The Janissaries, AUB’s First All-Male Choir: A remembrance by John Makhoul (BE ’64)
by MainGate Staff
Above photo – The Janissaries (left to right): Touma Yagham, Kamal Kourani, Samir Jabbour, Mishel Awad, Teddy Abdo, William Nahhas, Nadim Homsi, Ismail Husseini, Mervin Ogden-Smith, John Makhoul, Hratch Bouyajian, Said Sukkar, with Sami Salibi warming up the choir before a performance.
Not many people know that the late esteemed historian and AUB Professor Kamal Salibi (1929–2011) was also an accomplished musician. A man of many aptitudes, Salibi was probably best known as the author of several well-known books including the 1988 classic A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered. Around 1959, Professor Salibi came up with the idea of establishing a male choir. He recruited a number of musically inclined AUB students, chief among them were Teddy Abdo (BBA ’61) as lead tenor and a few of his friends who enjoyed singing, including lead bass Nadim Homsi (BA ’60). I joined the group as the youngest of the bunch (as a bass), in the spring semester of 1960, having already joined the AUB mixed chorus the previous fall when I was still doing my Bac II year at International College with classes in Daniel Bliss Hall. Professor Salibi wrote musical arrangements of well-known songs for the choir, including the AUB Alma Mater, the Lebanese National Anthem, and songs like Nahnu el-Shabaab.
He would rehearse the choir, and when it came time to perform, his brother, Sami Salibi (BA ’49), who ran a music school on Sadat Street, would step in and conduct. The choir always sang a capella, with no musical accompaniment. You might be wondering about the origin of the name “The Janissaries.” Teddy Abdo told me that he and his friends were having coffee at Uncle Sam’s next to AUB when they began to brainstorm names for the choir. Someone suggested the name “The Janissaries”, or al-Murtazaqa in Arabic, perhaps as a joke, but the name stuck!
Teddy and his friends graduated in 1961, but the male choir continued functioning for at least one more year, after which the group dissolved with many of its members having scattered to different countries. The AUB Janissaries lasted only a few years, 1959–1962, but those were very special years for its members. Love of singing is something that lasts a lifetime. Teddy now lives in Toronto, and I live in Boston; we both continue to sing to this day in choral groups. Even though COVID-19 has put a temporary halt to our group singing, we will never give up singing, and we will never forget our special days at AUB when we all sang together.
The Janissaries recorded its versions of the AUB Alma Mater and the Lebanese National Anthem in a recording studio 60 years ago. Original choir member Teddy Abdo recently digitized these tapes. The rediscovered recordings (see below) and John Makhoul’s remembrance above offer an inspirational reprieve from the distressing concerns of these times in Lebanon and around the world.
You can watch a video, designed and produced by John Makhoul and his grandniece Elyssa Tawil, BA (Hons) in Film Practice from the University of the Arts London, featuring footage of AUB and the Janissaries set to their 1960 recording of the Alma Mater. Below also is the 1960 recording of the Lebanese National Anthem.
The Lebanese National Anthem: