September 1, 2009
Finally, I’m coming up for air and presenting a long-overdue, two-sided post. Unfortunately, being a Los Angeles resident at the moment, this means the air I’m coming up from is thick and sooty, with flakes of ash swirling around, wherever you’d care to look. People like to say, “Well, they should be used to it – it happens every year!” But, this is now the 10th largest in California’s history with no sign of letting up, and it looms…man, does it loom. The sky has been punched.
But let’s move on to loftier subjects. Today, we present both sides of a recording made ca. July 1916, by two Arab-Americans: the singer William Kamel, and the enduring Syrian-American violinist, Naim Karakand. There is an oud player as well, which may or may not be Kamel. They perform an aching love song, transliterated here as “Ayn Allaty.” When translated into English, it looks like sort of a strange phrase: “Where is she, the one who…?” This is the fragment of a question Mr. Kamel asks repeatedly. He and Karakand engage in interplay between singer and violinist that is made more delicate by the age and acoustics of the recording. Both musicians give each other plenty of room to perform, but there is no need for flagrant theatrics on either side. For a recording that was made 93 years ago, it still has subtlety.
Kamel recorded 12 sides that day in 1916, these two included. As far as I can tell, he did not record for any other company, though it’s possible he recorded for one of the several Arab-American independent labels of the time (Maloof and Macksoud, for example). Naim Karakand, on the other hand, recorded for multiple labels, both as an accompanist and as a virtuoso soloist, from about March of 1915 through the 1940s (under a multitude of name spellings). His talent makes one wonder about his history – in Anne K. Rasmussen’s excellent CD The Music of the Arab Americans on Rounder (where there are several pieces which feature Karakand), she supposes that Karakand arrived in the US sometime “during the second decade” of the 20th century. In fact, Karakand was born in 1891, and arrived in New York City in October of 1909, and is listed as “Nourim Karakan” in Ellis Island records. He passed away in 1973. Now, who was his teacher? Perhaps someone who knew the giant of violin, Aleppan Sami El Chawa? This is simply a fantasy for the time being…
The Columbia E-series began around 1908 and ended around 1923, and featured hundreds if not thousands of recordings made by US immigrants. Armenian, Norwegian, Icelandic, Polish – you name it. There are two things about this series that are worth mentioning from a collector’s standpoint: first, the majority of releases displayed one of the most irksome color schemes in record label history, with its gold on green, making artists and song titles almost impossible to read. Second, their pressings were often godawful, filled with noise even with a clean recording…making those distant, pre-electricity recordings extra difficult for the novice. This one is actually quite clean, believe it or not - thankfully, although the disparity in volume between Kamel’s voice and Karakand’s violin is wide, you can still sink into it. And I hope you do!
Issue Number: E3430
Matrix Number: 44179/44180
Thanks to Ian Nagoski for dates and info! Besides the aforementioned Music of the Arab Americans CD, definitely check out the blistering Karakand solo on Black Mirror, if you haven’t already.