Baolek Eh

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Rehearsing for the Ethnic Dance Festival - Poor Starving Artists - Student Nights - Al Masri - Valenciano -

May 8,2019

Rehearsing for the Ethnic Dance Festival

Last night we had a rehearsal in my studio for the upcoming 2019 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival We’re planning on doing a recreation of a Beirut Nightclub. Rehearsing were Jeanette Cool our manager with Georges Lammam, Susu Pampanin, Hash Abdel Hadi, Nicole Maria Hoffschneider Cao, Mohini Rustagi Vora and me, Amina Goodyear. MIA were L'Emir Hassan Harfouche, Khader Keileh, Terrianne Gutierrez and our fans the make-believe nightclub clientele. That’s a lot of people to coordinate schedules and a lot of last names to put on the EDF program for just a ten minute spot. Next time we'll practice in a larger studio to accommodate the rest of the players

Jeanette was talking about how the artists and administrators in the various arts agencies in the city remain loyal to their passions but sometimes crossover from one arts organization to another. While some move around and change agencies and panels, other have remained true to the same, year to year, decade to decade. Founded in 1978 The Ethnic Dance Festival has been in existence over 40 years and has seen this loyalty - coming and going according to life’s dictates but always returning. They were founded when my group the Aswan Dancers was only two or three years old and I certainly can attest that personnel can move around a lot through the years of operation, but really they may just continue in a different capacity. Such as I guess I’m the only one left of the original Aswan Dancers. Susu has always been around but since she was  just a kid, she didn’t really get involved in the group until a bit later and like some other core members of the Aswan Dancers would come and go depending on life’s other commitments. And so, just like the EDF we’re still here and still performing. 

The Aswan Dancers have gone through many different dance configurations. We first started in 1975 when the SF Public Library asked me and my group to present a show. It was a case of speak first, say yes and then worry about the problem later. The problem was — I didn’t have a show or a group. So…I gathered together all the dancers in my classes, all the best and all the rest, and we worked on choreography. At that time “choreography” was an unknown word in my vocabulary but it was so very necessary for group dances. The girls who were trained to improvise as soloists to work in clubs with musicians were pretty enthusiastic to learn something new so we had a great time working on “choreography.” We started with two lines and worked on creating formations and floor patterns while being unpredictable. Being unpredictable and not classroom square - square meaning four of this and four of that, go to the right, go to the left, don't leave you spot in the line - was something I learned not to do from Mahmoud Reda, Fatma Akef and other Egyptian dancers I studied with. I learned spacing, to be unpredictable and controlled chaos from them. The night of our debut at the library we were ready and hot to burn the house down with all our talent and enthusiasm. Bellydance was a new dance form in the 70's so we had quite a few curious onlookers. In fact, we had a standing room only audience. Men, women and lots of children filled the chairs and the room, were crammed between the stacks and were even hanging on the bannister rails up and down the staircases.  We were a huge success and we hadn't even started. I must admit that although it was a pretty memorable occasion, I quickly made a mental note to fire myself from being a group dancer. I couldn't do choreography. When the the girls went left, I would go right, when they turned right, I would turn left, when they stopped, I would keep going. I was a soloist and I was so preoccupied with worrying about them that I completely forgot about my choreography.Yes, we were hot - firecracker hot and the children especially were loving it - especially the whirling swirling veils. And then the girls pulled a few surprises. They decided to surprise me and the audience with a grand finale that they made up. Not only did they surprise us by removing their family authorized cover up costumes (remember I had trained them to dance in clubs and their only experience was Broadway in North Beach) in favor of two piece bedlah type costumes, but they all also pulled party poppers out of their bras for a grand, explosive grand finale. What a debut! It sounded like a war zone. And so the Aswan Dancers were born.

Some of the more serious dancers from this original group continued on and further in 1975 and then in early 1976 I took choreography more seriously and the group performed at a festival in Sigmund Stern Grove with some of my crazy African inspired Arabic fusion dances. I was experimenting and having fun with choreography (Go to about 1:52 to see the Sigmind Stern Grove shenanigans. Before that is me dancing -silent film in the Naji Baba TV show) and wanted to do something other than "club" style dance. But I had also talked my friends in the Jazayer band to learn Egyptian songs. And they did it for me. At the time this band consisted of Vince Delgado, dumbek; Mimi Spencer, saz and teen-aged Devi-Ja Delgado, viola. At the time, Turkish/Armenian music was what was more popular, but Jazayer learned Egyptian for me and I'm forever grateful. They did such a great job memorizing the songs so we could do "choreography" that we (my friend Hoda and I) asked them to perform for a bellydance festival that we would produce in 1976. They learned our music and we ending up dancing to a sold out house at San Francisco State University McKenna Theater (seating capacity 700+). We were on a roll. Sold-out!! Imagine that. Nowadays we're a huge bragging success if 20-40 people show up at a club. The seventies was the heyday of belly dance in America; San Francisco was a trailblazing city and Hoda and I had produced the very first (as far as I know and no one's disputed this) ever belly dance festival and convention in the United States. 

Up to this point, the Aswan Dancers never did anything unless we were asked or we self-produced. It never occurred to me to reach out for gigs or to audition for anything. We had enough going on with Arab church functions, parties, street fairs and my working every night at the Bagdad. I don’t think my self-esteem could handle rejection so we stayed pretty safe with our little gigs and of course there was the Bagdad where I could have student nights any time I wanted. There I could just take over the place and decorate the floor with fallen popcorn and peanuts and my students and friends could dance to live music. We really didn’t need any other performance outlets.

But then one day in 1978 we heard about a dance festival featuring dance from all over the world. It was called the Ethnic Dance Festival. We thought it might be fun to be part of this festival but quite honestly the thought of auditioning was pretty intimidating. But the auditions were held in familiar grounds - McKenna Theater at San Francisco State University. So, after going to see the open auditions a couple of years in a row, we finally decided to try our luck and in the early 1980’s we auditioned and were accepted.What an experience it was to perform for this prestigious festival and in another prestigious place - the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. The stage sure was bigger than the Bagdad's in North Beach and a whole lot more formal. They had lighting that the dancers and musicians didn't have to operate. They didn't want improvisation. It was choreography again. What joy, what fun, but also what a commitment. So we worked on choreography yet again. This time it would be a debke that a friend had learned at the Arab Cultural Center. I never learned the original choreography so I just made something up with lots of nice staging and the group memorized it. This time I was smart. I did not put myself into the choreography. I would do improvisation at the end of our piece. We practiced twice a week for months using a larger performance space and luckily St. Nicholas, our local Arabic Church, let us use their hall and gymnasium for free in exchange for us performing at their food festivals. By this time our group had grown to also include guys so our show consisted of a Lebanese debke with both men and women and also me doing an improvised drum/cymbal dance piece with my daughter Susu. Founded in 1978, this Festival was the first multicultural city-sponsored ethnic festival in America and we were so fortunate to to be part of it. But it was so much work and after the festival we decided: “Been there, done that, we don’t need to do it again. Too much work and commitment.” And so we chose to forget about being in another EDF and would continue to just concentrate on our own stuff.

But a few years later, with a few different and enthusiastic dancers added to the mix, the Aswan Dancers again wanted to audition. Yes, we had turnover in our group, but usually it was because the girls got married and pregnant or moved away for school or work. Since we were primarily an Egyptian dance group, we decided that our audition would be an Egyptian piece. In this phase of our dance life we were preoccupied with drums, zar and moulids. Susu was busy creating and composing drum pieces for the dancers and I was choreographing dances where the dancers drummed and the drummers danced. We were forming the Cairo Cats drum ensemble but didn't know it yet. Again the audition was fun and again it meant extra rehearsals for the dancers, the drummers and the musicians in spaces larger than my studio.  And it was worth it. We got to perform at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House again and be with really famous ethnic dancers and dance groups. Dancers who we looked up to and we got to be part of the show with them.  But it took so much work, time and commitment including money spent for large rehearsal spaces. So like Poe's raven, I declared " Nevermore...This is it and nothing more.”

Again different Aswan Dancers came and went and the group didn’t seem interested in auditioning for the EDF anymore. So I was happy and didn't mention it. It really was too much work and the pre-audition paperwork was always so daunting. True the festival was fun, but to me, not really worth all the pre-show work. However, Susu was periodically asked to audition and perform with other groups, and somehow because of being her mom and also being a backup percussionist, I would sometimes get pulled in too. This was a fun way to be in the Ethnic Dance Festival. Of course there was work and commitment but it was easy. Being a musician there wasn’t the responsibility of the auditioning process that the dancer had. By this time, the Festival moved to yet another fun and prestigious venue, the Palace of Fine Arts. And by now, the Ethnic Dance Festival had around 14,000 dancers with dancers from community groups performing alongside internationally recognized professionals, all performing on the same stage.

A few years ago Andrea Sendek's dance company Khepri auditioned for the festival with a CD and got in. The EDF staff decided that it would be nicer with live music and asked Andrea to find musicians. I was fortunate that she approached me to put together a group. I knew that the only person capable of leading musicians for memorized choreography (there's that word again) was Georges Lammam. It was great that he said yes and he put together the band - him, Khader Keileh, Susu Pampanin,Terrianne Gutierrez and me. We all worked together at Pachamama and we would rehearse the pieces while at work. Andrea added her dancer Mohini who was also a drummer. As I said before, many times dancers leave dance companies because of pregnancies and Andrea's company was no exception. Her dancer Mohini couldn't dance in Andrea's choreography because of pregnancy (so she drummed instead) and her dancer Gina just performed pregnant wearing a bit of fluff to try to disguise her beautiful belly. (And a little side note: The other dancer, Lucille waited to become pregnant until after the festival. Andrea certainly has a fertile and talented group of dancers.) The EDF also decided to add Alma who had also auditioned and was accepted in the festival and we were to play for her also. Her music was easier to memorize because we already knew the arrangement. I guess the Ethnic Dance Festival staff liked Arabic music because that year they had us play in the lobby, for the dancers (Andrea and Alma) on the main stage and also between other ethnic dance acts.

And so now fast forward to 2019 and we're in rehearsal mode. Here we go again. We are in the Ethnic Dance Festival again and we're trying to coordinate so many people's schedules so we can practice for our fun show. After this festival I wonder if I'll continue to say "Merely this and nothing more...Quoth the Raven "Nevermore.'" I probably will and after a few years, will probably forget - because, after all, The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is a great festival with so many different ethnic and multicultural acts. It’s really an honor.

And this time in July we get to perform in yet another really neat venue. This time we'll be at Zellerbach in Berkeley. It'll be really fun of course and especially exciting because directly from there we will jump into our waiting vans already filled with sleeping bags and hustle on up to Mendocino for camp. for more ethnic and multicultural music and dance experiences.

May 14, 2019

Poor Starving Artists

I was upstairs in the dressing room at the Bagdad alone and close to tears. One of the dancers was on stage dancing and the other dancer was still downstairs hanging out with friends enjoying her  show. I had just finished my second set and was feeling upset thinking about my show. I was so embarrassed at my bad dancing that I just wanted to pack up my costumes and leave but I couldn’t because I still had another set to do. I worked in a club with two other dancers and every night we did 3 shows each, a total of 9 shows a night. There was not as much at stake in the first show, because we dancers and the musicians usually used the first shows to warm up and wait for the house to fill. But the second shows were important because that was when the place was full and we'd don our best costumes and dance our hearts out to really fantastic music because the musicians would be warmed up by then. I really can’t explain what happened to make me want to quit because nothing unusual had happened. There were no mishaps on the stage and the customers seemed to enjoy the show, but somehow everything felt off. Just blah. I felt it was better to do a memorable show, put my feelings out there for all to experience, take a chance interpreting the music differently, bare my soul for all to see...whether great or horrible, that would be a better show than one that was just blah. Blah was safe. Blah was uninspired. Blah was boring. We usually didn't choose the music for our sets because this was dictated by the customers' requests or the musicians whims so it was always exciting to create on the spot. Although many of those moments were amazing when we all connected, some were pretty bad to the point of even being funny when we were unconnected, but it didn't matter as long as it wasn't boring. Sometimes the drummer would take a break during the veil or floor part of the dance and the oud player would play a super long taqsim to kill time until the drummer returned but it really wasn't their fault. In fact when I think about it, those poor musicians never got to take a real break, so out of necessity they would take turns leaving the stage when it was slow.

 Anyway, it was one of those nights when there just wasn’t any magic on the stage. To me the show was so off that I was ready to cash it in and call it quits. I felt I couldn’t continue dancing when the musicians and I were so uninspired. We just weren't connecting and I could feel the tears wanting to start running so it would be better to just quit before I further embarrassed myself. But first I had to finish the night because I had promised to not ever quit during or at the end of the night...ever again. Yousef, my boss, had made me promise to always sleep on it and then quit the next day if I still felt the same way because I would often quit when leaving work at the end of the night only to call the next morning saying that I changed my mind. Fortunately Yousef was a musician; he was also a violinist, not just my boss, and he knew and had experienced the same emotional ups and downs that we all went through. I wasn’t the only employee who was so temperamental. It seemed that being passionate and melodramatic was an artist’s curse. Sometimes we were our own best enemies and these tempestuous reactions could keep us from getting ahead. 

This may seem like a bit long by today’s standards. Notice how the drummer magically disappears to take a break during the slow part of the dance. While the music is beautiful, I felt we just were not connecting.

Just more of the same.

Middle Eastern musicians and dancers are not just performers, we are also artists in our own right but because of circumstances and because of our temperament and principles many of us can be called poor starving artists. Many of us would not, could not sacrifice for our art; would  not be willing to make compromises to get that extra dollar; would not want to denigrate our music or dance. Not wanting to do easy gigs such as bellygrams put our dance in the same level as being a clown or a stripper. Bellygrams were entertainment, maybe fun but certainly not culturally significant. Out of necessity some dancers did these types of gigs, but many of my friends and I did not. So we didn't always get those extra dollars that would have helped in buying groceries or paying bills. Sometimes we had a hard time turning down easy money when it came time to paying the rent. We tried hard to follow our dreams of creating for the sake of creating and not for the dollar bill; we tried hard to not compromise our art form, but sometimes it was a hard choice...feed the belly or feed the soul.

Many of us sacrificed for our art. Why? Creating something uniquely esoteric didn't always get understood when we had to satisfy the general public, the public who would walk in off the street and be enticed to stay and buy more drinks. Did it even matter if we created something really great if the public at large only wanted to see skin? This was during the time when we were on Broadway in San Francisco surrounded by topless, bottomless and completely nude clubs. We were isolated in our art but still there was this compulsion to create. Did it even matter? Did anyone even really care? Thank god we had friends and followers who came from that part of the world who understood and cared and that was all that mattered.

In the old days, it was easier to be a poor starving artist. We were all young. Life was cheaper. Life was so less complicated. Back then we did our art, we slept our art and then we did it again. But times change and with it, the economy, the pressures, the lifestyles and becoming American following the white picket fence dream. This new generation of immigrant clientele had the urge to nest and assimilate into the general population. Many put their love of music on the back burners of their minds and hearts and simultaneously the hippies leaving hippiedom began to concentrate on careers and becoming adults. This generation marked the beginnings of the tech culture and the birth of the Yuppies that would lead to the Gen Xers and later the Millennials with ideals and values that would turn the economy topsy turvy. Or as Ahmed Adaweya would say Kulloh alla Kulloh.

Today the musicians sacrifice their economic wealth in work in liquor stores and drive limos or uber so that they can maintain a certain amount of freedom to jump at the chance to make their art. And todays dancers, Gen Xers and Millennials, often sign up for agencies that send them off to do gigs similar to what Eastern Onion,a bellygram agency, offered. But more often than not, todays dancers become weekend hobbyists while really living a life of comfort holding down "real" jobs in the tech or professional world so they can have their cake and eat it too. It has become harder and harder to minimally, barely support oneself as a full-time artist. Poor starving artists are not considered a different category or a generation but there don't seem to be venues that can support the artists, dancers and/or musicians, if they want to do their art full-time. The public at large doesn't seem to be interested unless it is to see and be seen and pretend to be experiencing art and culture through 5 minute pop-up shows at venues that claim to be authentic but are really facsimiles and safe havens for the monied chosen few. The real culture and art is left for the poor starving artists with too much integrity to compromise a dollar for their art. And the musicians' audience usually is of the multicultural variety while the dancers' audience is practically non-existent due to lack of time or funds to support this art. There is just too much bad press and we now seem to only present our art to each other. But is this even true? Here is a little something I found on facebook written by Jill Parker on just this subject:

"Support your local dance scene - Attend Events and really be part of the audience. Stay to see other dancers perform. Go to events where you are not performing to support events. Events are struggling due to a variety of pressures including rising costs of venue rental as well as “Hit and Run” dancers who show up, dance and leave. Or worse, dancers who don’t show up because they don’t see intrinsic value in supporting other local dancers. Bottom Line: Participate in local, regional, national and even international dance scenes."

Although I'm sharing my thoughts now, I myself am from what is known as the silent generation. I'm a "war-baby" (WWII). According to the list of generations, I'm a silent generation and according to personality tests, I am INFP (introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceptive) I feel I belong to the bohemian and the beatnik generation. I was not a hippie. Many hippies, especially the later hippies of a different generation and war (Vietnam) were the baby boomers and when tired of hippiedom and became yuppies. Some hippies refused to change and, I believe, embraced the more bohemian or beat way of thinking and life.  Being a silent generation, being influenced by bohemians and beats, I believe I was of that persuasion. 

I wore black, wore boots, painted my eyes black, had long straight hair, loved all things artistic, especially music and dance and carried bongo drums. I guess nothing really changes in my world. I was a drummer wannabe then and still am. Actually the beat of the drums the magic of music is the heartbeat and lifeblood of my soul. And in my universe, I can't conceive that anyone could feel differently. 

My very first experience performing in public as a bellydancer was at the Bagdad on Broadway in San Francisco's North Beach. It was to live music - violin, oud, drums, voice. I was there looking for a job to help pay my mortgage and feed some bellies. But when I heard the music and responded to it, I didn't even care if I got paid. The music was payment enough and how I reacted to it was a life changing event. I got the job and fortunately for me, I not only got reimbursed for my art, I also actually found I could pay my mortgage, feed the bellies (I had 3 babies) and even then some.  Yes, I got paid enough to even pay other bills such as car and utilities. What more could a person ask for? I had an opportunity to express myself in a way that not only nourished my soul, but also brought joy to others. When I got to know my co-workers, the dancers and musicians, I learned that they too were driven to express their feelings. Sometimes we had bad nights and couldn't be creative and would be driven to tears feeling we did a "bad show" but other nights we not only had great shows, we had them together. Meaning the musicians and the dancers clicked. This is what made life worth living. We were like a family. A marriage looking for and sometimes finding that ultimate moment when we could feed off each other. Today people talk about Tarab and Sultanah. We never did. Those weren't words in the vocabulary then because there weren't  academics or educators around to write about and define those terms. But it didn't matter. Because those were just words in a textbook and we were those words in reality and in life.

This is me in a show in the 80’s showing what it was like to be inspired in the 60’s. I never told the musicians I recorded this memory.

None of us were rolling in the money; it really was a hand to mouth existence, but the happiness and fulfillment in being able to create more than made up for being a "poor starving artist." And, it is all relative. One isn't poor if one is rich with joy in creating art. So maybe it should just be "starving artist." Yes, in my world we all shared the same urges and desires and that was to create and make art. Making a little money while doing this helped, but was not foremost in our minds while creating. I was a single mother of three babies, two dogs and a couple of cats by this time and was so fortunate that my full-time dance job (6 nights a week) could feed our bellies while feeding my soul. I knew that I could have made more money if I compromised my art, but that wasn't even a consideration.

While I've spent 50 some years having fun feeling fulfilled by dancing, playing music and creating shows we artists are still struggling. I've been fortunate being able to merge my work with my play, my creativity, and I've certainly had my share of sacrifices in order to maintain my integrity but I've never really had to compromise to continue my art. Yes, it's difficult to be a "poor starving artist," but in the final analysis, at least this artist is very rich with dreams and desires fulfilled now and yet to come. I hope this can be an inspiration to others. Follow your dreams and the rest will follow. 

May 22, 2019

Student Nights

She called me on the phone and said "I want to take bellydance classes to please my boyfriend." I said "He'll hate you for it." She said "I want to bellydance to be sexy." I said "Good luck!" She asked "Can I lose weight if I bellydance?" I said "You'll lose weight if you stop eating so much." She said "I want to sign up for every single class and buy all your music and a costume too." I thought "OK, you're wasting your money, you'll pay me a ton of money and then you'll disappear." She said "This is a fun way to exercise. I like the music." She continues to come to class and starts making friends with other dance students and they socialize after class. I think "She's a keeper."

We have fun in class. Due to the nature of my classes - drop-in - come when convenient - teach all the time, not by the sessions - I usually do not do choreography. Also because I grew up dancing to live music played spontaneously - not to recorded music, choreography was something that I equated to formal group recitals. Well, I hadn't done dance recitals since grade school when my parents were obligated to buy packages of lessons, pay for costumes and photos and then pay to see their darling child perform group choreography with 10 or 20 other kids; so group choreography wasn't in my mind set. When I first learned to bellydance, it was to exercise and get my body back in shape because I had just had 3 kids in 3 years and felt a bit flabby. But then circumstances, economic circumstances, made me become serious about the dance. Fortunately I liked the music, especially the drumming, and danced at home when not in class. But, I didn't know how to put together a dance show. In fact, I didn't even know what one looked like. After I auditioned for a job and got it, I learned on the stage how to make my few dance steps look like a dance. I didn't have a teacher anymore because she had gone on the road performing and so the music and the musicians became my teachers. 

Because the music and the musicians taught me how to dance, I felt that dancing was more connected to the music than doing technically perfect dance steps. I still feel that way. Of course, there is technique and there are rules (sort of) but the real rule to me was and is to listen to the music and it will tell you what to do. This is what I learned from the first musicians I worked with especially Yousef Kouyoumjian and Fadil and Walid Shahin. And this is what I want all my dance students to go home with. To me, choreography is great but learning to listen to the music and improvise is even greater because that is how I learned.

Once the dancers in my classes learn the basics, I try to encourage them to dance freestyle by listening to and interpreting the music - their way. Because way back when, I was dancing/working every night, many of my students would come to the club to see me and other dancers dance and also to hear the music. Sometimes they'd be invited to get up on stage and just dance and finally when the bug hit them, I'd be asked to create a formal "student night." At the time all the clubs on the strip had either a cover charge or a two drink minimum. We had a two drink minimum. My students were an exception, but their friends were not except on student nights. So student nights were special. I'd go to a movie distribution company before the show and buy huge bags of popcorn and other snacks for all to share and on student nights it was 1/2 off regular drink price for the students and only a one drink minimum for everyone. It was great fun and exciting. It was always exciting to see someone dance for the first time in a costume that she made herself. Here's some photos from a few of my first student nights at the Bagdad. Where have all the dancers gone? And the musicians too?

May 28, 2019

Al Masri and Alf Leila wa Leila

How many grape leaves were rolled at The Grapeleaf Restaurant in San Francisco? One thousand and one grapeleaves? And how many nights, stories, songs and dances have passed through the nights at Al-Masri? One thousand and one nights? Here is the beginning of just one or some of these stories.

I met chef and owner Sausan Molthen sometime in the 1980's when we both were working at the Bagdad. She also worked at a restaurant across town called The Grapeleaf owned by Gabriel Michael, a Lebanese American. Shortly after, I heard she married Gabe,The Grapeleaf's owner and besides dancing, she managed the other dancers and was also the establishment's bartender. The Grapeleaf had a bellydancer performing every evening but the dancers danced to recorded music. Thanks to Sausan's visionary ideas she changed that and soon the Grapeleaf had musicians playing on Sunday evenings. She then invited aspiring dancers to perform to the live music and so in 1986 she started the Sunday night live music nights tradition. In 1995 Sausan became sole proprietor of the Grapeleaf and continued the Sunday live music nights for another year. 

When the Grapeleaf became Al-Masri, the Sunday night live music nights stopped and the name, decor and menu changed from Lebanese fare to Egyptian but the address and Sausan’s presence remained constant. According to studies made in 2018 up to 90 percent of independent establishments close during the first year and the remaining restaurants have an average five-year life span. Another study stated that about 60 percent of new restaurants fail within the first year and nearly 80 percent shutter before their fifth anniversary and the number one culprit was simply being in a bad location. Al Masri has had the misfortune of being in a primarily residential area with very little foot traffic. Location is important. Location - Location - Location. But Sausan has proven that in spite of her unfortunate no foot traffic and difficulty in parking dilemmas, she has endured through a lot of hard work. Her restaurant(s) have survived decades and when her Sunday night live music nights started up again a little over 10 years ago they helped to bring more traffic to her street. And it has become a two-way street with the clientele coming to enjoy the food, the ambiance and the live entertainment while Sausan continues to provide opportunities for dancers and musicians to perform their art, and so the customers and fans continue to support her venue. Because of this, other restaurants and clubs have followed suit, opening up their clubs to live music/dance showcases. In fact, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there are certainly many restaurants in this area who have paid her this compliment. And it has become a win - win situation for all - except when there are not enough musicians/dancers/fans to go around. Or at least - to go around on the same date.


Sausan in the kitchen with Dahlena

Last night I saw Susu on the street laden with her drums and nais walking into Al Masri just as I arrived early ready to set up the mics and my  instruments for the night's show. Well we found Jelal, Husain and Philip already setting up. So much for arriving "early." It sort of feels bad to be late even when you're early. But - What a surprise. What a treat. It was Philip's night to play music with Jelal, Susu and me and he had invited Husain to join us. Husain, who we thought was still in Iraq - he had bought a one way ticket - had decided to come back home because it was starting to get warm in Iraq. Husain often told me he hated warm weather - liked the coolness of San Francisco - wanted to beat the heat. It can often hit 110-115+ in Iraq in the summer. He was  sitting with Jelal and Philip showing off his new Syrian oud and I was reminded me of how much I enjoyed hearing him play the oud. But it was Philip's night to play the oud, so Husain also had brought his violin to play with the band. As usual we took our time with sound check playing a little of this song and a little of that, trying to decide what old song could be pulled out of the memory banks that everybody loved playing and loved playing together. Susu of course was torn between playing the nai and singing a little back-up while stroking the drum sitting on her lap. I was excited to be together with Husain and Jelal and Susu - kind of like old home week - and kept looking to Husain for new "old" song inspirations since Husain was right next to me to my right. Philip was behind me so I couldn't really easily communicate with him or with Jelal who was in the corner behind Susu sitting on his King Tut throne. Lylia who studies drum with both Susu and me was to Husain's right playing the duf. It was promising to be a really great musical night of Egyptian popular and nostalgic songs. 

Zoraida Romeliotis, who was visiting from Texas in anticipation of next week's 1960's retro night, was with Laura and they were also by Husain to his right. Husain said he wanted to play Alf Leila wa Leila as another warm up song and Lylia was trying to decide when to dance and decided to be the first dancer so she could play duf uninterrupted after that. She got up to change into a costume and asked for Alf Leila wa Leila. I wanted to say no, we want to do that later, but then something told me to change my mind. At that moment  there was a commotion by the front door and in walked a group - Queenie, Nayan, 7 year old Jenna and a huge stroller with two more of Nayan's babies. Of course! I should have known. Every time I want to reach out to Nayan, tell her I miss her or want to hear from her, all I have to do is think of or play Alf Leila wa Leila and magically she communicates with me. This time, she just walked in the door. And she lives about 2 hours away. 

I can't tell you how many times this has coincidentally happened. Nayan has lived more than an hour or two away from San Francisco for the last few years, but whenever her favorite song Alf Leila wa Leila is in the airwaves, somehow she either appears or I get an email or message from her. I'm at Pachamama, someone starts dancing to Alf Leila wa Leila and Nayan decides to show up after a few months' absence. I'm teaching dance class and decide to use Alf Leila wa Leila for the last part of class - and she walks in the door just as I start to play Alf Leila wa Leila. I'm working on a one-on-one part of the song with a dance student and I get fb messages from her. It happens so often that it really does seem like more than a coincidence. Yes, I know that I like that song and use it a lot in class, but whenever I think of her specifically and then the song gets played, she appears - either in person or with a message. Last night was no exception. Just like the princess Scheherezade, she has tales to tell of her one thousand and one nights. Whether happy or tragic tales, no matter what the tale is, she always seems to tell her tale with a broad smile and a twinkle in her eye.

I still can't believe that Zoraida came especially to celebrate the 1960's retro night we will do at Al Masri next week. There aren't that many around living here who were from the old days and still involved in Arabic music and dance. Dahlena who was a bit before my time danced on Broadway before me as did Carla Lopez, Jodette and southern California dancers Aisha Ali and Tonya Chianis. Other dancers, Magana Baptiste, Jamila Salimpour, Bert Balladine, Fatma Akef, Marlyza Pons all have passed on as well as musicians Selim Salimpour, Walid Shahin, Yousef Koyoumjian, George Elias, Naji Alash, Antoine Malouf and George Bedrosian. Vince Delgado, Fadil Shahin and Jelaleddine Takesh are still with us and still performing. I know this is just the tip of the iceberg, but the active performers from the sixties seem to be a dwindling number. Aziza! who I met the first night I auditioned to dance is still here, but as far as I know, is now a costume maker and not performing any more. So, next Sunday Jelal and I will muster up our memories and try to recreate some of that old reality by way of music, dance and ambiance. And Al Masri will be the setting for yet another one thousand and one nights story. 

Zoraida is staying with Laura and is coaching her on the old style dancing and costuming. I know that to many people the steps and music seem to be pretty similar to a lot of what is going on today, but the subtleties and general attitudes make up the major part of the differences. Between Zoraida, Jelal and me we have one thousand and one nights of music and dance and we hope to bring you all back to a time that is really long gone. That may be hard to do. We used to have a different sense of time. Our 45+ minute sets are now zip files of 4.5 minutes or less. But  then, we do have 1,001 nights to do it. 

June 6, 2019


There is a dancer, Parya, who recently started up a night at Valenciano Grill. She calls it Cairo Cabaret. When I first heard about this, I felt a bit upset, kind of territorial because I (and the Aswan Dancers) had a series of shows at Capp Street Center called Cairo Cabaret. But then, I had to remind myself - that was THIRTY odd years ago and of course this dancer did not know that and also - who was I to think I owned or had a trademark on the name Cairo Cabaret.  So, I just kept my mouth where it belonged - shut! After all, Parya probably wasn't even born or knew about Middle Eastern dance when our Cairo Cabaret Shows were happening. So, instead, I wished her luck and told some people about the new belly dance shows happening in the Mission. Laura and her daughter Luara went to Parya's shows a couple of times and really enjoyed them - especially because the later part of the shows were mixed with Latin DJ sounds and they could enjoy not only the belly dance shows but also dance merengue, cumbia, salsa and more. 

Earlier this week Georges Lammam called me and told me that Parya had invited him and his group to play for one of her Thursday night shows - Tonight to be precise. So after a little rearranging of my class time, it was possible for me to be part of the group too. This will be so exciting. Not just to play music with Georges and gang, but to play at Valenciano again. This place has history with me and a lot of musicians, dancers and singers in the area. I don't know how detailed I should make this so maybe I won't - but instead I'll save the details for a Giza Club event. But here goes - a sort of chronology, almost a timeline - history of my experiences at El Valenciano and also a bit about how bands are formed - I'll leave dates out but just so you have an idea - the dates start around the mid 1980's.

Starting Mid 1980's 

*The Casbah on Broadway closed when Fadil moved his operations to El Morocco in Concord/Pleasant Hill area.

*The Bagdad on Broadway lost it's lease and closed.

*Amina and the Aswan Dancers started a series (monthly/bi/monthly) shows called Cairo Cabaret at Capp Street Center using all the now unemployed musicians. They graciously donated their time. We called them the Cairo Cats - a never ending and always different group of musicians - Nazir, Reda, George (Dabai) Imad, Mohamad (Amin), Nizar, Jad, Vince, Mimi and DeviJa are some of the musicians who played with us. There were many more who would also occasionally play with us also. Out of this, Susu developed her drum group and drum compositions and the Cairo Cats Band became the Cairo Cats -Drummers who Danced and Dancers who Drummed. (Now it's1990's)

*Shaherezade opened in Jack London Square and the unemployed musicians were not so readily available like before because of this club and a few others that opened such as Petra, Luxor and Arabian Knights. The Pasha on Broadway was the only Arabic club that remained from the old days. There were other clubs in the north, south and east bay - but I’m pretty much talking about San Francisco area..

*Amina and the Aswan Dancers start new bands - El Scarabu featuring Shar on oud (we were Cairo Cats/Aswan Dancers and other American born musicians) played locally and even at BDUC) and The Karnak Players.

*The Karnak Players were more American born musicians and consisted of a Sax, a marimba and lots of percussion left over from the Cairo Cats drummers - Susu, Gregangelo, Daria, Marsha and Amina. We played at an Arabic event at the Mission Cultural Center and Jacques al Asmar and I met. Jacques told me he was a dancer so I took his number wanting to use him for debke and folkloric with the Aswan Dancers.

*Long story short - we eventually became friends, we started drumming and dancing together. When he got a dance gig at a Magana Baptiste show, we found musicians to play for him. This included Loay, a drum student and his new friend Husain who just moved here from Iraq via Kuwait because of Desert Storm. We also found Raed a keyboardist (who now lives back in Jordan) and Reda, a professional drummer. This was our band and we practiced in my studio for that gig. After that, Loay got a job playing at Cleopatra in the avenues.

*Jacques and I wanted to play drum too so we went to Cleopatra with our drums and hoped that Loay who wasn't much better than us at that time would forget to show up so we could drum in his place. Well luckily it happened and we got to sub one night. The bug hit us and we decided we wanted to form our own band.

*We kept practicing in my studio on Wednesdays - Raed (keboard and sometimes oud), Loay, Husain (violin and oud), Jacques and me and sometimes Susu but she was usually too busy playing at Amira and with other people or other bands.

*We got a job playing Friday nights at the Grapeleaf and we called ourselves the Arabian Knights.

We soon learned that nothing is permanent so when that job dissolved we moved to Amira but the stage wasn't big enough for all of us so - at Amira we had to split up - Loay, Jacques and Husain on oud played Friday and Raed on oud, Jacques and me on Saturday. But it wasn't fun to be split so Loay started looking for another place to accommodate all of us.

*Loay found El Valenciano and we all got to be together again and we made our band even bigger - we invited Shar to play bass guitar, I played congas, Raed played keys, Loay played duf, Husain played oud, Reda came back playing tabla, sometimes Imad played percussion also. And then we started looking for a singer. Jacques wanted to have a dance band just like “back home.”

*The Aswan Dancers performed at the Jerusalem Festival and there was an Arabic singer. I went up to him and said I'm starting a band and we need a singer. He gave me his card - Fadi Hanani - Sun Microsystems. I gave the card to Jacques and he called Fadi and that was the beginning of our Salamat Sundays at El Valenciano. Fadi was our first singer. Later we also got Mohamad Kasab who I found at Aswat. Jacques renamed him Jamal Kasab and then we had two great fantastic singers and we really had us a real Arabic dance band. Am I a great talent scout or what? The Aswan Dancers got to do group dances and and also solo performances to CD during break time. Jacques' brother Raffy later joined us and became DJ Raffy so Jacques didn't have to DJ anymore. But with all of this admin work neither of us got to do what we liked doing most - and that was dancing. But - oh well - at least we had a really great band and lol, we could even play with the band when we weren’t being go-fers, gaffers or bouncers. But once in a while we would plan a night or a special so we could even dance.

*Things happen and we moved and did Saturdays and Sundays too at Club Galia where Fouad Marzouk joined us. Loay got better and was now the main drummer and Jacques and I got to be his back up drummers as usual. At Galia we even had go go belly dancers in blue jeans and high heels. Kind of like the Lebanese dancers on the game shows. Then we returned back to Valenciano and finally went to Tropigala.

*At Tropigala we had more musicians and singers added to our lineups - this included Khader, Georges, Musa, Murad, Elias Lammam and even a drum set and Brazilian drums and guitars. We experimented trying to be cutting edge visionaries. We brought in other singerssuch as Safwan and Bashir or was it Bashar or was it both Bashir and Bashar? And of course the Aswan Dancers did group and solo dance show. And if that wasn’t enough, we also added Thursday nights and I would teach my performance class on stage and then the girls could later perform to live and/or recorded music. And we also added guest soloists and these teachers would bring their students. Throughout all of this, Jacques and I got to play and sometimes even got to dance.

*While at Tropigala, Jacques also decided to have us also try a night or two at the Pasha and it was fun to move around to other clubs.

*Then Jacques and the Arabian Knights brought Hakim to Oakland. This was a great idea and a great musical success but it was also a huge financial undertaking and an emotional disaster. Jacques wanted to quit everything, and let everything dissolve . And as luck would have it, Al, Tropigala’s owner’s son/manager told us he was leaving to start a Spanish restaurant in another city. Once again we would be on our own. Fadi and Jamal had already become too successful and were starting to get conflicting gigs. It was becoming more and more difficult to run Salamat Sundays. We all had “day” jobs to consider anyway. Would it be easy to find another venue? Jacques wanted out. It would be easier than to try to find yet another new venue.

*I went back to Amira and just concentrated on the dancing part of my career, but very soon heard about a new club opening called Excelsior. So one night after Amira I went and talked to Saeid the Egyptian owner. I got the Aswan Dancers hired to perform Egyptian group folklore. Yay! l also managed the rotation of the many solo dancers who wanted to work there. We (the Aswan Dancers) would start the show, hang out and watch whatever solo dancer worked and by the end of the night, musical instruments that were decorations on the walls would be pulled down by the customers and be played. At first this was all very casual, but soon Elias Lammam became restaurant manager and eventually at the end of the night he and his brother Georges would play. Sometimes Fouad Marzouk would come too and play. The drummers were incidental at first - Hani (a drumming customer), me or another customer would just take a drum prop/deoration off the wall and play. Later I think Faisal may have started playing or even working there with Fouad and Georges..

*When Excelsior closed, again there was no place to go, so Georges said - "I'll find us a place." I'll never forget when Georges found us a place - I was in Long Beach at BDUC and he called and said he found Pena Pachamama and could I find him a dancer. So I did and the following weekend I went to Pachamama as a customer to see Georges play with his new band that included Loay and Husain on contrabass. I was there as a customer and so happy to see my student dancing and my friends playing. I went two more weekends as a customer and then Georges asked me if I wanted to bring a tambourine and play with the band. Of course I said yes! And that was the beginning of yet another band and venue.

*A few years later after the Grapeleaf became Al Masri and Sausan became sole proprietor, Sausan wanted to start up live music again. She asked me if I wanted to get something going at her place. Well - of course I did! It would be another opportunity to play music and more opportunities for dancers to try out their talents. Now at Al Masri we have moved to just one live music night a month to live music every weekend. I get to organize two Sundays a month and Nazir organizes the other two.

*In the meantime,Georges Lammam and Pachamama has been going strong. It's.probably about 15 or so years now. And all of this leads back to now I get to play again at Valenciano which is sort of almost where it all began 30 years ago. How lucky am I? 

The Cairo Cats - Drummers who dance - Dancers who drum

Cairo Cabaret with The Aswan Dancers and the Cairo Cats