Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Zekia Agob
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, Zekia Agob.
One of the 78 rpm discs we acquired with our first batch of Arabic records back in November 2015, was Columbia E3601 “When Love Suppressed Me” or “Lamean Kanmut Elhood Part I and 2.” About two or three years later, we found and purchased Parts 3 & 4. Dick Spottswood’s encyclopedic discography Ethnic Music on Record lists her as only “Z. Agob,” although the Arabic script translates to “Zakia Agob” or “Zekia Agob.”
Zekia Agob is not only one of the most elusive singers we’ve attempted to write about; she is also one of the more historically important, as one of the first Arab American women to record at 78 rpm in the United States for any US label. Of course, recorded women singers and musicians in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria have a long and well-documented history. The Foundation for Arab Music Archiving & Research (AMAR), in fact, has produced and released a 77-page accompanying booklet about Almehs, women musicians, and singers mostly of the Nadha movement period. Early women singers for the Mashriq included the foremothers of recorded Arabic music including Bahia al-Mahallawieh, Badriya Saadeh, Waduah al-Minyalawi, and Hasiba Mosheh.
The number of seemingly contradictory and conflicting documents leaves us with very little clarity as to Agob’s identity, yet here’s what we have come to understand…Zekia Agob was one of five children born to Rose Agob and A. Samuel Kawam in Damas, Syria in 1886 (some sources say 1888). On one of few concrete pieces of evidence that refers to her as Zekia Agob, she immigrated to the United States on board the S.S. La Touraine on 16 December 1906 through New York City. She claimed to have been coming to live with her brother Wadie Agobe at 75 Washington Street in the heart of Manhattan’s Little Syria. Both Wadie and Zakia used different names at different points in time, although he clearly seems to have gone by the name Wadie Kawam. Zekia, however, went by Zekia Agob, Zekia Kawam, Sophie Kawam, and later Elizabeth Sheha or Sophia Sheha. We note the similar etymology and phonetics of Zaki/Zekia and Sophie/Sophia. Not only might these names sound similarly, they might look similarly when written in cursive.
For a time, Zekia worked as a dressmaker or tailor and Wadie labored as a grocer. Rose, Wadie, and Zekia lived together at 172 West Street in 1910. In the same year, Zekia and Joseph Sheha applied for their marriage license on 31 January 1910 and married one day later 1 February 1910. Zekia’s brother, Wadie, and a sister, Mrs. Mary Ann Feije, stood in as witnesses. In 1913, Zekia gave birth to her first child – Elise. In 1916, Zekia had Mary. These were followed by Nellie in 1918, Rose in 1920, Anthony in 1921, Nimer in 1923, and George in 1927. Zekia named one daughter, Mary after her own sister, and another daughter Rose, born in 1920, for her mother Rose Agob, who died in 1919. Joseph worked as a silk weaver.
One year after Zekia gave birth to Mary, she recorded a demonstration test recording 12 April 1917 at Columbia’s New York Studios in the Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway. While some may find it shocking that Zekia Agob recorded as a married, fairly young mother, author and ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson reminds us that this was common place among several early Arab American women singers, and on occasion the daughters of these singers also pursued musical careers after marriage and giving birth to children. Zekia returned to the studio in August and November and recorded five songs total. When a song was longer than three minutes it was continued on the other side of the disc. If the song was longer than six minutes it was continued onto another disc.
Using the her mother’s birth surname Agob, Zekia recorded Columbia E3601 “Lamma Kamani Elhood Part 1,” and “Lamma Kamani Elhood Part 2,” “Lamma Kamani Elhood Part 3,” and “Lamma Kamani Elhood Part 4,”Columbia E 3602 in August,1917 (See this two-disc, four-sided song below).
Three months later she returned to the recording studio to cut “Yalwatt El Oursi Part 1 & 2″ Columbia E3603, “Al Bulbul Nagja Part 1 & 2” Columbia E3782 “Ha Bibi Ghab Part 1 & 2” Columbia E3783 “Gose Elhamam Part 1 & 2” Columbia E3784 were recorded for Columbia on November, 1917.
The first pressings of Zekia Agob’s Columbia discs appeared on the company’s orange and gold band “ethnic label” printed from 1916 to about 1920. This colored label seems to have been designated for Columbia’s more classical “ethnic music.” Columbia also pressed a more-common green gold band ethnic label. At least one of Agob’s songs, E-3783 “Gose Elhamam,” appeared on the company’s green “flag design” label, printed from 1923-1927.
We should note, that Zekia Agob recorded under a combination of her first name by birth and her mother’s maiden name – not her own married name. We do not know exactly why she or Columbia made this decision, but it was not unusual or unheard of for some singers to record under a pseudonym. Ethnomusicologist Virginia Danielson maintains that quite a few Arab women singers, especially in the mashriq, recorded under pseudonyms most notably Umm Kulthum (Fatima Ibrahim es-Saytid el-Beltagi), Asmahan (Amal al-Atrash) and Fairouz (Nouhad Wadie Haddad). A later generation of Arab American singers like Najeeba Morad, Jamili Matouk, and Odette Kaddo, all used their birth surnames when performing instead of their married surnames, although middle period singers Hanan (Jeanette Hayek Harouni) and Kahraman (Olga Agby) used stage names.
Fact is, in the 1920s, while the careers of women singers in Lebanon and Egypt like Umm Kulthum and Marie Jubran, began to take off, only Zekia Agob, Laeteefy Abdou, and Marie Bashian Bedikian had recorded in Arabic in the United States. Bedikian, of course, recorded in Arabic for the Maloof Phonograph company, although she was Armenian, not Arab.
Zekia’s singing paid the bills, but there is no evidence she could support herself, Joseph, or the children alone with her singing career. Joseph maintained silk weaver and, as noted above, Zekia took work as a part-time dressmaker and raised the children. The children found employment as they became old enough to hold down jobs. Also, around the time Zekia recorded for Columbia, the family moved from New York City to 522 Central Avenue in West Hoboken, New Jersey. Joseph found work at Schwartzenbach, Huber Company’s Silk Mill in West Hoboken. The company also had mills in Union City, Bayonne, Hackensack, and Stirling. At some time in the 1920s, Schwartzenbach moved Joseph from their West Hoboken to their Union City mill. The family took up residence at 614 25th Street in Union City.
On the national level, of course, the United States Congress passed legislation to limit the number of immigrants from around the world including the Levant. Arab American communities nearly ceased growing by the influx of immigrants as quotas limited arrivals from the homelands to 100 per year.
A combination of the Great Depression and personal loss tested the family in a way they had not been tested before. Zekia maintained a house full of children and in 1930, her youngest was only three years old. Elise, the oldest child, took up work as a sewing machine operator at a dressmaking company. The family moved to a flat at 357 40th Street in Brooklyn in 1932 and the death of Joseph in 1934 meant that financial pressures forced most of the children to work. Elise worked for a negligee manufacturer, Nellie and Anthony worked as a silk winder and delivery boy respectively for Schwartzenbach, and Rose, who helped raise her younger siblings became newly employed by 1940. Zekia, too, continued to bring in occasional dressmaking work to boost the family’s income. In total the family brought in about $1100 per year.
A more curious component of Zekia’s story is that when her husband Joseph Sheha died in 1934, their children are incorrectly listed in the newspaper obituary as Joseph’s siblings and Zekia isn’t listed as his relative at all. A comparison of the 1930 and 1940 Census shows us that Zekia went by the name Elizabeth, was married to Joseph, and they had seven children in 1930. Interestingly, she is listed as a naturalized citizen in 1930, but a resident alien in 1940. Absent of any naturalization papers it’s difficult to say which Zekia was really. By 1940, using the name Sophia, Zekia is a widow, both with the exact same seven children, all just ten years older, except Zekia who adjusted her age to reflect her 1886 birthdate. The 1940 Census also shows the families moved from Union City, New Jersey to Brooklyn, New York before 1935.
It appears Zekia remained at her Brooklyn address for much the remainder of her life. Anthony and Nimer enlisted in the armed services and on occasion the family visited friends and the father’s relatives in New Jersey. According to her headstone, “Zekia Agob Sheha” died in 1950. She rests beside her husband, Joseph, in a plot at the Saint Mary’s Cemetery in North Bergen, New Jersey.
When asked about Zekia Agob’s stint at Columbia, her granddaughter Barbara commented that she was told her grandmother was a singer, but had no way to prove or document this. Yet, with a few clues from Zekia’s granddaughter, the difficult process of tracking down more about Zekia Agob Sheha was made easier.
We may never learn any more about Zekia Agob, yet one thing is unmistakably clear, her voice and name will live on in the annals of Columbia Records’ history.
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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