We’ve updated our Terms of Use to reflect our new entity name and address. You can review the changes here.
We’ve updated our Terms of Use. You can review the changes here.

Master Musician Plays Middle East Classics: Iraqi​-​American Violinist & Composer, 1958​-​72

by Hakki Obadia

Same'e Rast 08:43
Afrah 03:23
Balabil 04:23
Rakseet Bint 02:17
Happy Jordan 02:27
Oglan Oglan 04:01
Ouzo 03:06
Sauda Sauda 03:46


The ship that brought Heskel Haron Obadia by third class from Alexandria, Egypt to the port of New York departed on January 29, 1947 and arrived three weeks later. Obadia was a Jewish native of the Bataween section of Baghdad, Iraq. U.S. immigration was, at the time, heavily restricted, and Obadia came on a student visa with the financial support of his father to study music at the University of California, Berkeley.

Although dates of birth vary from 1921-28 among his remaining documents, he represented himself upon entry in the U.S. as 19 years old (so, born in 1927, although it’s reasonable to guess that he was a few years older). He had played violin since age six, had been involved in the organization of the first symphony orchestra in Baghdad, had a nascent career as a stage and radio performer, and spoke several languages.

According to Dr. Adhid Miri there were about 200,000 Jews in Iraq in 1910. Waves of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in particular during the next few decades resulted in repressive measures and violence against Jews. By 1941, a quarter of the population had fled, mostly to Palestine. Between 1945 and 1950, and especially after the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 when Zionist activity or affiliation was declared a capital offense in Iraq, life for Jews in Iraq became untenable. Between 1949 and ’51, 124,000 Jews were evacuated out of of the country; by 1968, only 2,000 remained. Syrian Jews suffered a parallel fate during the same period.

Hesekl Obadia studied at U. C. Berkeley from 1947 to 1951 under the venerable composers Ernest Bloch (b. 1880 Geneva, Switzerland; d. 1959) and his student Roger Sessions (b. 1896; d. 1985), earning a Bachelor of Music. He relocated to New York City by 1953, where he filed his petition to naturalize as an American citizen before flying in January 1956 to Tel Aviv for a month, likely to visit his relocated family. Within six months of returning to the U.S., in November 1956, Hakki Obadia as he was known for the rest of his life, performed as a supporting artist for Sabah (b. 1927; d. 2015), the single most popular Lebanese vocalist of the 1950s and a major star of the Arab world for decades. The other musicians supporting her were a who’s-who of the best Arab players in New York: violinist Naim Karacand, oudists Mohammed El-Bakkar and Joe Budway, and percussionists Mike and George Hamway. Sabah simply could not have asked for a better band in Brooklyn or, for that matter, most cities in the world. In his 20s, Hakki Obadia’s career as a performer, not of the post-Schoenberg dodecaphonic school adopted by his West Coast teachers, but as an ethnic player for celebrations of the Arab-American community had begun.

In April 1957 at the Asonia Hotel in Manhattan, Obadia married Rebecca Musaffi (b. Baghdad, 1935) who had immigrated with her father Victor Abdulla Musaffi, mother, and sister Violet. Rebecca had just recently graduated high school in Elmhurst, Queens. Over the next couple of years, while living in Jackson Heights, Queens, he hustled gigs, advertising constantly for work as a performer in the Brooklyn Caravan newspaper: “His violin plays on the strings of your heart: For All Occasions.” Around the time of the birth of their son Eric in May 1960, he had parlayed his connections into some recording sessions.

The first two recording gigs were for labels associated with film companies. The first came in the form of sessions in 1958 for the ambitious Aleppo-born Assyrian singer and oudist Djamal Aslan that were released in April 1959 on the 20th Fox label as Lebanon: Her Heart, Her Songs; it was Aslan's only record and a big production he'd worked hard on, including a 37-member choir. Some other of the players on the album were the same as those who’d accompanied Sabah with Obadia including Karacand and Mike Hamway. Another was an African-Ameerican Bud-Stuy, Brooklyn native bassist named Ahmed Abdul Malik, who had converted to Islam and was then Thelonious Monk’s bassist; he went on to record a series of Arab-jazz fusion LPs for Riverside in the next few years as well as playing on John Coltrane’s 1961 Village Vanguard sessions. Two of the other players opened up new paths for Obadia as professional musician.

One was Joseph Sugar, who played cello on the Aslan LP. Sugar co-arranged and co-conducted Obadia’s first personal statement on record, a lush, orientalist 1960 exotica production for MGM titled 10 Nights in a Harem. New research by Prof. Richard Breaux has shown that Sugar (b. Dec. 14, 1928; d. November 1, 2009) was a second-generation Assyrian-American who was born in Worchester, Massachusetts, raised mostly around North Bergen, New Jersey, and whose father was a priest.

Obadia was proud enough of the 10 Nights LP to have taken out a series of ads in the Caravan newspaper announcing it to the Arab-American audience in the New York area. It’s a showcase for Obadia as an arranger, comprised of songs that sound like proposals for the soundtrack of a B-movie set in Egypt. A few instances of Obadia’s violin shine through the production and the relentless preponderance of hammering drumming.

And speaking of relentless drumming…
The other significant performer on the Aslan LP was someone Obadia had already known for years, the Brooklyn-born, second-generation Syrian-American percussionist and entertainer Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak (b. Edward Sibouy Kochakji, June 5, 1921; d. Dec. 2018). They first met in 1953 and ultimately formed a close partnership, playing together for four decades. They made an album together for Decca in 1964 and regularly performed together through ‘60s, often with Jack Ghanaim (b. Ramallah, Palestine, Feb. 1920; d. New Jersey, 1971), who played both oud and kanun. Kochak was by that time more than a decade into a career as an extroverted performer with a willingness to play up oriental stereotypes and a commitment to a hybridized Arab-American style. In the mid-60s, they cut an independent LP called “Music With the New Armer-Abic Sound” and a series of jokey pop-crossover 45s including “Charanga Twist” and “No Shishkebob on Sunday.”

in 1963-64, Obadia made a series of validating, if fleeting, appearances in prestigious New York venues - Town Hall, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall. An appearance with Kochak at the Hellenic Near East Music Festival at Philharmonic Hall in April 1964 got Obadia his first mention the New York Times, who described his performances as “hair-raising.” He went unmentioned again in the Paper of Record for another twenty years. Meanwhile, as a husband and father, he simply worked as much as possible. An instrumental performance of Obadia’s was used as a filler track on a self-released LP by the Turkish singer and actor Lutfi Guneri who was living in New York at the time, and Obadia published an English-language oud instruction book. Obadia and Kochack spent the vacation season in the Summer of 1964 playing in Asbury Park with The Jamal Twins who were neither twins nor named Jamal; they were in fact the daughters of Eastern European Jews who settled in Egypt in the 1920s and spent the late 50s to the early 70s dancing in the U.S., because the Egyptian police became suspicious that they were involved in espionage while on tour in India and East Asia, making it unsafe for them to return home to Egypt.

Kochak and Obadia knocked out a series of LPs frequently in collaboration with the violinist Fred Elias and ad hoc bands between 1966 and ’69 for the Scepter Records subsidiary Mace, “designed especially for the go-go-go crowd… for the belly-dance cafe society people” at the 254 W. 54th St studio (where the Velvet Underground recorded much of their first LP around the same time). Among them are two LPs credited to “The Ethnic Turkish Orchestra” and “The Ethnic Armenian Orchestra,” both designations being purposely misleading toward a largely uncaring Western public. The group’s core - Kochak, Elias, and Obadia - were native Arabic-speakers; clarinetist Steve Bagoshian and oudist Joseph Kouyoumjian were Armenians. In any case, much of content of those LPs are derived from the repertoires of Greek (“Ouzo Ouzo,” “Miserlou”), Armenian (“Sood E, Sood E” and “Oglan Oglan”), Lebanese (dabkes), and Jewish (“Hava Nagila”) weddings in the 1950s and ‘60s where all of the musicians earned a lot of their livings .

In 1969, Obadia released his only solo LP, a visionary work in plain contrast to the orientalist populism of his work with Kochak and most of their contemporaries. It was technically masterful and presented as the work of an intellectual and serious artist. No fezzes or dancing girls on the front of the jacket; just detailed explanations of the scales and workings of the music on the rear panel. Titled Middle East Classics, it was recorded at Sidney Feldman’s Mastertone Studio at 130 W. 42nd St. in Manhattan, where, just a few years earlier, Elektra records had made a series of seminal folk recordings (Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Fred Neil & Vince Martin, Oscar Brand, the Dillards, Phil Ochs, and Spider John Koerner), leading to recordings by Near Eastern musicians out of the MacDougal Street Feenjon Cafe and then the prolific Armenian oudist George Mgrdichian. Obadia used the studio for an ambitious project to redefine Middle Eastern music in the U.S. by playing it at its highest level, rather than as the lurid attraction for nightclubs run by mobsters that it had quickly become. Coalescing all his talents as an arranger and performer, and playing all of the instruments (violin, viola, cello, oud, and darbuka), he built the album alone utilizing the then-new multi-track recording medium, less than two years after the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper and another year before Glenn Gould’s multi-track recording of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5. Released with thorough liner notes for each track and an ingenious internal structure with each side playing as its own program, it was both serious and cutting-edge.

The Brooklyn-based independent label that issued it was run by the Rashid Brothers, Raymond and Stan, whose father Albert had begun releasing Arabic discs from their Atlantic Avenue shop in the 1940s. Obadia’s masterpiece reached few listeners at the time. It was reissued on CD twenty years later in 1990 by the Global Village label, where it reached a few more. (In 1993 Global Village released another CD of solo performances by Obadia titled Iraqi Jewish and Iraqi Music.) Presented here again in its entirety, another thirty years later with some contextual performances, who knows? Maybe the audience Obadia had in mind still waits for him.

Around 1972 Obadia recorded with Kochak again at another ad hoc bellydance session, under the guidance of the well-known RCA producer of “mood music” Ethel Gabriel. With the popular Greek clarinetist Gus Vali, Armenian reed players Souren Baronian and Steve Bagoshian (both previously of the Nor-Ikes band), Armenian oudist Haig Manoukian, and Arab violinist Fred Elias the band plays standards of of the nightclub and wedding repertoires for those interested in the ongoing wave of interest in bellydancing, which by that point was being contextualized as a feminist expression. From the mid-’70s through the early ’80s, he and Kochak released an extremely popular series of LPs, tapes, and books designed specifically for the bellydance community and it is probably that era of Kochak and Obadia’s work that has had the visible legacy.

In 1979 Obadia collaborated with the oudist and singer Vita Israel on an album titled Sephardic Hebrew Songs of the Middle East. While continuing to perform around New York and New Jersey, by the early 80s, after almost 30 years of continuous performing, Obadia took a position teaching music at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, Long Island. In 1983, he gave a lecture at a Jewish folklife conference in New Jersey on “the influence of Arabic music on Jewish Middle Eastern music.” In the 1990s, he and Kochak transitioned once again from playing ethnic parties to an exotica act in nightclubs to performances at museums, where they presented their music to an inquisitive public as though they were something from the past and under glass with question-and-answer sessions afterward.

Hakki Obadia died on May 27, 2004, as the U.S. was in the midst of the Iraq war and only a few months after Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein was captured by the U.S. military. The stone erected in New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon, Long Island, gave Hakki Obadia’s year of birth as 1924 and reads “Devoted Husband, Beloved Dad, Wise & Kind Brother, Uncle, Grandpa, and Teacher. MASTER MUSICIAN”
His wife Rebecca Obadia died July 14, 2001.


released January 10, 2023

Transfers, restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski
All recordings made in New York City

Tracks 1-9 recorded ca. 1969 at Mastertone Recording Studios
Hakki Obadia - violin, viola, cello, oud, darbuka

Tracks 10-12 recorded ca. 1958
Djamal Aslan - vocal on track 12
Naim Karacand & Hakki Obadia - violins
Louis Karawan - oud
Fahim Sayeg - nye
Joseph Sugar - cello
Ahmed Abdul Malik - bass
Joseph Cotton - kanun
Eddie Kochak - percussion
Mike Hamway & George David - darbuke
Sam Fiackry - castenets & tambourine
Eduouard Ghazal - chorus conductor on track 12

Tracks 13-14 recorded ca. 1960
Hakki Obadia - violin, conductor, arranger, and vocal on track 13.
Joseph Sugar - co-conductor and arranger.

Tracks 15-18 recorded ca. 1964
Hakki Obadia, violin
Eddie "Sheik" Kochak, percussion

Tracks 19-20 recorded ca. 1967 at Scepter Studio
Hakki Obadia, violin
Eddie "Sheik" Kochak, percussion

Track 21 recorded ca. 1967 Scepter Studio
Fred Elias & Hakki Obadia - violins
Eddie "Sheik" Kochak dumbeg
Joe Kouyoumjian - oud
Nick Kokoras - guitar
George Mell - bass

Track 22 recorded ca. 1968 Scepter Studio
Emin Gandiz - kanun
Fred Elias & Hakki Obadia - violins
Eddie "Sheik" Kochak dumbeg
Steve Bagoshian - clarinet
Joe Kouyoumjian - oud
George Mell - bass
Eddie Branden - guitar
Kazar Coloian - tambourine

Tracks 23-25 recorded ca. 1972
Gus Vali - clarinet
Hakki Obadia - violin
Souren Baronian - G clarinet, zils
Haig Manoukian - oud
John Valentine - guitar
Chet Amsterdam - bass
Shamia Azad - dumbek

Titles are given here are they are as presented on the original releases.

Further reading:
Barbara T. Stack www.btstack.com/Hakki_Obadia.html
Richard Breaux www.arabamerica.com/greater-syrian-diaspora-at-78-rpm-eddie-the-sheik-kochak/
Richard Breaux syrianlebanesediasporasound.blogspot.com/2023/03/the-sweet-sounds-and-compositions-of.html


all rights reserved



Canary Records Baltimore, Maryland

early 20th century masterpieces (mostly) in languages other than English.

An hour in clamor and a quarter in rheum.

contact / help

Contact Canary Records

Streaming and
Download help

Redeem code

Report this album or account

Canary Records recommends:

If you like Master Musician Plays Middle East Classics: Iraqi-American Violinist & Composer, 1958-72, you may also like: