Naim Karakand: The First Syrian-American on Record

The Reorient blog were kind enough today to run an edited version of a piece I wrote on the great Syrian-American violinist Naim Karakand, who has has been a bee in my bonnet for more than a decade. (Tracks of his appear on my CDs Black Mirror and To What Strange Place.)
The piece that was run has some problems, but considering that the piece I sent them is even worse and MUCH more verbose, an admirable job of editing was done. Because I am working on other projects at the same time, I do not have time to edit either piece but will simply present both as-is, hoping this helps.

Nowadays, popular reports on early 20th century recordings often describe the music as “lost,” “forgotten,” or something else which both cloaks the music in mystery and forgives the reader for not having known about it before having read the piece. (And, by extensions, congratulates the reader on being smart and hip enough to know now, having read the story, about the “nearly-vanished” music.) This is nonsense. In many cases, the music is well-known among specialists, and is no more “lost” than aspects of spectroscopy would be to someone who knows about chemistry.

Even if the music was deeply obscure, there is no value added to it by virtue of its “forgotten-ness.” Much – most – of what has recorded in the early 20th century in America molders neglected, as it should be, since most of it is, in large part, mediocre or almost as often trite twaddle of no particular lasting value. It simply doesn’t do what music is supposed to do – trigger strong feelings, connect us with lived humanity, give pleasure and comfort. Let it die. No regrets.

It is only in cases where there is a musicians did something extraordinarily profound or graceful or dignified or honest or complicated and now remains little-considered by specialists or an interested public whose general understanding of music and its history would be altered by a clearer view of that artist’s work that we should start to get excited. And, even then, we should be careful about throwing around the overused word “discovery” for the process of learning about anything hidden-in-plain-sight, such as the work of a performer who left behind a body of mass-produced artifacts, like sound recordings.

Discussion of 78rpm-era remains centered In the United States on a continuum of jazz-blues-country-folk-gospel musics, since those are seen to be antecedents to the great mid-century accomplishments of Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Woody Guthrie, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, etc etc, upon whom we have built our collective musical identity. In recent decades, the hundreds of thousands of recordings made by immigrants during the first half of the twentieth century has been made available and studied a little bit, as an expansion on the canon of vernacular American music. Largely, the music presented and researched has been material which fits into pre-existing aesthetic criteria for American Folk Music (aching songs of sorrow from some remote territory; flying, string-band dances of the hard-working lumpen proletariat) or which suits the needs of an immigrant group or the homeland folks of a diaspora seeking to reconnect with their “roots,” especially where easy retroactive labeling can be applied (klezmer among Ashkenazim, rebetika among Greeks, proto-Polka among northern Slavs, etc.)

There are myriad “none-of-the-above” cases, however, of superb musicians who did something extraordinary on record and have, for reasons of cultural prejudice or indifference simply been written out of a story of which they ought to have been considered interesting characters.

Take, for instance, Naim Karakand, a violin player whose superb performances on disc should have been enough to count him among the best musicians of his time. All things being equal, he should be as well known as saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, for instance, who was 15 years his junior, or Sara Carter, who was eight years his junior. And yet, who talk about Naim Karakand? Where are the books about him – discographies? The sense that he mattered?

He was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1891 and arrived by himself through Ellis Island on October 9, 1909. His immigration document says that he’d meet a friend at 104 Greenwich St in New York City’s Little Syria. Shortly thereafter, census records show him living in a boarding house full of Syrians in east Brooklyn. A few blocks away is the Catholic church to which he belonged.

-Ellis Island image

On September 13, 1912, Karakand recorded at Columbia Records studio in Manhattan at a session apparently arranged by the Armenian impresario M.G. Parsekian with a band including singers K. Nodar and Dikran Effendi. Because the ethnicities of the others are unknown, and are now probably unknowable as a result of their abbreviated credits, we can say that Naim Karakand is the first Syrian-American on record. He was then about 22 years old. Apart from a couple cylindars mat at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, these were the first-ever Turkish-language performances made for commercial release in the U.S.

The following month, Karakand returned to Columbia’s studio and cut another series of sides under his own leadership with the Assyrian singer Kosroff Malool (born in Diyarbakir, ca. 1891, who recorded perhaps the first Kurdish-language performances made in the U.S., ca. 1920.)

During the mid- and late-10s, Karakand recorded prolifically for both major record companies – Columbia and Victor – as a leader, sideman, and, at times, anonymously. Some discs appeared with the simple designation “Arabic Trio” or “Syrian Instrumental Trio.” As accompanists, the band are credited around that time as kanunist Shehadi Ashkar and oudist Abraham Halaby, whose names would indicate that they might be Marotine and Jewish respectively. Clearly, faith was of little concern to Karakand, who certainly performed with Christians and Jews, and possibly Muslims and those of other faiths on record. His repertoire also seems catholic in the small-C sense, including, for instance, this dance from the western hinterland of Greater Syria, Gaza, issued anonymously by Columbia and recorded in ay of 1919:

A 1916 performance, issued by Columbia as part of both their Greek and Arabic series under the name “Tatos Bishro,” was recorded nearly two decades later in Cairo by the great violinist Sami El-Chawa. Sami is still held in the highest esteem as perhaps the greatest violin player of the Arab world in the first half of the 20th century, having accompanied all of the most sublime singers of the time, including Yusuf Al-Manylawi, Abdul Hai Hilmi, Zaki Murad, and countless others. While it is possible that a copy of Karakand’s performance might have made its way into Sami’s hands, it seems more likely that both drew from the same repertoire. Sami was only a few years older than Naim Karakand and was also a native of Aleppo. It is not outside the realm of possibility, as Steve Shapiro – perhaps the most knowledgeable expert on Karakand – has proposed, that both learned the song from Sami’s father.

Sami’s fame endures, while Naim Karakand’s name remains margainal. Could it be that the biggest mistake he ever made for his career and his legacy was to come to the New World, rather than to Cairo?

In the late 10s and early 20s, both major record companies reigned in their Arabic-language release schedules. Karakand, meanwhile, continued to record apace, as a soloist and accompanist, for smaller independent labels, particularly that of the Egyptian Copt A.J. Macksoud, who produced excellent records from his Washington Street (Little Syria)-based label.

And then, having made scores of discs, he vanished from view in the U.S. for more than 20 years. Why?

Less than two years ago, a five-minute documentary showed up on YouTube, showing that Karakand had moved to Bahia, Brazil during the 30s, joining his brother Chukri and the Arab community there.

While in Brazil, he married and had children. But by around 1950, he had left his family and moved back to Brooklyn alone, where he began his recording career again. The video shows him with the Kalimat Orchestra, known to have accompanied the best-selling Lebanese-American belly-dance performer of the 1950s, Mohammed El-Bakkar, and although the fiddle is uncredited, it sounds like Karakand on those records. He recorded under his own name for the Brooklyn-based Alamphon label.

His last recording session, at the age of 64, was made not for an immigrant audience but for an Arab-jazz fusion session for Riverside Records under the leadership of bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik (born in Brooklyn in 1927), then of Thelonious Monk’s band, who as a child was given violin lessons and spent time near the Arab section of Brooklyn. Unwritten in the history of Jazz, it had become fashionable during the 50s among some musicians to attend the many “Oriental” nightclubs, particularly up and down 8th Ave between 40th and 50th Streets, where modal music in various time-signatures could be heard. No coincidence, then, that in the late 1950s and early 60s a string of jazz LPs were released that were both modal and in time-signatures other than 4/4. The influence of the Near Eastern musicians of New York is, in retrospect obvious but has never been delineated.

Furthermore the Afrocentric movement of many Black Americans toward Islam worked in favor of incorporation of elements from the Middle East. Karakand’s swan-song solos on Abdul Malik’s record (issued by Riverside, a label that began, in fact, as among the first 78rpm reissue labels) is superb. On this track, his solo begins at the 7:30 mark

A letter in Brazil from Karakand says that it was grief at the death of his son, a U.S. serviceman, that caused him to give up music. He died in Flushing, Queens in 1973 at the age of 81, one of the most prolific and talented vernacular fiddlers America has ever known.

Canary Records 5 Year Anniversary Giveaway

Having released 16 LPs in 5 years, here are 15 tracks from 15 records, 54 minutes of great music, recorded ca. 1908-1952..

motnedwob said: I'm confused by the following phrase in the promotion for the Canary Records sale: "Download codes for bonus material *in addition to* ordered albums will be sent within 36 hours of order." Are you selling physical LPs in addition to downloads?

Sorry for the confusion. These are only digital downloads. When you buy them from bandcamp, and email is sent to me. I will then send you a code with you can use to download the titles that are available for free during the sale. I hope this helps.

Canary Records download Buy-One-Get-At-Least-One SALE:

Announcing the Canary Records download Buy-One-Get-At-Least-Onne SALE:

-Spend $5 or more get a free download of Hata Unacheza: Sub-Saharan Guitar & String music

-Spend $10 or more and get free downloads of Hata Unacheza plus When the Moon Goes Down in the Valley of Time: African American Gospel, 1939-51

-Spend $15 or more and get free downloads of Hata Unacheza, When the Moon Goes Down, and To Drive Away the Vampires: Balkan Folk Musics, 1930s-70s.

-Spend $22 or more. get free downloads of Hata Unacheza, When the Moon Goes Down, Drive Away the Vampires, and Deep Shadow: Musics of Indochina & Indonesia

-Spend $35 or more, get free downloads of Hata Unacheza, When the Moon Goes Down, Drive Away the Vampires, Deep Shadow, No One Cares: International 78s & Missa pro Defuncta

-Spend $50 or more, get free downloads of Hata Unacheza, When the Moon Goes Down, Drive Away the Vampires, Deep Shadow, No One Cares, Missa pro Defuncta, Love is a One-Way Traffic: Groovy East Asian Chicks, 1960s-70s & Rocket Infinity: The Global Rise of Rockin’ Music,1942-62

SALE ENDS AUGUST 7. Download codes for bonus material in addition to ordered albums will be sent within 36 hours of order.

Canary Records download sale ends Saturday

the month-long sale on Canary Records downloads ends this Saturday. 19 releases to choose from currently priced at $1 - $5.50 each

Spottswood FMA piece in the Wire

a caveat regarding my piece on Dick Spottswood’s Folk Music in America set for the Library of Congress. in the new issue of the Wire out today. The opening, contextualizing paragraph was cut by the editors as “controversial,” “not entirely borne out by the facts,” and an “unnecessary potshot” regarding Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology. It is none of these things. It makes no judgement and is just factually true, and it puts into context Spottswood’s beautiful reinvisioning of “Americana” and helps show how Spottswood’s work has been sadly neglected. Personally, I see cutting this paragraph as making my point for me - that Smith’s particular vision of America is holiest-of-holies and can not be described as limited. But, as I told the editors, so long as the check clears, I’m not bothered by anything that isn’t said.
The opening paragraph should be:

"Several important points are forgotten when people talk about the LPs sets that the young artist Harry Smith compiled for Folkways records in 1952. First, the title is not preceded by a definite article. It is not The Anthology of American Folk Music, it is an Anthology… It is one of many possible Anthologies. And in the creation of it (compiled when Smith was 29 years old), he set limits on what he would include. So, the vivid world his Anthology seems to create is of an America where there were no Indians, no immigrants, and no Jews."



I supposed that if I printed up cards with the url to the Canary bandcamp download site and made them available on tour for a month that I’d see a spike in sales. In fact, the opposite happened, and sales dropped by about half. Therefore, I have dropped the prices of all 19 releases by $1.50, so they now range between $1-$5.50 (between less than a Euro and 3 pounds). The sale will continue until I feel I’ve made enough money. Or maybe they’ll just stay cheap. In either case, I hope you’ll buy some stuff or, worst case, tell your friends to buy some stuff. Much appreciated!

Europe Tour April 2014

IAN NAGOSKI returns to Europe for another series of his hypnotic interactive lectures on disappearing music of the 20th Century, this time with an exploration entitled “100 Moons: Stories of Great Forgotten Musicians and the Boundaries of Humanness from 78rpm Records”.

Ian Nagoski’s label Canary Records (pressed and distributed by the excellent Mississippi Records) reissues early 20th century recordings in languages other than English. In the past year, he has published acclaimed collections of Hindustani classical vocal music (100 Moons and Kesarbai Kerkar 1944-54), Greek urban folk music (Rita Abatzi - 1933-37), the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Widow’s Joy: Eastern European Immigrant Dances, 1925-30), and published writing in Yeti, Sound American, Ephemerotera Quarterly and The Wire.

Canary’s Bandcamp site was compared favorably by Damon Krukowski in Pitchfork to Revenant Records and Jack White’s Third Man label, and Nagoski’s deep views on music and recording caused Krukowski to compare him to Harry Smith, just as Marcus Boon also did in the Wire. In recent years, he also published compilations on the Dust-to-Digital (Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics) and Tompkins Square (To What Strange Place: Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora) labels. Nagoski’s work is now highly regarded, with high profile admirers ranging from DJ/rupture to Henry Rollins, and you can also still read several interview with and articles by him from 2013 at the Sound American site.

'Lecture' may seem too formal a term for something so immersive and transporting as one of Ian's 90-minute explorations of the disappearing music he unearths and its social/cultural roots and routes. Ian shares his love of his findings both in words and by listening to and discussing various carefully chosen shellac gems with you.

"His work is so rare and important that it should almost be treated as a ritual object, a pathway to the past and a voice for ghosts of a forgotten part of American musical history."
- Nate Wooley, Sound American

"Nagoski is a Walter Benjamin visionary, using his collection of 78s to hallucinate a history that actually happened but which remains hidden beneath official dogma and nationalisms.”
- Marcus Boon, the Wire

”I was entranced; I was FASCINATED. It is one of the most worthwhile purchases you will make this year. I went and got mine; I think you should, too.”
- Henry Rollins, KCRW

“Ian Nagoski’s To What Strange Place is a work of great beauty.”
- Jace Clayton / DJ/rupture, WFMU

"…as essential to an understanding of American music as anything else."
- Amanda Petrusich, Pitchfork

4/4-7/4 ATHENS
Borderline Festival



10/4-11/4 ISTANBUL (tbc)

Kirjasto 10
Elielinaukio 2G
00100 Helsinki

17/4 PORI
Pori Art Museum
28100 Pori

The Old Hairdressers, c/o Stereo
20-28 Renfield Lane,
G2 6PH
8pm £6
+ DJ Martin Bomber Allen

The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston PR1 8JP
8pm £7/5

Fuse Art Space
5-7 Rawson Place
7pm Free entry

Amstelveenseweg 134
1075 XL Amsterdam
8.30pm €7/5
+ Cian Nugent & The Cosmos + Rebel Up! DJs

BLACK BOX im cuba,
Achtermannstr. 10-12
48143 Münster
8pm €8/5

Monarch Berlin
Skalitzer Str. 134
10999 Berlin
8pm €8

Cafe Oto
18-22 Ashwin Street.
E8 3DL
8pm £6/8

There are a couple gaps in here that w’d be happy to fill, specifically April 14-15 (Sweden? Norway? Denmark?) April 20-21 (Edinburgh? Ireland?) April 24 (BeNeLux? Switzerland?) I need to keep busy. Any thoughts? Please write to Lee Etherington at
See you soon!

19 Canary Releases available at bandcamp!

There are now 19 Canary releases (10 fully restored LPs with liner notes and 9 “mixtapes”) available on the bandcamp site. Streaming is free; downloads with notes are priced between $3.50 and $7.