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."