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The Cleopatra Record

by Joe Maneri, Udi Hrant, and Friends



Ideas of the Near East in the general American popular imagination in the first half of the 20th century were mostly limited to Bible stories or the cigarette pack camel and pyramids. Then a handful of popular books appeared by Armenian and Syrian immigrant writers in the 1940s and nightly news broadcasts of the Second Arab-Israeli war in the 1950s superimposed a new set of images. In the early ’60s, the movies Never on Sunday (1960), America America (1963), and Zorba the Greek (1964) crystalized a growing interest in the Eastern Mediterranean. The B-movie Dark Odyssey (1961), depicting a Greek sailor on shore leave in Manhattan, included a scene shot in Port Said, one of the small “Oriental” nightclubs along 8th Ave. with nightly live music during the ’40s and ’50s catering to a primarily Greek and Armenian immigrant clientele where Turkish was a lingua franca.

The film that most people saw, though, was the gaudiest and most fantastically Orientalist of them — Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor, released June 1963. That’s the one that the housewife, the salaryman, and the dumb kid alike were all most likely to have seen. For Chevrolet-driving, Crest-toothpaste America, that’s the one that solidified the notion of a world of gauze-covered women shielded from a bright desert sun by palm fronds. And that’s the one that a small independent record label of schlockmeisters who produced generic music sold directly through supermarkets and dime stores latched on to as their marketing strategy for a tape of about a half hour of material recorded around 1962 by a group of wedding band musicians.

The recording session was arranged and paid for by a trumpet player whose name no one now recalls. He brought in a band of creative and intellectual no-name, down-at-the-heels Brooklyn-based players who eked out a living by playing ethnic weddings for Jews, Armenians, and Greeks. He added a bongo drummer and a blind oudist from Turkey who didn’t speak English, and the group blasted out a Middle Eastern-jazz hybrid record in an afternoon.

The group met in a bar before the session, where the trumpet player showed them tunes scrawled on a stained cocktail napkin. They recorded songs drawn from repertoires of Armenian, Greek, and Jewish material that they knew, along with a tango in the style of “Miserlou,” a pop standard composed by the Greek-American Nick Roubanis and popularized by singer and music publisher Tetos Demetriades. The session’s leader got too loaded during the recording and split three quarters of the way through the studio time. The last couple songs were done without him or the bongo guy.

Somehow that tape wound up in the hands of the cheapo record label, who issued it with no artist credits, “exotica” titles for the songs, a drawing of Elizabeth Taylor on the cover, and the word CLEOPATRA in big letters on the front — a deceptive cash-grab on the popularity of the movie. Poorly pressed, sloppily packaged, hastily recorded, it was made to be disposable. And disposed of, it was. One for the junk heap.

Among the jobbing musicians who banged out this proto-World Music flotsam were two extraordinarily gifted players whose esteem and notoriety have grown over the decades that followed. They were 25 years apart in age and from different worlds. But one day in 1962, they both needed the fifty bucks and took the gig. One was the Sicilian-American clarinetist and composer Joe Maneri. The other was Hrant Kenklulian.

Udi Hrant, as he is usually called, was an Armenian, born blind in northwestern Turkey in 1901. He and his family survived the Armenian genocide in Konya, where he began studying oud as a teenager. Through the 1920s and ’30s, he lived in poverty, supporting himself playing in nightclubs and earning a reputation as a performer of exceptional depth and soulfulness. Many of the recordings that he made in Istanbul during that period were released in the U.S. for the immigrant population. When a wealthy Greek paid his fare to the U.S. in 1950 to have a procedure that might give him eyesight, there was already a waiting public of Armenians who knew his music. He spent more than a decade touring the Armenian communities of the U.S. — Boston, Fresno, Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, DC, and New York — performing in concert halls and house parties, teaching a budding generation of Armenian oudists, and recording for small, independent labels — Aris, Smyrnaphone, Oriental Moods, and Near East. The latter of those labels was a short-lived subsidiary of Orrin Keepnews’s Prestige Records, and the resulting LP, originally issued as Eastern Standard Time in 1962 and subsequently reissued as Turkish Delights, included several tracks with jazz saxophonist Johnny Griffin. Prestige had been dabbling in Near Eastern music, issuing several LPs of Greek clarinetist Spero Spyros, and in 1963 released the third Arab-jazz hybrid LP by the Brooklyn-born bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik. Griffin had played on the first two Abdul Malik LPs along with Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, and the Syrian-born Brooklyn violinist Naim Karacand. Hrant was in his early 60s when he gamely attended the session that resulted in the Cleopatra LP. That same year, he went back on tour overseas. He died in 1978 and is buried in Istanbul. His recordings have mostly been anthologized, notably by Harold Hagopian (son of one of Hrant’s primary disciples, Richard Hagopian) on his Traditional Crossroads label.

Joe Maneri was born in Brooklyn in 1927, the only child of a second-generation Sicilian-American carpenter and immigrant mother. Raised in Williamsburg in the Depression, he learned clarinet from an Italian neighbor. A lifelong devotee of Lester Young, he played in ad hoc jazz groups in neighborhood bars in the ’40s. A dreamer, he struggled to find work through the ’50s but hooked up with a cadre of “far out” musicians who introduced him to the German composer and conductor Joseph Schmid, a former student of Alban Berg’s and an exponent of the Second Viennese School of serial twelve-tone composition. Maneri plodded devotedly through a course of study of serialism with Schmid while pursuing musicians’ union jobs. He played a lot of Greek and Jewish weddings, where drinking was part of the gig. In 1963, his band recorded seven original songs that incorporated elements of all of his experiences — modernist atonalism, ethnic Brooklyn, and a freedom-loving style of improvised jazz not far removed from the parallel post-bop innovations of Ornette Coleman — in hopes that Atlantic Records (run by Istanbul-born Turk Ahmet Ertegun) would be interested in making an album. Atlantic declined. The composer Gunther Schuller, meanwhile, supported Maneri with periodic gigs and commissions through the 1960s. Schuller ultimately hired him to teach at the New England Conservatory, where he spent the 1970s and ’80s theorizing and teaching microtonal music, ultimately co-authoring a book on the subject in 1986. His knowledge of klezmer repertoire and technique influenced a generation of younger performers that sprouted up in the 1980s, and his improvising synthesized his complex composition, his down-home working-class musical life, and his personal spiritual journey. Like Hrant, his music spoke plainly and from the heart, with an outrageously sophisticated vocabulary and technique. From the late 1980s until his death in 2009, he performed and recorded prolifically. Among his recordings was one he called “Gardenias for Gardenis,” in tribute to the Greek clarinetist Costas Gadenis, who performed and recorded prolifically in the 1940s and was billed as “the Greek Benny Goodman.”

This group of recordings seems to represent the earliest recording session of Joe Maneri’s and among the last of Udi Hrant’s, a coincidence organized by an as-yet anonymous performer. The drummer, pianist, and bassist on the session were Joe’s band at the time, the same group on the 1964 demo session for Atlantic (issued on CD in Japan in 1998 under the title Paniots 9).

The session’s drummer, Pete Dolger, appears to have been a second leader of the band. Apart from appearances on at least one early 60s LP on MGM under the leadership of trumpet player Michael Hartophilis (b. ca. 1920; d. 1993), this album appears to be the sum total of his entire discography released in his lifetime, and no further biographical information has come to light. The fact that both bassist John Beal, pianist Don Burns, and Udi Hrant also make appearances on the Hartophilis MGM records tempts us to name Hartophilis as this session's horn player and musical director, but that remains conjecture.

The Atlantic demo session and a 24-minute free improv live duo performance with Maneri recorded in front of an audience of about eight people (ca. 1963-64, issued on CD in 2008 as the Peace Concert) are the only other recordings of Dolger. The two parted ways shortly thereafter when Maneri stopped playing wedding gigs. “We were wedding players, full time,” Maneri told Stu Vandermark in 2006; “That was our Real Job, so to speak. […] We weren’t in the ‘jazz scene.’ We respected jazz for jazz. We knew about Coltrane. […] I wasn’t really ‘knowing’ Coltrane’s music. Cause I was the type that didn’t buy records. and never listened to anything. Early on, when I was 18, 19, 20, 21, I started to get the feeling that there was no chance that in a lifetime I would ever be in a jazz circle. So, I just turned it off, so to speak, and didn’t listen to anything. Just like that.”

Once record collectors noticed the Cleopatra record, it seemed so peculiar that the rumor circulated that it was a Sun Ra session. That was the only explanation anyone could make for its existence. Maneri himself heard of its release through a friend who happened across it in 1963, bought a copy for himself, gave it away to a student years later, and then forgot about it. It wasn’t until the ’90s when a guy in a record store noticed that the clarinet sound like Joe and played it to him that it came back to him. Some of it. When he listened, he remarked, “if I knew it was going to be listened to 40 years later, I would have played better!”

In 2018, the UK Trunk label issued a raw transfer of a stereo copy of the Cleopatra LP in less-than-ideal condition digitally through the big download channels. Their blurb about it perpetuates the Sun Ra-connection rumor. So, we present here the best quality mono restoration that we have been able to produce, in a better running order with as much detail as we have so far been able to gather. We offer it to you as a gift to the memory of the musicians involved.
Corrections and additions will be gratefully received.


released April 5, 2020

oud: Hrant Kenklulian 1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10 (violin on track 2)
clarinet: Joe Maneri 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 10
brass: untraced 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10
drum set: Pete Dolger 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
bass: John Beal 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
piano: Don Burns 4, 5
bongos / zils: untraced 1, 2, 6,7, 9, 10

Bonus tracks 11 & 12:
oud: Hrant Kenklulian
bass: John Beal
clarinet: Nick Rassias or Tassos Halkias
kanun: Emin Gundus
dumbek: Tarik Bulut or John Yalenezian

Titles given in parentheses are those assigned by the record company on its original release. Some copies were issued with their labels swapped. Because the original LP was issued with five tracks on each side, one might encounter copies with differring song titles from those given here.

Transfers, restoration, and notes by Ian Nagoski
Production and research by Michael Sliwkowski
Copy editing by Heather McCabe
Song identification by Harry Kezelian and Joe Graziosi.
Special thanks to Abe and Mat Maneri for their memories and assistance.
Thanks also to Harout Arakelian, Adam Good, and Dan Blacksberg


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