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Middle Eastern immigrants have substantially influenced Mexican food, language, and architecture – but what about the music?

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Exhibit Sections

Posted on December 28, 2019 by Amanda Ekery

In addition to the music I wrote, the Árabe Exhibit featured a few highlights from my research. Below are a few of the exhibit sections.


Exhibit Introduction:

In the early 20th century, a wave of Middle Eastern immigrants left the Ottoman Empire to start a new life in the Americas. Some of these immigrants sailed to Mexico and many made their way to the El Paso/Juarez border.

This community of Middle Eastern immigrants in the El Paso/Juarez region influenced the food and economy…but what about the music? Árabe explores the stories, circumstances, and history of Middle Eastern immigrants in the El Paso region through an artistic lens.

The word Árabe is Spanish for Arab, but it was also the term used by the Mexican community of El Paso when speaking of Syrians in the early 20th century.

Influence on food:

As immigrants migrate, so do their customs and culture. According to food historian, Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Middle Eastern immigrants gave birth to Tacos al Pastor, aka tacos arabes.

Influenced by the Arabic shawarma, meat vertically cooked and put into pita bread, the al pastor taco meat is prepared the same way and instead put into a tortilla.

Influence on economy:

When Middle Easterners came to El Paso and Juarez, they worked as peddlers. They sold everything from clothes, to produce, to dry goods, to furniture, traveling around the area. As peddlers saved money, they were able to open stores selling similar goods and employing family and friends who were immigrating.

In Mexico, Middle Eastern immigrants introduced loans, changing the business model of merchants. Later in the 20th century, some of the largest El Paso employers were created through the Arab peddling evolution including Farah’s Textile Company and the Charles Lyon Produce Company. Today a few of these businesses are historical landmarks in El Paso such as Sunset Grocery.

Derbake Drum:

Derbake is a Middle Eastern drum used in a variety of celebrations and has been around for over 100 years. The name is thought to come from the word “daraba” which means “to strike” in Arabic.

The body of the drum was made from wood, clay, or metal and the drum head was made from stretched goat or fish skin. Many of the earliest derbakes were played by women in the 18th and 19th century.

Ney (Nay) Flute:

The Ney (Nay) is a Middle Eastern flute. It is the main wind instrument used in Arabic music and made from a hollow piece of cane or reed. There are different sizes of Ney based on the musical key the song being played requires. The tuning system is different than Western harmony in that the Ney can play microtonal notes characteristic of Arabic music. Similar to the Western Flute, the Ney is played by blowing air across not into a lip hole. (picture of myself and the exhibit instrument table above).


Top left – Sunset Grocery

Top right – myself and the exhibit instrument table

Bottom left – article about my great-grandmother who was a Shrine drummer

Bottom right – Middle Eastern drummers from the El Paso Shrine Club

More Updates ▼

Yenobak Eih

Posted on December 22, 2019 by Amanda Ekery

I discovered Yenobak Eih in my great-grandmother’s record collection. My recomposition is very different from the original recording but I kept the upbeat dance rhythm present in the original. The Alamphon Record Company recorded Yenobak Eih with Sana, a vocalist. The Alamphon Record Company pressed 78 rpm records from the 1940s – 1950s. They were located on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, New York and the label recorded Arab-American singers and local talent to serve the emerging Arab-American population.

Similar to Columbia Records’ E series (E stood for Ethnic), the Alamphon Records were advertised to, produced by, and distributed to Arab-American families across the United States. Some of these communities included New York City’s Washington Street; Detroit, Michigan; and El Paso, Texas.

The song is deceptive in that the music sounds lively, joyous and celebratory but the lyrics are about pain, confusion, and heartbreak. I really loved this juxtaposition within the music and lyrics and highlighted this difference in the arrangements’ sections.


Complete translation of Yenobak Eih:

What do you get out of hurting me

Your love is a fire

In you, you have a secret

This adds to the fire

Isn’t it enough to torture me

Explain to me, what do you get?


My entire life, I’ve been living for you

Talk to me, may God save you

Explain to me, what do you get?

What do you get out of hurting me?

Your love is fire that lights me on fire



Double Faced

Posted on December 17, 2019 by Amanda Ekery

“But we are more than Syrians. Like Janus, the old Roman god, we are double-faced – and that in no slanderous sense. We have one face looking backward and another forward.” Philip Hitti (1928)

This wordless, heavily improvised piece illustrates Philip Hitti’s quote of having two faces as a Syrian immigrant in the United States. A want to assimilate and become part of the existing culture is reflected in the composed melody of this piece present in the middle and end sections. The urge to look back, continue traditions, and seek information from back home is reflected in the chaotic free improvisations present in the beginning and middle.

One way Syrian immigrants stayed connected to politics, family affairs, and news from the Middle East was through Syrian World, a newspaper publication specifically for Arab-American families in the United States. Syrian World was widely distributed, and included news from both the U.S. and from the Middle East, and even included write-in op-eds so that Arab Americans from around the country could communicate with each other.

Today, the Syrian Federation magazine serves a similar purpose of sharing news and events with Arab American families.

Three Days

Posted on December 7, 2019 by Amanda Ekery

This song is a combination of stories I heard from interviewing the Syrian Ladies Club of El Paso and the oral history of Hana Farah at the UTEP Library. Three Days talks about leaving one home behind and creating a new one. I posted a draft of this song in an earlier post with more information about the background story.


Three days from stranger to wife

Desert for desert, mountain for mountain

Trading a life


Unseen while the plans are laid out

Passage through passage, farewells recounted

Eyes fill with doubt


A place awaits far from the home a heart has known

But a heart can grow


Same sky, but the sun is put out

New people, no purpose, new language left wordless

Living silently without


A place awaits far from the home a heart has known

But a heart must grow

Take the place that is new, make a life and home that has

Space for a YOU


Three days from stranger to wife

Now mother and partner and leader and owner

Oh what a life


A place awaits far from the home a heart has known

But a heart has grown

Exhibit Highlights

Posted on December 3, 2019 by Amanda Ekery

The Árabe Exhibit was small but mighty this past weekend. There were visitors of all ages and each had stories, interesting ties, and interest to the Arabic community in El Paso!

The exhibit featured an overview of the history of Syrian immigration to the El Paso region and the influence these immigrants had on food and economy. There was a map that illustrated three popular migration routes as well as the main port cities in Mexico and entry points in Texas. 

The exhibit also featured an interactive musical instrument section with derbake drums and ney flutes, as well as the history of female Syrian derbake players in El Paso. Lastly, but certainly not least was the music I wrote influenced by all this research! 

In the attached video and pictures you can see a quick glimpse of the exhibit. Over the next week, I will be posting more pictures with the accompanying research as well as the music I wrote with the background history of each song. More coming soon!

Recording Complete!

Posted on November 20, 2019 by Amanda Ekery

On Sunday we recorded the Árabe tracks! They will be shared at the exhibit in El Paso on 11/30 (details in the event section of this page) along with the research and backstory that accompanies each piece.

Hope to see you 11/30 and Happy Thanksgiving!

Writing Draft

Posted on September 18, 2019 by Amanda Ekery

Currently writing away to present Árabe on 11/30 in El Paso. One of the songs I’m writing is  called “3 Days.” In one of the interviews I conducted, I met a woman who was living in Lebanon (Lebanon was part of Syria during French Mandate) and she told me the story of how she came to El Paso – she met her husband on a Thursday, married him on Saturday, and left for America the next day. Married in 3 days! But that was how things were. I also listened to the oral histories of Syrian immigrants collected by the University of Texas at El Paso. In one of these recordings, a woman spoke so sweetly about how the mountains and climate of El Paso were very similar to the mountains of her hometown in Syria.


So, I combined these two stories to write 3 Days. Here are the draft lyrics:

3 days, from stranger to wife

desert for desert, mountain for mountain

trading a life


Unseen, while the plans are made out

passage through passage, farewells recounted

eyes filled with doubt


A place awaits far from the home a heart has known

but a heart must grow


Same sky, but the sun is put out

new people, no purpose, new language, left wordless

living silently without


A place awaits far from the home a heart has known

but a heart must grow

Take the place that is new, make a life, and a home

that has space for a “you”


3 days, from stranger to wife

now mother and partner, leader and owner

oh what a life


A place awaits far from the home a heart has known

but a heart has grown

a heart has grown

El Paso Update

Posted on September 8, 2019 by Amanda Ekery

Just got back to New York after visiting El Paso. The trip was informative and gave me lots of material to work with for Árabe including:

-Interviews with the Syrian Ladies Club of El Paso and visiting their collection at the University of Texas at El Paso Library

-Finding out my Sito (grandmother) plays derbake and marched drum line in high school

-Learning that my Sito’s mother was the drummer for the El Paso Shrine Club

-Reading Sarah John’s 1982 thesis “Trade Will Lead a Man Far: Syrian Immigration to the El Paso Area 1900 – 1935”


Now to start writing music!!

Research Trip to El Paso

Posted on August 31, 2019 by Amanda Ekery

At the airport now heading to El Paso to conduct interviews and visit some special collections at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Library. About a month ago, I made a trip to New Haven to meet Dr. Mark Eggerman who is a Middle Eastern Scholar, Professor at Yale University, and musician. He has been helping me craft questions for the interviews this weekend, write a preamble, and consider the intricacies of qualitative research! You can check out some of the questions I will be asking in the picture.

Over the course of the next 4 days, I will be interviewing senior members of the Syrian Ladies Club of America and my grandparents. At UTEP, I will be looking through the Syrian Ladies Club collection, as well as listening to some recorded oral histories that research librarian Claudia Reyes has been helping me discover.

Lots of help on this project and I am deeply grateful and more curious with everything I learn. The below three books have also been a big help in my research and I leave you with them as some recommended reading if you’re interested:

1. So Far From Allah, So Close to Mexico, by Dr. Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp

2. Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora, by Dr. Sarah Gualtieri

3. The Mexican Mahjar: Transnational Maronites, Jews, and Arabs Under the French Mandate, by Dr. Camila Pastor


Meanwhile, back at the library…

Posted on July 3, 2019 by Amanda Ekery

So excited to be sharing the process of my work here! Research is a big part of Árabe and I’ve been making regular visits to the Stephen A. Schwarzman Research Library in New York to learn about the migration patterns of Arabs to Mexico in the early 20th century and their influence.  (This library is also unbelievably gorgeous.)


Today’s visit included picking up a copy of Camila Pastor’s “The Mexican Mahjar: Transnational Maronites, Jews, and Arabs under the French Mandate” and articles by Dr. Leonora Acheson Dodge and Dr. Pastor.


I find that the more information on a topic I have, the deeper the well of ideas I can explore when composing. More updates to come soon!


My Dad’s family is from Syria and my Mom’s family is from Mexico. I was born in El Paso, Texas – a border town between the United States and Mexico, and grew up listening to Mariachi Bands and dancing the Dabke at family weddings.


Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about where I come from. El Paso has a sizable Arabic population amongst an overwhelming Hispanic majority. We have few music venues, fewer cultural institutions, and were unseen until Beto O’Rourke ran against Ted Cruz. (#betofortexas, even Beyoncé agrees)


Why did my Dad’s family decide to immigrate to El Paso via Mexico and how has that impacted who I am as a musician? My quest to satisfy my curiosity is fueling this research, which will lead to the performance and recording of a new original long-work composition for my 11-piece ensemble. This piece is to be shared with and dedicated to the community of El Paso over Thanksgiving weekend 2019.


During my preliminary research, I discovered Dr. Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp. She is the leading historian on Middle Eastern immigration to Mexico – ya, that’s a thing. In the early 20th century, immigrants from The Provinces of Greater Syria, current day Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, fled the Ottoman Empire. Many Middle Easterners couldn’t immigrate to the United States because of an eye disease (trachoma) and instead went to northern Mexico, aka the backdoor to the United States. While they awaited treatment in Juarez, Chihuahua from Dr. Coffin, they became peddlers and worked to sell goods in rural areas, created roots, and unexpectedly left their mark.


Middle Eastern immigrants have substantially influenced Mexican food, language, and architecture – but what about the music? The al pastor taco comes from the Arab shawarma in which meat is cooked vertically on a spit; over 4,000 Spanish words are of Arab descent; and many churches in Guadalajara are constructed in the style of the Moorish Empire. But what about the music?


I am going to discover and research the musical influence Arab immigrants had in Northern Mexico through interviews with elders in my community and Dr. Alfaro Velcamp, working with musicologist/organologist Hannah Grantham, and composing and recording music for my 11-piece ensemble that is truly representative of who I am, informed by research and family tradition.


In news today, we are constantly seeing the villainization of people from Mexico and Syria. The El Paso region is the home where these two cultures live together and have been influencing each other for over 100 years. This project is allowing me to delve into these untold stories, unwrap the history of these populations, mold my personal compositional style in new ways, and share this music with a multicultural audience that has a unique and influential American immigration story.

Project Media

Keys With No Purpose
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Features: Amanda Ekery

Keys With No Purpose is my original album written as a reaction to the sexist culture women continue to face in jazz and beyond. This album is an excellent example of how I fuse research with composition. Lyrics are based on interviews I conducted with 4 young females in jazz, original research on female bandleaders and female experience in jazz education at 5 universities, and news articles such as the Boston Globe’s expose on Berklee Jazz Faculty. The album features my 11-piece band- https://amandaekery.bandcamp.com/album/keys-with-no-purpose

Some Short Songs
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Features: Amanda Ekery

Some Short Songs is my original album which explores the Lydian Chromatic Concept from a compositional lens. This album which can be heard in its entirety here (https://amandaekery.bandcamp.com/album/some-short-songs) showcases how I use melodic motives to inform improvisation and develop pieces.

Syrian Female Musicians: The Last Hundred Years
Features: Amanda Ekery

Throughout Syria’s turbulent history, female musicians have developed a voice through banat ishreh (communities of women who meet to sing, dance and socialize), refugee choirs, popular and folk music. Like many female musicians around the world, there are more opportunities for Syrian female artists now than one hundred years ago.

This paper focuses on how these opportunities were shaped and shows my dedication and thoroughness when creating and executing a project

Start and End Dates



El Paso, Texas

10 updates
Last update on December 28, 2019

Associated Event

November 30, 2019 | El Paso, TX
Archived Events

Project Created By

Brooklyn, New York


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