Garafilia Mohalbi: First Greek-American Muse

September 17, 2023

The history of modern Greek music must, at all times, include the compositions of non-Greeks. These songs or other musical compositions for or about Greeks are as much a part of our collective musical history as those we create for ourselves.

The specific ideas and notions non-Greeks have of us are as socially significant as those we create for ourselves. That there would be songs, dances, or some other art form that would be specifically identified by their creators as distinctly ‘Greek’ has a far longer history and unique set of cultural expressions than have hitherto been identified let alone explored in clinical detail. I would further suggest, that the musical creations of these non-Greek composers can at times be far more historically significant than the ‘Greek’ music we share among our own.

What follows is a brief review of the first American-composed poems, songs, and other artistic creations about a specific Greek living in the United States. One particular song, is especially notable since the Greek individual upon which the song is based was dead some thirty years before any of the music or public performances based on her life were first composed or performed.

This Greek youth’s life and very name clearly became an enduring symbol. As such, the accruing of added dimensions and thus, meanings, with each successive creation must be considered.

In 1827, Garafilia Mohabli was an 11- or 12-year-old Greek slave about to be sold in a Turkish slave market. Seeing Joseph Langdon, an American merchant in the surrounding crowd, young Garafilia pleaded with him to save her from a fate worse than death. Langdon did so and adopted her as a daughter. Arrangements were made so that Garafilia sailed to Boston and lived with the Langdon family. Given Galafilia’s background, the ongoing Greek War of Independence, and how few Greeks were then in the United States, it was inevitable that aside from her personal history the Langdon family’s social standing also afforded Garafilia occasions to meet many notable Americans.

Unfortunately not long after her arrival Garafilia died of tuberculosis on March 17, 1830. During her all too brief stay in the United States and most certainly after her death, Garafilia unexpectedly became a popular figure across various American artforms. What follows is a quick listing of these artistic expressions.

The first was a poem in Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s book, ‘Zinzendorff and Other Poems’ (1836), titled simply ‘Garafilia Mohalby’. This poem is said to have led to an engraving on a broach that itself became a notable work of art. The poem is next said to have inspired American sculptor Hiram Powers, who soon carved his ‘Greek Slave’ statue. Power’s statue won international fame and eventually toured the United States, several times.

Given the time period, when slavery was undoubtedly the central political issue across the United States, Power’s statue prompted the appearance of a drawing of an African American female slave, which included her being chained, as was depicted in Powers’ statue. ‘The Virginia Slave’, illustration rang with its own host of meanings for American abolitionists of the era.

Make no mistake about it – Garafilia’s life story continued to inspire Americans at all levels of society. Elizabeth Barrett Browning composed the poem titled ‘Hiram Power’s Greek Slave’. In 1853, Harriet Beecher Stowe in ‘The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, alludes to using the Greek slave girl Garafilia as inspiration for ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by writing “I was in Smyrna when our American consul ransomed a beautiful Greek girl in the slave-market. I saw her come aboard the brig ‘Suffolk’, when she came on board to be sent to America for her education.”

Lucy Stone (1818-1893), a leading suffragist and abolitionist of this era, often spoke of the positive influences Garafilia Mohalbi’s life and ongoing popularity offered to all women in America striving for equality.

That Americans were utterly captivated by Garafilia’s life story cannot be denied since her life story continued to inspire and stimulate the creation of further artistic creations. “In the 1850s, Carl Hause commissioned Carl Gartner to compose a mazurka for piano to honor the Greek slave girl Garafilia. Carl Gartner and Carl Hause had a popular trio in the Boston area; they also taught music.’ ‘Garafilia Mazurka’ was composed by Carl Gartner as an instrumental piece for piano” (c.f.  http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.music/sm1855.270730).

As such, ‘Garafilia Mohalbi’s Mazurka’ appears to be the first song composed by an American about a Greek living in the United States.

But there is more. The sensation Hiram Power’s Greek Slave statue generated across the nation led to ‘The Greek Slave’, a stage comedy. Featured in this play was the extremely popular ‘Greek Slave’ waltz by the Arthur Pryor’s Military Band (Victor 2795 circa 1904-1905).

It is truly astonishing how we can trace Garafilia’s continuing influence across various forms of symbolic retention. Especially telling is that several generations of American women were named ‘Garafilia’ as both a first name and as a middle name. While this is an especially curious recognition of Galafia’s ongoing cultural meanings for the average American, it does clearly illustrate identification with this individual in a manner that has yet to be systematically examined. This issue of naming has an especially odd twist.

In 1873, a full 43 years after Garafilia Mohalbi’s death, Washington DC newspapers carried various advertisements noting, in capital letters, “MISS GARAFILIA MOHALBI will on this occasion, among other pieces, sing The Star-Spangled Banner’ (Evening Star (Washington, DC) March 3 and March 4, 1873; Taglicher Washingtoner Anzeiger March 6, 1873).”

That is it. No further explanation or comment. In English or German.

Other advertisements note “Willard’s Hall. Wednesday 5, 1873, Grand Inauguration Concert and last appearance of MISS GARAFILIA MOHALBI, On the occasion she will be assisted by the WASHINGTON SAENGERBUND, And the following distinguished artists: Mr. LUDVIG RUBEN, Tenor, Mr. W. A. WIDNEY, Baritone, And the celebrated Pianist, Mr. CHAS. E. PRATT.  Admission…$1. Reserved Seats, 25 cents extra, to be had at Ellis’ Music Store (Evening Star (Washington, DC) March 4, 1873).”

It must be noted that this Garafilia Mohalbi sang the American national anthem, So, what did all this media attention mean?

As far as available documents can report there seems to have been an Italian opera singer whose name was ‘Garafilia Mohalbi.’ For the moment, all I can find are these 1873 news accounts and advertisements. Still, it seems obvious that this specific song and the name of the individual singing it meant that the German society hosting his event was collectively thankful and accepting of their own new hyphenated-American identity.

This Miss Mohalbi seems to have performed elsewhere. I suggest you look at the 1873 photograph ‘The Old State House’ of Hartford by Richard S. DeLamater (1833-1915) where a broadside advertisement leaning against the sidewalk fence reads, in part, “Wednesday May 28, ’73 / …ROBERTS’ OPERA HOUSE / One Night Only! / TUESDAY, MAY 27 / ONE GRAND / MOHALBI CONCERT! / MISS GARAFILIA / MOHALBI / … / EMINENT ARTISTS (http://emuseum.chs.org/emuseum/objects/1705…).”

Clearly, Garafilia Mohalbi, was an enduring cultural symbol not only during her lifetime but long after. Clearly, future Greek-American studies must be directed toward this unique historical figure.


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