Syrian-born Naim Karacand: One of the Twentieth Century's Most Prolific, Yet Little Known Violin Virtuosos - by *Guest Blogger Ian Nagoski



Naim Karacand

Naim Karacand, Caravan 21 August 1958. Courtesy of Newspapers.com

A decade before the war came to Syria in 2011, Steve Shapiro handed me a disc of Naim Karacand’s on the Alamphon label with “Raks Aaraby” on the A-side and “Kamanagah” on the B-side. Shapiro’s father was an Aleppan Jew, and Steve had already traveled to Aleppo as a researcher and fan of Karacand’s and held Karacand’s birth certificate in his hands, confirming that Karacand was born there May 23, 1891. We don’t know if that document still exists now or what else remains of the life Karacand left behind.

"Al Kalimat Society Entertainment, held at K. of C. Brooklyn, Dec. 23, 1934."Karacand at center with violin. Courtesy of Jorge Khlat.
Dr. Jorge Safady has written that the surname Karakand originated in Hauran in present-day southern Syria and indicates the family’s origins as Ghassanids, early adopters of Christianity who had come to the Levant in the 3rd to 5th centuries CE. Steve Shapiro has said that it is derived from a variety of lobster.

Karacand departed from Beirut on September 2, 1909 arriving at Ellis Island on October 10th. His younger brother Hicmat (b. Oct. 15, 1898) arrived a month later on November 27. By April of 1910, the two boys - Naim 18 and Hicmat 12 - were living at 51 Hick St. in Brooklyn in a boarding house run by Naoum Mrayatti (who was married with three children) on a block that was about half Syrian and about half Anglo-Irish. Naim told a census-taker then that he dealt in "oriental goods."

In 1912, Naim married a woman named Najeema, and they had three children: Albert (b. July 25, 1913), Margaret (b. June 8, 1915), and James (b. Sept. 1917). By 1915, he had brought his mother Sucen (Susie) and father Abdullah to the U.S. In short order, Abdullah sued a railroad company for injury and was awarded $916.40 - about $25,000 in current money. Within the next couple years, Abdullah was occupied in the garment business hemstitching. Hicmat wound up working in a silk factory. Syrians in Manhattan had established themselves in the garment trade with the Macksoud family in particular having earned a fortune in the first decade of the 20th century through shrewd business dealings and having worked, litigated, and married themselves into the position of New York’s “lingerie kings.”

Naim Karacand’s first certain recordings were as an accompanist to the prolific singer Nahum Simon (b. 1891, Tripoli, present-day Lebanon) for Columbia Records in the Woolworth Building on Broadway, only a ten minute walk from Manhattan’s Little Syria, in March, 1915. By August 1916, he recorded for Columbia under his own name. It’s hard to be certain how many records he made since they were often issued anonymously, listed simply as “Syrian Trio” on the labels of the disc. 

ca. 1917 Columbia records advertisement showing Karacand's trio. Found at the Library of Congress by Steve Shapiro and published in his article "Recovering a Forgotten Musical Heritage" in Jewish Sephardic Image magazine, November 2003.

His band with Shehade Ashear (or Shehadi Ashkar, kanun) and Abraham Halaby (oud), both of whom were Halabi (Aleppan) Jews, or in some cases oudist Toufic Gabriel Moubaid (born ca. 1887-88 in Tripoli, Lebanon and then working as an elevator operator at the Faour Brothers’ Bank on Washington St. in Little Syria), he certainly cut scores of discs as instrumentals and and as accompanist to Nahum Simon, William Kamel, and Moses Cohen during the period 1914-1921. Columbia only started recording Arabic-language material around 1913-14 and stopped in 1919, almost exactly coincident with World War I.


The first reference that we have to Karacand as a live performer appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on January 20, 1919:

“An entertainment and dance was given Saturday evening by the Aleppo Relief Committee at Masonic Temple, Clermont and Lafayette Aves. The opening address was made by Gabriel Araktounji and a chorus chant, welcoming the guests, by a chorus of women’s voices. A farce sketch called Camp Pain Meeting was much appreciated. Several numbers of Oriental music were rendered. Another feature everyone enjoyed was the clever dancing of Baby Billie Crampton. The reception committee included Joseph Beilouny, chairman; Benjamin Mazloom, Gabriel Baskenji, Salim Ayoub, Basil Baccash, George Arktounji, Joseph Homsy. The volunteer chorus consisted of Fadua Karzoon, Nizha Katwaty, Nadima Beilouny, Salma Ayoub, Jumila Badouy, Adel Sayegh, Lucy Remia, Semia Wihbeh. The leader of the Oriental music was Naim Karacand and the leader of the singing was Constantine Soos.”

Stacy Fahrenthold, the author of Between the Ottomans and the Entente: The First World War in the Syrian and Lebanese Diaspora, 1908-1925, has pointed out that Syria lost over 18% of its population during WWI, the largest per-capita loss of life of any country during the war. Massive relief campaigns for the Armenian and Syrian populations of the Ottoman Empire were established in the mid- and late-10s in the U.S., providing the equivalent of millions of dollars in aid in the first significant public philanthropic effort for a foreign population by U.S. citizens. Widespread famine and the burning villages swept away much of the native land from which Karacand and his immigrant community had come, while domestic strife dominated his life for two years in clear view of his neighbors.

In the Fall of 1921, Nejeema filed for legal separation. The following day, Naim filed for divorce. Then, on November 1, 1921 the Standard Union in Brooklyn picked the story up and ran a short column titled “Says Perfumery Man Stole His Wife’s Love.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran three more pieces in the next month. All of their lives changed for the worse, irreversibly.

In early November of 1921, it was reported that Naim Karacand, a music professor of 129 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, was suing Charles Rahayel a perfumist connected to the Rahayel Freres of Paris and former business associate of Karacand’s, of 358 Flatbush Avenue, for the the “alienation of affections” of Karacand’s wife Najeema, now of 101 Sterling Place, for $20,000 (over $250,000 now). Karacand alleged publicly that Rahayel “exercised mysterious influence” over her and “won complete control over her” and said that Rahayel advised him not to live with her “as her husband for a period of eight months, saying she was a very sick woman.” Karacand was further quoted as saying that, “during this period, I afterward learned the defendant carried out the most extreme form of love with my wife and went to her alone in my home.” He said that Najeema was “charmed away by his secret and mysterious perfumes and love powders besides [Rahayel’s] lavishing more material gifts upon her.” Rahayel was wealthy. In addition to his connection with the Rahayel Frerers of Paris (established 1901 and dealing in scents such as Imperial Turkish Bouquet, Lebanon Rose, and Assad Ben Harem), Rahayel had also patented a zinc soap in 1904 and a piano bench in 1905.

Within a few weeks, things had gotten ugly. Police arrested Naim from his bed and took him to jail for contempt of court after he failed to pay the court-ordered $20 a week alimony to Najeema. Her lawyers announced to the press that Karacand’s suit against Rahayel and his divorce action were “actuated by revenge.” By the end of the year, Charles Rahayel’s wife Adelaide told the press that he only gave her $10 a week for herself and three children and that Charles “has long been too friendly with” Najeema Karacand who “spends most of her time at Rahayel’s store and laboratory.” The Times Union wrote that the Rahayels spoke only through their eldest son and that Charles had forbidden Adelaide to read any books or papers “as she has enough to do around the house.” Rahayel arraigned a clerk in the office of Karacand’s lawyer for having supposedly falsified documents regarding Rahayel’s finances. 


The Karacand's divorce was a messy public spectacle, Brooklyn Eagle 23 November 1921. Courtesy of Newspapers.com

Naim and Najeema appeared in court twice in January 1922 before their divorce hearing was held on February 2. Najeema was carried into the courtroom and kept perfume-soaked cloths on her forehead, her head laid on her brother’s shoulder for the proceedings. Naim won the divorce.

At the beginning of April 1922, Najeema fought to overturn the divorce, accompanying her motion with a publicity campaign. She and her lawyers announced to the press that they have affidavits from landlords that she never lived with Rahayel, that she has affidavits from doctors stating that she was too ill to defend herself during the proceedings, that she had a letter written by one of Naim’s lawyers at his behest begging her to return to him after he had filed for divorce, and that one of Naim’s witnesses had been offered money to testify against her. Naim, in short, perjured himself and had cheated on her. After another appearance by both of them, the divorce was finally settled on February 7, 1923 in his favor. There would, the judge said, be a later hearing to settle the custody of their daughter. 

We do not know where Albert, Margaret, and James were during this two-year trauma except for a brief notice on November 25, 1922 that Margaret had earned a place on the honor roll at the St. Joseph’s Home orphanage on Long Island. She was eight years old and in the second grade. All three children spent time in Catholic orphanages in the decade that followed.

After the February 1923 divorce ruling, in the hallway of the court Najeema Karacand swung her handbag and struck Genevieve O’Connor, the secretary of Naim’s lawyer, knocking her down. Naim’s brother Hicmat then punched Najeema, knocking her unconscious. Two different descriptions of the scene, after Najeema came-to, appeared in the press the next day. In one account, Hicmat anf Najeema were both arrested on the spot. In the other, Najeema demanded that Hicmat be arrested and was told that she could file a complaint at another courthouse, where she was then transported. On March 9, 1923 the court heard the case of Naim Karacand vs Charles Rahayel for $20,000. At the time of this writing, we remain in pursuit of documentation of the outcome of that suit.

Through the Great Depression, Najeema ran a boarding house at 336 51st St. in Brooklyn. The children were sometimes required to clean up after the boarders. There were times that they rummage for food in the garbage. Najeema eventually remarried and had more children.

Throughout the divorce, Naim recorded dozens of performances for the independent Maloof and Macksoud labels that had started up in Manhattan’s Little Syria, accompanying popular singers including Salim Domani, Andrew Mekanna, and Louis Wardiny. Immediately following the Great War and the foundation of the state of Lebanon, those in the Syrian diaspora were given three years to declare intention to repatriate to either Syria or Lebanon. Karacand chose to declare his intent to naturalize as an American citizen on July 10, 1923, with the oudist Toufic Moubaid, and a dancer and actress named Anna Athena Arcus of 806 62nd St. Brooklyn as his witnesses. 


Anna Athena Arcus was born October 26, 1885 in Mersin, Turkey, about 200 miles west of Aleppo. She arrived in the U.S. on June 15, 1900 from Liverpool, England, with her first husband with whom she’d already lived in the Hebrides of Scotland. Her son Edgar Douglas Hamatie was born July 8, 1906, in New Haven, Connecticut a few months before her 16th birthday. She divorced her first husband and remarried an American citizen, Arthur Laurenson Arcus, a chief steward five years her senior within two years. In 1913, a West Hartford paper reported that her troupe in the midway of the Connecticut Fair “attracted the attention of the West Hartford authorities. What was that strange music issuing from the canvas walls? Surely, such suggestive chords ought not to be allowed on the grounds, and the officials one and all, piles into the tent. The sight that met their eyes, they afterward said, beggared description. A sloe-eyed - no we can not call her a beauty - damsel was posturing in filmy draperies on a platform, making love, so ’tis said, to a snake, while another brunette, with a waist cut lower than even Newport allows, and well, practically a slit skirt, sang an air to the tune furnished by tom-toms. It was too much for West Hartford, though some of the officials admitted they had seen worse elsewhere, and they left the tent declaring it had got to stop.”

Anna Athena Arcus Karacand, Caravan 4 April 1957. Courtesy of Newspapers.com

Anna made her own petition for naturalization May 23, 1924, giving her occupation as “actress,” and she was granted citizenship August 1925 at which point she was 39 years old and living with her 23 year old son, a salesman, at 731 48th St. in Brooklyn. Naim was not one of her witnesses, but their lives remained intertwined for the next forty-five years.

In February 1925, Naim’s mother Sucen died, and then in August of 1928, his son Albert died at the age of 15. He made no appearances on records during those years, and having no record of his having performed, we can only guess at his activities. 

During the 1930s, Naim and Anna made several significant journeys. From 1930-32 they were in Los Angeles, where Naim was a consultant in films, working on the musical arrangements for Renegade, The Barbarian, Morocco, and most notably Mata Hari starring Greta Garbo. Meanwhile, Anna performed in L.A. nightclubs accompanied by Naim. By 1933 they were back in New York, where Karacand lead the orchestra on WHOM and WWRL’s Friday night radio show “Arabian Nights,” which ran uninterrupted for over 25 years. 

WWRL Arabian Nights broadcast ca. 1961. Left to right: percussionists George & Mike Hamway, singer Hanaan, oudist Amib Kassis (facing away), Naim Karacand, director Joseph Bellouny, announcer Sabri Andria. Courtesy Warren David.
Naim went to Brazil in 1937 for his the wedding of his brother Chukri Caracante (b. 1996; d. 1971). Chukri, a musician himself, had arrived in Sorocaba, Sao Paulo, Brazil in September, 1925, joining his cousin Jorge Caracante, after having spent 18 years in Sudan and one year in the U.S. (Jorge Caracante made a brief appearance in Brooklyn in January of 1925, performing a tango with a woman named Sarah Berk to a gathering of the Syrian Catholic Association.)  In April of 1937, six month before he arrived home from Brazil, a celebration of Naim’s music was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. At 45 years old, Naim was adored and missed in his adopted home.

Naim Karacand performing at Clube, Alepo, Brazil, 1937. (His brother Chukri is seated at rear, by the window). 
Courtesy of Jorge Khlat.  
Through the 1940s and ‘50s, Naim continued to performed on the radio and recorded for independent labels including Alamphon, founded by Fred (Farid) Alam (b. 1893) based a few blocks down from Naim’s old home on Atlantic Avenue. He played almost constantly alongside the big names of the Arab-American music world of the time: Naif Abgy, Anton Abdelhad, Eddie “the Sheik” Kochak, Mohammed el-Bakkar, Hanaan, Fatat Lebnan, Khraman, Karawan, etc. Joined by a rotating cast group of accompanists including oudist Joe Budway (b. ca. 1912; d. 1990), drummers Mike and George Hamway, singer/ violinist/ pianist Philip Solomon, kanunist George Ghanaim,  and Henry (violin) and George (oud) Raad, Naim played in the ballrooms, feasts, and weddings of the Syrian-Lebanese community of Brooklyn, the hotels and resorts of Paterson and Asbury Park, NJ and the Catskills with periodic trips further afield to Allentown PA, Charlestown WV, and Palm Springs FL. A dancers appeared at most shows, including Lorraine Shalhoub, Samia Nasser, Fawzia Amir, and the Jamal Twins. When touring singers came to the Brooklyn, as the great Odette Kaddo and Sabah did (in 1955 and ’56 respectively), Karacand was their accompanist. For a short while, 1953-54, they were joined by an exceptional Aleppen violinist, Sami al-Shawwa.

Orchestra of Mohammed El-Bakkar, 1950s. Karacand seated at Left. Courtesy of Jorge Khlat.
Sami al-Shawwa was born in Cairo in 1889 to a musical family. His great-grandfather Joseph was a violinist; his grandfather Elias played kanun; his father Antoine played violin. He was about two years older than Naim when the family settled in Aleppo during their adolescences. By about 1903, Sami had proved himself to be a prodigy and moved back to Cairo, where he accompanied the greatest tarab (classical) singers of the era, including Yusuf al-Manyalawi,  Abdul Hayy Hilmi, and Zaki Murad. Through the 1910s and 20s, Sami established himself as the foremost violinist of the entire Arab world, performing on hundreds of discs, both solo and as an accompanist. He was wrote two volumes of music theory, including material on Western notation in application to Arab music performance, and was a key organizer in both Cairo and Baghdad in the 1920s and 30s, at which time he was also instrumental in the recording of the brilliant, working-class composer Sayyid Darwish, composer of both the Egyptian national anthem and of the evergreen “Zuruni Kulli Sana Marra,” the opening lines of which later closed the first volume of Naguib Mahfouz’s historical novel Palace Walk. (A biography of Sami and a 4CD set of his work have been issued by the Foundation for Arab Music Archiving & Research).

Although their paths had diverged widely over four decades, Naim and Sami palled around for months, arriving at weddings and jamming together. Sami made records for Alamphon and was featured in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, offering a hokum story about his violin having been made from “pharaonic wood” pilfered from the pyramids. It seems reasonable to guess that they had known each other as kids and that Sami’s father Antoine was a teacher to Naim as a teenager. It’s unlikely we’ll find solid proof, but there are performances of each of theirs from the 1910s, thousands of miles apart, a time when the violin was not wide-spread in the Arab world, that bear striking resemblance. Sami died a decade later in Egypt in 1965.

Jorge Khlat, a grand-nephew of Naim’s, feels sure that Naims’s performances on LPs during the 1950s include the popular, luridly orientalist-jacketed discs that Mohammed El Bakar made for Audio Fidelity in the 1950s. We can also be certain that Karacand performed on Lebanon: Her Heart, Her Sounds (20th Fox), the sole LP by oudist Djamal Aslan (b. February 1921; d. June 2000). Aslan arrived from Aleppo in 1950, was married in 1952, divorced in 1954 by which time he’d made a name as a performer and met Karacand, and remarried in 1955.  This project also included Karacand’s steady drummer Mike Hamway and Brooklyn mainstay Eddie “the Sheik” Kochak and a dozen others. In 1960, the year his record was issued, he received news that his mother back in Aleppo had died. He staggered through a few more years of performing, often bringing with him an extraordinary musician with him, who brought Naim Karacand to a recording session that circumstantially connected him to the mainstream of American music, even if only as a footnote.


Jack Ghanaim, Joe Budway, George Hamway, Djamal Aslan, Caravan 23 October 1958, 7 March 1957. Courtesy of Newspapers.com

That musician was bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, a native of the Atlantic Avenue section of Brooklyn, a convert to Islam, and a devotee on principle of the music of the Arab immigrants. 


Robin D.G. Kelley’s book Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Harvard, 2012), has shows that Abdul-Malik was born Jonathan Tim, Jr., Jan. 30, 1927 in Brooklyn to parents from the island of St. Vincent. Although the claimed in 1959 was that his father was from Sudan, Abdul-Malik was raised in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, about a thirty-minute bus ride or ninety minutes on foot from Naim Karacand’s Atlantic Avenue home. He apparently joined the Ahmadiyya Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager in the 1940s, around the same time as many other significant jazz musicians. Parallel to his work in the 1950s with Art Blakey, Don Byan, Zoot Sims, Coleman Hawkins, Jutta Hipp, Randy Weston, and many others, he was hired by the Audio Fidelity label to produce arrangements for the Mohammed El Bakar LPs. By the time he was given his own dates in 1958 to record his vision for an Arab-jazz fusion music called Jazz Sahara, including within the band Johnny Griffin who had already performed with the Armenian Udi Hrant for a subsidiary label, he was in the midst of a steady gig as bass player for Thelonious Monk. He made two follow-up LPs (without Karacand), East Meets West and The Music of Ahmed Abdul-Malik, before appearing on the John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy’s 1961 Village Vanguard live sessions. (It is worth pointing out that Abdul-Malik remains credited as an oudist on every issue of those performances; he does not play oud at all. He only plays bass. He may have brought his oud, but the session’s note-taker likely didn’t know the difference between an oud and tamboura, and the discographical error has stood for decades.) Through the mid-60s Abdul-Malik played with Randy Weston, Herbie Mann, and Hamza El Din before devoting himself to scholarship and teaching. He died October 2, 1993.

Naim briefly reconnected with his daughter Margaret. At 25 years old, she had married a man named Sam Marotta. In 1944, she enlisted in the Army, achieving the rank of Technician Fifth Class, the noncommissioned equivalent of Corporal. She remarried in 1947 to a man named John R. Schuster. They do not have any children before she died of cancer at the age of 50 in March, 1966 in Glen Cove, Long Island. She is buried there at the National Cemetery as a veteran.

Through the 1960s, Naim developed a relationship with his son James. They visited one another periodically, and Naim regularly wrote to the Caravan newspaper in Brooklyn to update readers on his son’s accomplishments. James had enlisted in April 1938 at the age of 20, married Carmela “Millie” Ovale (an Italian girl from Brooklyn) shortly after his discharge in 1941, and by the early 60s had attained the rank of Major and was Chief of the Electronic Fundamentals Branch of the Air Force. He had served in Fort Dix, Taipei, Dayton, Crescent City, Wilmer, and Guam, before he was stationed at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel along with Millie and their five children at Kessler Air Force Base in Biloxi. Nancy Karacand, Naim’s granddaughter, remembers having met him in the 1960s several times, both in Brooklyn and Biloxi, where she encountered a soft-spoken, dignified, worldly man. She remembers that he brought Syrian treats - halva and dried apricots  - and brought his violin. He played  a song called “Flyaway Taxim” for the children and left a violin for them. 
Karacand's signature from the title page of a manuscript score. Courtesy Jorge Khlat.

On August 10, 1966 tragedy struck when James and his family were at the beach in Panama City. Seeing two of his daughters in trouble in the waves, James dove in the water to help them and drowned. He was 49 years old. His 18 year-old daughter, named Margaret after his sister, dove in to help and nearly drowned herself.

After his wife Anna died in 1967, Naim was alone. All three of his children were dead. Around 1970, he wrote to his niece in Brazil, the singer Suzana Khlat, and described his despair. He had given up the violin. He died in Astoria Queens in 1973 and was buried with Anna in Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where you can see the Statue of Liberty from the entrance.

Grave of Anna and Naim Karacand. Photo courtesy of Ian Nagoski.



Thank you: Steve Shapiro, Nancy Karacand, Jorge Khlat, Harout Arakelian, Abboud Zeitoune



Ian Nagoski - Guest Blogger, Re-issue Record Producer, Historian. Nagoski's Canary Records can be found at https://canary-records.bandcamp.com/

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