Monday, February 25, 2008

Kibbespotting: Rewriting the History of the Blues

No doubt almost anyone who reads this blawg heard this amazing story (Jan. 31) on NPR's Morning Edition: "Kibbe at the Crossroads: A Lebanese Kitchen Story." On the face of it, this is just a "food" story, a bit of NPR fluff. But it turns out that a story focusing on the mostly unknown history of Syrian/Lebanese cuisine in the Mississippi Delta opens up a history of Syrian-Lebanese immigrants in the Delta and their ambiguous position on the black-white color line. I love the image of Robert Johnson sitting under a sycamore at the legendary crossroads in Clarksdale, guitar by his side, eating barbecue he had procured from the nearby Abe's Barbecue, a restaurant founded by a Lebanese immigrant (Abraham Davis) from the Lebanese town of Zahle. (Probably he didn't eat kibbe, which seems at the time to have been "home" food cooked up on Sunday and not served in Lebanese-Syrian restaurants.) We learn too that Ike and Tina Turner worked for a Lebanese-owned grocery store in nearby Riverton. And we learn that during the days of the Civil Rights movement, Abe's Barbecue and the Lebanese-owned Chamoun's Rest Haven were among the only in the area that would serve blacks. (Without more evidence, I don't think we should generalize on the basis of this story about the commitment of Arab-Americans in the South to the Civil Rights movement. But I do have it on good authority from a friend who knew Ike Turner quite well that Ike always had kind words for Lebanese, based on his experience working for a Lebanese-American grocer.)

At one point in the story, Pat Davis, owner of Abe's, pulls out a CD and plays a song in Arabic sung by Danny Thomas, who was cited by those interviewed for the story as the preeminent Lebanese-American, and star of the very popular sitcom "The Danny Thomas Show," which ran from 1953 to 1964, and often featured Danny's fictional Lebanese uncle, "Uncle Tonoose" (played by Hans Conried--see photo).

The CD in question is The Music Of Arab-Americans, released by Rounder, and the song is reportedly the only recording in Arabic released by Danny Thomas. I highly recommend it, and Danny's song is one of the best on the CD. (The very informative liner notes were penned by ethnomusicologist Anne Rasmussen.)

And, read to the bottom of the "Kibbe" story for a useful discussion of the song, "Miserlou."


Khawaga said...

More Delta-Levantine music connections: the song "Sea of Love," 1959, by John Philip Baptiste, was produced by George Khoury, who had a record label based in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He seems to have put out mostly cajun, zydeco, swamp pop. Not sure where exactly he or his family hails from.

Ted Swedenburg said...

If we extend the blues-Levant connections beyond the Delta (but remaining in the South), then the name Clifford Antone must be mentioned. The late Cliff was the owner of the great Austin, TX blues club, Antone's, the home of renowned Austin blues musicians like The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble, Miss Louann Barton, Angela Strehli, Paul Ray, W.C. Clark, Marcia Ball, etc.

Richard S. said...

Mmm, I love kibbe, one of my favorite things to eat (preferably with hot sauce, washed down with a bottle of Ayran yogurt drink). (BTW, the middle eastern stands and restaurants in NYC often sell it by the "kibbe ball" - pretty easy to find here and now...)

Anyway, interesting story, I hadn't heard it before.

More kibbe spottings, please!