Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM:Anthony M. Abraham
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 Anthony M. Abraham.
Sometimes life drops an answer to your question in your lap and other times it is written in the stars (and the planets). Those are both true in the case of the Arab American record label Alkawakeb. For years now, the story of Alkawakeb Records, like Maloof Phonograph Co., A.J. Macksoud, Alamphon Records, and Arabphon Records, has eluded ethnographers and historians of Arab American cultural history and ethnomusicology. Here at Midwest Mahjar, we too, struggled to piece together the few documents that tell us about Alkawakeb Records and its owner. An internet search yielded one entry on Discogs which notes that Alkawakeb “seems to be a US-based Lebanese record company and label releasing Lebanese and Middle Eastern music for the Arab expats in the US.” Other sources suggest the Alkawakeb Record Corporation was a Beirut-based label registered in the United States. We can infer this information from some label variations that include the words “Made in the U.S. A.” while others read “Reg. in U.S.A.” Still other variants bear no noted US connection printed on the label. The most, stark contrast in label design variation is that one label pictures two mountain peaks, a rising moon, and eight stars in the sky above. The other pictures a Middle Eastern cityscape with ancient columns, three pyramids, five palm trees, four minarets, with a crescent moon, three clouds, and six stars in the sky. The font in which the label’s name is printed is exactly the same although the word “Record Corporation” appears on the bottom of some.
Like Alamphon, a significant portion of Alkawakeb’s inventory seems to be made by and for people in the Mahsriq, but a portion of its records were recorded and pressed for those who were a part of the mahjar. Some mahjari discs are clearly re-pressings of Anton Abdelahad’s Abdelahad Records: “Miserlou” KRG #7019, “iL Nylon” KRG # 7002, and Philip Solomon’s “Takseem Ajam KRG #7024. Other discs contain songs by Hanan, Little Sami, Kharaman, Kharaman & Naif, Yousif Hareb, and A.G. Skaf. Alkawakeb in essence functioned as a re-issue label specializing in mashiq and mahjar content. As recording technology changed, Alkawakenb re-issued 45 rpm discs and 33 1/3 RPM albums into the 1970s.
Back in 2019, we located evidence in The Caravan newspaper that Alkawakeb Record Company was a Newark, New Jersey-based company owned by an Anthony Abraham. The sparsely-worded newspaper article made note that Abraham had recently recovered from minor surgery and had returned home. We followed some leads and narrowed down our Anthony Abrahams in Newark to seemingly two people. Then in early 2021, while purchasing three Arabic 78s on rare labels about which we had little or no information, the seller (without knowing we had been researching Alkawakeb or its owner) sent us a 78-rpm record sleeve with a dealer stamp on it. The stamp read “A.M. Abraham, 855 Hunterdon St., Newark, NJ.” It matched one of our suspected individuals.
Anthony Michele Abraham was born 1 January 1893 in Antourine, Greater Syria (now Lebanon) to Mary and Mikel Abraham. Anthony arrived in the United States via Cuba in 1910 on board the S.S. Aratoga. It is likely Abraham had relatives or friends in Havana because he later visited Cuba several times while he was young. Anthony also regularly went by the name “Antonio Abraham.” According to some sources, Anthony Abraham married Shehidah (or Katie) in 1918. He worked primarily in the steel industry but was a jack-of-all-trades. He first found employment at Crucible Steel Company in Larsen, New Jersey, however, by 1922 he had a dry goods business. Within a year, he worked at the Ford plant in Newark where he remained for about four years before becoming a crane operator at a steel company, a job at which he worked for much of the rest of his life. Also, by 1929, he, his wife, and three children (Mitchell, Mikel, and George) moved to the home at 855 Hunterdon. It is from this address that Anthony Abraham ran Alkawakeb and this remained the family home until his death. Shehidah or Katie gave birth to one more child, the couple’s only daughter May, in 1932. Although a few other non-related Arab Americans and Arab immigrants lived on the block, Anthony’s younger brother Dominik lived a few doors down for some years and together with Anthony, Katie, and their children in later years. Anthony Abraham survived the Depression intact and held onto his job and his home. Not everyone was so lucky.
A.J. Macksoud and Alexander Maloof closed their recording business and their Washington Street record shops by the mid to late 1930s, leaving the door open for the next generation of record store and record label owners. Abraham Macksoud’s shop closed a few years before his passing in 1938, as did G.S. Maloof’s Syrian Town Record store in Boston. World War II ushered in Farid Al-Alam’s Alamphon, George Gorayeb’s Arabphon, and Tony Abdelahad’s label Abdelahad, which soon filled the gap left by the pioneering Arab American phonograph producers and dealers. A young Iowa business man named Albert Rashid relocated from Detroit to Manhattan and Brooklyn and his Al-Chark and Orient labels came to rival Alamphon and Arabphon. Meanwhile, one of Anthony Abraham’s sons enlisted in the US military and Anthony, too old to serve, worked for Worthington Pump Corporation in Harrison, New Jersey.
Performers like Emil Kasses and Leila Mazloom recorded limited runs on their own labels in the 1950s and Anthony Abraham tried his hand at duplicating and re-issuing Albdelhad, Baidaphon, Voix de L’Orient, and other labels on his newly founded Alkawakeb Records in Newark, New Jersey. Of the Arab American labels, Alamphon barely survived the transition to 45 RPM before its owner died. Al-Chark-/The Orient moved toward 33 1/3 RPM re-issues while maintaining the cultural mecca that was Rashid Sales, and Alkawakeb successfully produced 45 rpm singles and 33 1/3 re-issue albums. On Alkawakeb, Abraham re-issued compilations of singles in LP form that included Sabah, Farid Al-Atraash & Asmahan, an Om Kalsoum/Fairuz combo, and a dozen of so albums including Balabel Al Mohrajan, Ataba Dabky Dance, Evening with Zhoor, Evening with Nadia, Middle East Modern Music, and several others numbered 3301-3315. Because they were mostly re-issues of 78 RPM recordings made and produced in Lebanon, this causes some confusion as to why some researchers were confused about whether Alkawakeb Records was a United States-based or Beirut-based label. The rare Evening with Nadia LP #3303 was a re-issue 33 1/3 RPM from 78s Nadia Chamoun recorded on the Voix de L’Orient label earlier in her career.
A smattering of Alkawakeb’s album covers in the 1960s and 1970s suggested Anthony Abraham attempted to cash in on the belly dance craze that catapulted the careers of Mohammed El-Bakkar, Eddie Kochak, Naif Agby, and other Arab American musicians of the time. These songs, too, were re-issues from previously recorded and released shellac.
Curiously, many of the Alkawakeb LP re-issues lacked specific release date information. We know, however, that Anthony Abraham survived through much of the 1970s. On 1 July 1978, at the age of eighty-five, Anthony M. Abraham died in Newark, New Jersey. We still don’t know much about Alkawakeb’s inner-workings or if Abraham, like Albert Rashid of Al-Chark and Rashid Sales, contracted with Baidaphon or other labels in Lebanon to re-issue material in the United States. It is likely his knowledge acquired by working in the metal industry served him well when it came to using copper and aluminum to press records. What we know with greater certainty is that had it not been for two obscure clues, we perhaps would have known nothing about this most important record label and its elusive owner.
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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