a two-sided record – typical for Arabic and Turkish music for the time. Within a month Mohiuddin returned to the studio, recorded two more sides on Maloof, then an additional seven songs in the next two months to end his time with Maloof.
To the 21st century ear, one can hear that musicians like the late Dick Dale (Richard Monsoor) may have heard Mohiuddin and developed his surf guitar style from him (given we know Dale credited his uncle’s playing and records with his own interest).
During his time not practicing or working in the studio, Mohiuddin mixed in wealthy social circles and became friends with Kermit Roosevelt, son of former US President Theodore Roosevelt.
The growing popularity of radio meant air time and wider listenership for some musicians, at the peak of his time in the US, Mohiuddin definitely occupied a place on that list. A few months after recording with Maloof, Mohiuddin teamed up with Ben Barzelay and Erno Balogh to form the Barzeley Trio and performed live from Hunter College on WJZ. A different trio which included Sandu Albu and Karel Leitner formed the Mohiuddin Trio and held a recital.
In February 1927, Prince Mohiuddin appeared in the same WJZ program at 12:15 pm prime listening spot with Charles Dickenson and Maria Bogucha. Mohiuddin played “Nocturne,” “Gavotte,” and “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” by Dvorak, but not his own compositions.
Radio and live performances kicked Mohiuddin’s career into high gear when first he played WRNY Edison Hour as a part of “The Music Map of the World” in February 1928. The following month New York Edison Hour included Mohiuddin as a “Guest Artist” along with others as a part of the same series focusing on the Near East. This time Mohiuddin played some of his own compositions “Raga,” “Gerahfeeza Samaeri,” and “Rhapsodie Orientale.” Finally, in December 1928, he played a solo show at Brooklyn’s famed Town Hall.
Mohiuddin played on a number of occasions in 1930, but two of the most important included the Eid al-Adha holiday event and a reception hosted by the Egyptian Counsel. Eid al-Adha or Bayram is a celebration where Muslims honor the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son in obedience to God, but God provides a lamb as a substitute so Ibrahim spares his son. Eid al-Adha is on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, but that date changes on the Gregorian calendar used in the United States. Some 700 U.S. Muslims attended the observance at the Royal Palace Hotel in Brooklyn.
The United Muslim Council of Greater New York sponsored the event. Attendees were Muslims of Turkish, Arab, Indian, Albanian, Filipino, Malaysian, and Polish-Lithuanian Tartar ancestry. The second major event of the year fell in October when the Egyptian Counsel held a reception at the Hotel Ambassador to celebrate the anniversary of Egyptian King Fuad I’s accession to the throne. Representatives from twenty-five countries attended and Margaret Romaine and Rafaelo Diaz from the Metropolitan Opera Company and cellist Prince Mohiuddin entertained guests.
One of the last events in the United States Mohiuddin performed at before leaving the United States for Turkey was a memorial service for the recently deceased Arab poet, philosopher, and artist Kahlil Gibran held 29 April 1931 at Roerich Hall. The event attended by Syrian World magazine editor, Salloum Mokarzel, Claude Bragdon, and a host of poets, artists, and musicians. Those who actually performed in addition to Mohiuddin included Hubert Linscott and Anis Fuleihan.
Not long after the death of Arab poet Kahlil Gibran, Mohiuddin left New York and the United States in 1932 return to Turkey. His first job after returning to Turkey was for the Istanbul City Orchestra. After a few years in Instanbul, the Iraqi government hired him to lead and become dean of the Bagdad Conservatory of Music from 1936 to 1937. He remained in Baghdad until 1946, with failing health he returned to Istanbul. Although he took a position at the Istanbul Conservatory, by 1951 the same chronic health condition forced him to retire. In the meantime, Mohiuddin married one of Turkey’s most famous singers. Safiye Ayla.
Later in life, he continued to entertain guests, but not at the pace he had in his youth. He wrote two books for oud players including “Ud Metodu” and painted continuing his lifelong interests in the visual and performing arts. Mohiuddin died 13 September 1967 in Istanbul. The Malaysian Conservatory hosts an annual Serif Mohiuddin Targan Oud Festival in his honor.
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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