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.

Star of the East: Arabic Songs in Massachusetts, 1948​-​49

by Russell Bunai

Jurr pt 1 03:02
Jurr pt 2 02:58


"I feel that Damascus.. the old city... is attached to me in the way that the trailing branch of the jasmine clings to the worm-eaten wood of the bannister on the staircase of our tall, vine-covered house. Damascus permeates my life as that vine permeates the walls, the ceiling, the windows, and the houses of our quarters, or as the 'water weeds,' dahlias, magnolias, and blossoms of the Indian apricots, sour lemon, citron, sweet lemon, bitter orange, and sweet grape vines love the pots in the courtyards of our good neighbors-for-life -- our beloved 'relatives'..."
-Siham Tergeman, Daughter of Damascus, translated by Andrea Rugh (University of Texas Press) 1994

The music and life of singer Russell Bunai were first studied by Dr. Anne Rasmussen in her 1991 PhD dissertation, “Individuality and social change in the music of Arab-Armericans,” and then in the notes to the 1996 Rounder Records CD that she produced: “The Music of Arab-Americans: A Retrospective Collection.” Rasmussen had befriended and interviewed Bunai and his wife Rose. Subsequently, Prof. Richard Breaux wrote a 2019 blog post on Bunai, which overlaps significantly with the notes below, largely, I suspect, because we were drawing from many of the same genealogical, press, and academic sources. I am grateful to them for their work, and references are made in the credits to this collection.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Russell Bunai was an excellent and popular singer at the musical and social gatherings of Arab-Americans. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he traveled widely, playing regularly in New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, etc., often appearing with some of the best performers of his milieu: violinists Philip Solomon and Naim Karacand, vocalists Anton Abdelahad and Najeeba Morad, oudist Joe Budway, drummer Mike Hamway, etc. Unlike many of the others, he did not record prolifically. He released about ten discs on his own Star of the East label during the years 1948-49. Half of his total discography is presented here. At present, the identities of his accompanists remain an open question, but they were clearly very good and likely to have been some of these aforementioned serious players. (Breaux gives Solomon as the violinist on "Hal Tadree" on his blog entry.)

He was born Raskallah Bounay on September 15, 1903 in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil to immigrant parents from Greater Syria. He was one of five children. His family returned home when he was a child; documents vary whether they then lived in Damascus or Beirut or both. In December 1920, he came to the U.S. through the port of New York. By 1925, he was living in Cambridge, Mass. Someone named “Siam” Bunai was running a spa at the corner of Oxford and Cambridge Streets there by 1921,and one Lian S. Bunai was living on Oxford St. with his wife Mary (Hafeza), a dressmaker in a factory, and their child Alfred by 1920. (Lian died in 1925. Alfred was born in Brazil ca. 1905 and became both assistant district attorney at Suffolk Superior Court and the president of the Syrian-Lebanese American Federation during the 1930s.) It seems reasonable to guess that these were extended family members who were Russell’s early support system as a newly-arrived young man. He worked as a clerk (“filer” as it was once described on a census document) at several businesses.

In the next few years, he met Rose Haluey (b. ca. 1907-10 in Damascus), who had arrived through the port of Philadelphia in 1912, lived for a while with her parents and two siblings in the textile milltown of Willimantic, Connecticut before settling on Oxford St. in Cambridge. They were living there when her father Salim died. Russell and Rose were married September 15, 1929, and between August 1930 and November 1935, they had four children. Russell worked as a clerk at various places in the Boston area, and by 1940 Rose had taken a job as a machine-operator at a dress-making factory, a position she certainly held for over a decade.

By the mid-30s Russell had started making appearances as a performer while working day jobs; at the age of 38, in 1941 he was still a clerk for the Carpenter Manufacturing Company. By the end of the ‘40s, when he produced this series of records, he declared himself a professional concert singer. Meanwhile, his two eldest daughters, Winifred and Barbara, worked as secretaries at a jewelry retailer while still living at home with their parents and siblings on Oxford Street in Cambridge. Richard Breaux quotes their son Dr. Russell Bunai Jr. as having said that Rose was the family’s primary breadwinner for the family during much of Russell Bunai Sr.’s musical career.

Bunai’s performing career slowed down in the late 1950s as the audience moved away from church-sponsored events and into the multi-cultural nightclubs. He began to collect Social Security when he turned 65 in 1968, and he died October 28, 1996 in the suburb of Woburn. When his funeral was held at St. John of Damascus Orthodox in Dedham, MA, a church that had sponsored many of the gatherings where he performed, he was survived by all four of his children, 18 grandchildren, and 20 great-grandchildren. Rose died February 17, 2006 and was interned with him in Fairview Cemetery in Boston.

It is our hope that in this space we might be able to fill in more details of Bunai’s career, repertoire, and his remaining discography. Given the flexibility of the bandcamp format, we’ve been successful in doing so for several other artists in the past. Fingers crossed.


released December 18, 2022

Transfers, restoration, and notes by Ian Nagoski

Tracks 1-8 issued in 1948
Tracks 9-12 issued in 1949
Transliterations and translations are given here as they are on the original disc labels.

Kanun on by Mohammed Akkad
Violin presumed to be by Philip Solomon

Further reading:
Richard M. Breaux syrianlebanesediasporasound.blogspot.com/2019/05/russell-bunai-musician-russell-bunais.html 2019
Anne K. Rasmussen “Individuality and social change in the music of Arab-Armericans,” PhD dissertation, UCLA 1991
- “The Music of Arab-Americans: A Retrospective Collection” Rounder Records CD notes 1997

Cover photo of Russell J. Bunai via Anne Bunai.


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 Star of the East: Arabic Songs in Massachusetts, 1948-49, you may also like: