July/August 2010
Saki Knafo

Orientalist Party Music

In the early 1960s, America began devouring Arabic rock-and-roll records made by Middle Eastern guys living in Brooklyn.

Discussed: The Sephardic Bar Mitzvah Circuit, The Egyptian Film Industry, How to Belly Dance for Your Husband, Psychedelic Organ, Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, Ice Cream

Mohammed El-Bakkar was forty years old in 1952 when his ship pulled out of the port of Cairo. For a decade he’d been a fixture of the Egyptian film industry, a singer with remarkable power and range, but now his hair was thinning and he was putting on weight, and it had been years since he’d been cast in a leading role. He’d turn up as a sailor or a bedouin and belt out a lighthearted novelty number. Or he’d do a cameo as a self-obsessed opera star, serenading his reflection in a dressing-room mirror, unaware that the hero—a younger, handsomer singer—was about to lock him in a trunk and steal his place onstage. The joke was that Bakkar was pompous, a ham, and there was probably some truth to it. Had he been less convinced of his abilities he might have resigned himself to the life of a clown. Instead, he did what hams around the world had been doing for generations. He moved to New York.

The city’s Middle Eastern population consisted mainly of Christians and Jews from Greater Syria, an area that includes what is now the state of Lebanon. The Jews and Christians lived in separate Brooklyn neighborhoods a few miles apart, and musicians traveled back and forth between them, entertaining at bar mitzvahs on Saturday nights and church functions on Sundays. Bakkar, a native of Beirut, was one of the few Muslims on the scene, and certainly the only performer around who could boast of having appeared on-screen opposite the beautiful Tahia Carioca in the Egyptian version of Tarzan. (She played the Tarzan figure and he played her husband.) He sang constantly, at parties and at nightclubs where women danced the raqs charki—Americans called it the belly dance—and in a Times Square studio run by Albert Rashid, a Brooklyn record-shop owner who once had a four-door Ford shipped from Detroit to the port of Beirut and then drove it overland through Syria and Jordan into Egypt, where he delivered it to the movie star Farid El Atrache. Rashid was renowned for his ambition, but Bakkar had ambitions of his own, and after four years with Rashid’s ethnic label, Al-Shark, he defected for a mainstream American company.

If there ever was a good time for an Arab Muslim singer to try to win over an American audience, this was it. Thanks to the advent of the commercial airliner and the rise of the middle class, more Americans than ever were sunning themselves in the tropics, and the hi-fi systems of suburbia were throbbing with cha-cha and mambo and calypso—music that evoked sand and sun and sex. A Mexican kid named Ritchie Valens had just had a hit with a song called “La Bamba,” and Harry Belafonte was the biggest star in the world not named Elvis. If Mexicans and Jamaicans, never mind ordinary blacks, could cross over to the mainstream pop charts, why not an Arab?

Sidney Frey, the Jewish American owner of a New York label called Audio Fidelity, may well have asked himself that question. He had already produced three albums of matador music, an album called Trinidad Steel Band, and three volumes of Bawdy Songs and Backroom Ballads. Bakkar offered the usual exotic appeal, along with a decidedly American virtue: His size. He was a big man and he sang vigorously, throwing open his arms as though to embrace the whole crowd. Frey brought him into the studio and, in 1957, Bakkar’s first Audio Fidelity album, Port Said, hit stores.

It was a huge success. According to one estimate it sold as many as a million copies, and it remained in print for many years. Yet in Bakkar’s neighborhood it was greeted mostly with scorn. On the front cover was a picture of the Turkish dancer Nejla Ates modeling not the traditional flesh-concealing garments but a pair of pasties, and on the reverse was a description of an oriental scene that could have been lifted straight from the pages of a pornographic Victorian novel: “There are dancing girls who will perform their ancient ritual for a few modest coins (and for a little more will take you into their tent or hut for more enjoyable entertainment).” 

And that was just the packaging. “Primitiveness,” Edward Said wrote in his classic 1978 book, Orientalism, was “an idea to which anyone dealing with or writing about the Orient had to return,” and Sidney Frey, or whoever composed the liner notes, did exactly that, applauding the musicians of Egypt for their “primitive instruments” and “primitive forms of vocal expression” and hailing the “dancing girls” who accompanied them as “simple hearts who live their lives with dance and song.” Yet to Brooklyn’s Arabs, the record not only failed to register as primitive—it barely sounded Arab. Yes, the lyrics were in Arabic and most of the instruments were of Arabic origin, but the drums were louder than Arabic drums, the rhythms faster than Arabic rhythms, and almost every song erupted into a mawal, a soaring, passionate, wordless wail traditionally reserved for the most intense moments of the most intensely spiritual pieces. If by “primitive,” the author of the liner notes meant it made you want to dance, then this album was indeed primitive, but it was the American influence that made it so. Beneath the ringing of the oud, you could hear the roar of rock and roll.

Bakkar died two years after Port Said came out, and of the four or five musicians who knew him best, only one, Eddie “the Sheik” Kochak, is still alive. Kochak, eighty-eight years old, lives in an old-age home in Brooklyn Heights, not far from the bars and cafés where he and the other musicians used to hang out. He sings and plays the dumbek, a hand-drum shaped like a chalice, and when I asked if he could tell me anything about Bakkar, he waved his hand dismissively. “He had a gimmick,” he said, and then proceeded to demonstrate by opening his mouth and letting out a bizarre, warbling cry.

Eddie’s parents were from Syria, but Eddie is pure Brooklyn: Born on Atlantic Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the borough’s Syrian Christian neighborhood, he played the drum kit in a Brooklyn big-band and first set foot in the Middle East when he was posted in Cairo as a troop entertainer during World War II. When he got back home he  turned to the dumbek and teamed up with Hakki Obadia, an Iraqi Jewish violinist who had fled the country after a blaze of anti-Semitic violence in the ’30s. “We did a lot of mixed weddings,” Eddie told me. “Arab Italian, Arab Jewish, Arab Irish…” Their set list included “Tarantella,” “Danny Boy,” and “Hava Nagila.” 

When Bakkar went into the studio to record Port Said, Eddie and Hakki followed him. Eddie’s years on the wedding circuit had taught him that he could induce people to dance by blending vaguely Arabic melodies with driving rhythms, horn parts, and lyrics straight from the orientalist playbook (“Sammiayah the dancing girl was called a captive lady / every time she did her dance, she’d shake the Turkish Navy”), and over the following decades he capitalized on this discovery with an endless stream of recordings—songs like “Camel Hop” and “Shish Ke Bab Rock” and the psychedelic experiment “Sahara Sue.” Bakkar’s music, in Eddie’s opinion, was too slow and soft and sensitive—too arabesque—so Eddie urged him to pick up the tempo and turn up the drums. According to Eddie, Bakkar initially refused. “He was from the other side,” he told me. “They don’t think the way we do.”

It’s anyone’s guess how much money Bakkar made from the record. In those days, musicians had little power to negotiate their contracts, a fact that label owners in the rock-and-roll world widely exploited. One thing Bakkar undoubtedly got out of it was more work. He sang at “oriental nightclubs” like the Club Zahra and Club Morocco in Boston, and the Shahrazade in Los Angeles, and the Fez and the Seventh Veil in New York—places where Middle Eastern women in sequins and tassels danced for American couples in tuxedos and furs. He sang at music festivals, or mahrajan, in cities with big Arab populations, from Detroit to Providence, and toured the concert halls of Argentina and Brazil, and never stopped working the Sephardic bar mitzvah circuit, always singing in that wild voice, always straining his body to the limit. And then, in 1959, two years after the release of Port Said, he was performing for a crowd of several thousand Syrians at a racetrack in Rhode Island when he stopped halfway through his second number, asked for a chair, and collapsed. There’s no known recording of the performance, but according to one story, the last note he sang was a quarter note above high G, essentially the highest in the Arabic tenor scale. He was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors diagnosed him with a brain hemorrhage, and he died a few days later, at the age of forty-six.

Audio Fidelity had by then released four Bakkar albums, each featuring a lively depiction of oriental life on the cover. On 1958’s Music of the African Arab, a bare-breasted woman (possibly the first in American album-art history) dances for a crowd of leering merchants. On Sultan of Baghdad, released the same year, a grinning Bakkar in full Ali Baba regalia (turban, earrings, pointy boots) plays the oud for a pair of dancing girls in bras and bangles. And again that year, on The Magic Carpet, the rug of legend carries him heavenward, as two gorgeous fellow travelers treat him to a glimpse of the heavenly delights that lie in store. In his last years, Bakkar came as close as any Arab American singer had ever come to glory, and even after he died, the triumphs continued to mount. In 1960, one year after he sang his last note, Audio Fidelity released a fifth Bakkar album, Dances of Port Said, and six years after that it put out Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer; according to the liner notes, it collected the last of the “late, great” singer’s unreleased material. 

By this point, something strange had happened in America, something Bakkar could hardly have anticipated when his ship sailed out of Port Said in 1952: Americans were buying Arabic records. Or a certain kind of Arabic record, anyway—Dark Eyes and Oriental Moods and Belly Dance au Go-Go and One Night in a Harem and 10 Nights in a Harem. Bakkar had influenced a wave of followers—bands with names like Buddy Sarkissian and His Mecca Four, and George Abdo and His Flames of Araby Orchestra—and perhaps because these entertainers tended to care so little about the strictures of authenticity, they created something authentically American. Hailing from Greece and Turkey and Armenia, Israel and Lebanon and Palestine, they supplemented oud and bazouki with surf-rock guitar and psychedelic organ. They even inspired a reverse crossover, a black jazz trumpeter named Sonny Lester, who had a hit with 1968’s How to Belly-Dance for Your Husband

This was American party music, plain and simple, and for a while the lines at the Seventh Veil stretched out the door. But by the late ’70s, the last revelers were sweeping aside the beads and stumbling out into the night. Halfway around the world, Arabs and Israelis were killing each other, and in Cairo and Tehran, women who had once dressed in miniskirts were now going around with their heads covered. If Americans had previously associated the Middle East with sexy dancers (who, for a few coins more, would take you into their tent for more enjoyable entertainment), they now equated it with hijackings and high gas prices. The oriental nightclubs, with their potted palms and occidental patrons, now seemed out of touch and silly. And anyway, why would you go to the Seventh Veil when you could go to Studio 54? 

One of the few places where one can still find any traces of Bakkar’s legacy is the Rashid Music Sales Company, a small record store near Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue. Albert Rashid, the producer of Bakkar’s first New York recordings, established the store more than fifty years ago, and for years it was a neighborhood hub, one of those perpetually busy places where musicians gathered to check out the latest imports from “the other side,” to trade ideas, to gossip. But Mr. Rashid died in 1990, and it’s been years since the business turned a profit. Most of the Arab immigrants of Albert Rashid’s generation are dead, and their children, now in their sixties, moved out of the neighborhood long ago, to semi-suburban parts of Brooklyn and the actual suburbs. 

Raymond Karam, a food scientist for a major ice-cream company, ended up in Arizona. A Jewish convert who speaks just a few words of Arabic, he would seem an unlikely Bakkar fan, but he owns three sets of every Bakkar record, one for himself and one for each of his sons. Whenever the family gets together for a wedding or a Thanksgiving celebration, he makes sure Port Said is on the stereo, and as soon as he hears Eddie Kochak’s dumbek thumping through the speakers, he grabs a handkerchief and follows one of his cousins to the middle of the dance floor. “I accentuate her physical attributes with the handkerchief or a scarf,” he told me, “as we put on a little show.” By his own admission, he’s a ham—just like his father.

Karam is Bakkar’s son. He was two when the singer died. Karam’s mother, Annie, died only seven years later, so much of what Karam know about his parents’ relationship comes from hazy secondhand accounts. One thing he knows for sure is that Bakkar and Annie were never married. Either just before or right after Annie got pregnant, Bakkar married someone else, a wealthy widow who, in Karam’s telling, promised to help Bakkar with his career. In 1957, the year that Port Said came out, Annie sued Bakkar for child support. Bakkar denied paternity. Still, Annie “never spoke a harsh word” against him and, in fact, pushed the boy to follow him into the music business. 

He tried. In the early ’70s, he started a rock band called the Whip Cream Construction Company, and later, after moving to Arizona to work at an actual cream-related company (Carnation), formed a group with some other food scientists and dairy workers—they called it Spilt Milk. Stardom eluded him, but even today he occasionally materializes on the stage of some Phoenix-area drinking establishment with an acoustic guitar in his lap, playing something by Jeff Beck or Jefferson Airplane or the Beatles. He’s “a classic-rock guy,” he told me, and given his line of work and his taste in band names, it’s perhaps unsurprising that one of the most prominent bands in his iPod rotation is Cream. Every once in a while, though, when he’s running on the treadmill at the gym, one of his father’s songs comes on and he’ll start running even harder. “It gets my blood pumping,” he told me, and he didn’t mean it made him mad. “When you listen to old Arab music, it’s usually low-energy and always sounds as if they’re suffering in some way—but Mohammed was electric, happy. Even his slow stuff was seductive and enticing.” His mother, he said, called it Syrian rock and roll.

Saki Knafo’s work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and will appear in the upcoming book More New York Stories: Best of the City Section of the New York Times. He graduated from the M.F.A. nonfiction program at Columbia.

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