Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Semi Sheheen
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, Semi Sheheen.
Semi Sheheen, Samuel A. Sheheen, Sam Shaheen, or Sammy Shaheen (1918-2000) represent the various spellings of Arab American violinist and musician Semi Sheheen’s name.
Anthony Sheheen immigrated to the United States around 1914 and Anthony’s wife, Rose Joseph Sheheen, came to the United States the year after. In the year of Rose’s arrival US Courts, once and for all, deemed Syrians (which all emigrants from Greater Syria were called) racially white, clearing the path for them to be eligible for naturalized citizenship.
Semi was the second of nine children; he was born on 12 April 1918. Semi enrolled in school and attended Utica Free Academy, but never graduated and instead went to work in the family store by the age of 21. Anthony worked as a knitter in a cotton mill, a clerk, and then managed the family grocery store. Semi developed an interest in music in school and took up the violin, but had to forego his pursuit of music until he was about thirty.
Semi or Sammy began his musical career as a member of vocalist and oudist Emile Kassis’s trio in 1953 along with derbeke player Fred Corey. A number of haflis in 1953 and 1954 booked the Kassis Trio for gigs on 15 May in Washington, DC and 6 June 1954 at the Young Women’s Syrian Society in Danbury, Connecticut. In between these two events, Sammy, Mohammed El Bakkar, Elias Mardany, and Anthony Barmo received top billing at the 17h Annual Benefit for Saint Elias Society on 24 April 1954. Sammy’s greatest opportunity, like that of Little Sami Jourdak, came on 31 December 1954 at the All-Star New Year’s Eve Party at Brooklyn’s Saint George’s Hotel Grand Ballroom along with Leon Abood, Mike Hamway, Naim Karacand, Philip Solomon, Moses Kalooky, and Ray Beilouny.
Despite this big break, Sheheen continued to play a host of haflis and mahrajans with some of his former trio musicians, Barimo, Mardany, and added Joe Budway, for the 29 June 1955 Arabic outing at Saint George Orthodox Church of Utica. All these men played alongside Arab film and club songstress Hanan. Singer Anton Abdelahad and Mike Hemway asked Sammy Sheheen to join them for a performance at Club 26 for a New Year’s Eve Party in December 1955. By the next year in October, Sammy, Nasser Kaddo on oud, and Tony Narimo backed Odette Kaddo and Mohammed El Bakkar at the Lebanon Women’s Aid Society of Syracuse event to benefit orphanages in Lebanon. Near the end of 1956, Sammy Sheheen had accompanied nearly every major living Arab American musician on the east coast.
For much of 1956, Sheheen played with the new line up of Tony Abdelahad, Joe Budway, and George Hamway. The quartette played the hafli at Cedar Hotel in Asbury Park in June, the Green Grove Manor in July, but Sheheen did not return to the Cedars Hotel for an encore performance in August because Tony Adbelahad replaced him with Arab violin virtuoso Naim Karacand. He did, however, play at the United Becherre Society of America’s first annual Outing in June, teaming up once again with Hanaan and Emile Kassis. Lila Stephan, George Hamway, and Sam Sheheen sold-out the Labor Day Weekend Gala Hafli at the Cedar Hotel on 1 September 1956.
One of the biggest events of 1957 was the Silver Jubilee Convention of the Syrian and Lebanese American Federation of the Eastern States from 26 to 29 of September 1957 at the Sheraton Plaza Hotel, Copley Square in Boston. It was a who’s who of Arab American musicians that provided the entertainment. The Saint Moura’s Ladies Society hafli secured Najeeba Murad Karam, Sam Sheheen, and George Hajjar for the celebration immediately on the heels of the Eastern State’s convention. It was nearly sold out!
Sam Sheheen earned his bread and butter not just at haflis, but as a full-time member of the WBAI – Brooklyn broadcast orchestra. His career peaked here with a host of radio and television appearances and recordings on the Al-Chark record labels. Along with his Utica Orchestra, Sheheen’s best-selling singles were his Al-Chark #230 “Dabka” and #231 “Daka Wa Noss Dance,” Orient Records #233 “Dabka Dance” and #235 “Dance Sherazad.” Sam Sheheen is in top form on Al-Chark #231 (click link below).
Danny Thomas, Eddie Kochak, Djamal Aslan, Kahraman, and Hana Rashad all hired Sheheen as a violin accompanist, yet he continued to play gigs in Buffalo, Brooklyn, and Patterson, New Jersey with lesser-known musicians and groups. Sheheen resettled in the area of his birth near Utica and South Glenn Falls, New York area around 1964 and joined the Utica Symphony Orchestra.
Toward the end of his music career, Sam Sheheen regularly played at the annual St. George Orthodox Church Hafli in South Glenn Falls, New York. With beginnings in 1955, the Saint George Ladies Society worked to secure the best the group’s money could afford in Arab American entertainment. Sam Sheheen performed at the inaugural hafli, but other more lucrative obligations forced him to miss the event for some time. For its tenth year, in 1965, the organizing committee once again secured Sam Sheheen and his brother Ray. The Sheheens helped the women of Saint George attract the better- known musicians they had always hoped for. In June 1970, Sheheen backed Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak at the 17th annual celebration. Former Alamphon star Elie Baida returned to headline at the 1971 and 1972 events in what was one of his last public performances. Ray and Sam Sheheen accompanied Baida on the derbake and violin respectively. Each year a different female dancer also performed at the festivities. At the 25th Annual Hafli held at St. George Orthodox Church Hall on 31 May 1980 a group called the Tony Shaheen Ensemble of Utica provided the “Arabic entertainment.” The lineup showcased Tony Sheheen on violin, Sam Sheheen on qanun and violin, John Mossound on the oud and vocals, and Ray Sheheen on the derbake.
Approaching 70 years of age, things slowed down for Sam Sheheen in the late 1980s. Sheheen retired but made the occasional local appearance on stage when his generation of musicians got together; he died on 22 January 2000. Sam’s brother, Ray Sheheen, who often played accompanying derbake drum, died 30 January 2009.
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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