Monday, March 4, 2013

Early '80s - Hooray for Hollywood!

 So I was flying high after my work in the film, & my solo career was still going strong. Mish Mish & Jacqueline from the Bogart movie came to see me do my cabaret thing at Stox II, & they urged me to join them at Ali Baba's on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood to check out the scene.

  When you arrived at Ali Baba's you were greeted by a gargantuan Ali Baba statue standing sentinel over the tacky Arabian nights style building. Upon entering through the curtained doorway the first thing you noticed was it was dark, & of course the usual 1970s cigarette smoke created a thick haze that permeated your every pore. So I entered what felt like a different country - all vestiges of the western world outside disappeared without a trace. I stood looking at the stage before me like a wide eyed innocent. My senses went into overload. I don't know who the dancer was onstage but I'll never forget the costume. It was gold, encrusted with saucer sized paillettes. She sauntered around the raised stage with ease, none of the frantic spinning & fancy tricks. The audience vocalized their appreciation & raised their arms in social dance swaying, snapping fingers or clapping along, showing approval of the dancer & the music. And what music to my ears it was! An Arabic orchestra, & I'm not certain I remember what instruments, or who they were. I do remember the fabulous tabla & that there were at least 5 musicians onstage. At that moment the realization hit me, that I had no idea what I was doing. I could no more go on that stage & entertain this audience than the man on the moon. But I was smitten. This scene was edgy & appealed to the rebel in me. I was ready to leave my world behind & get lost in this den of iniquity. 

 And as fate would have it, not much later I danced at the wedding of a friend of a man named Koko. Koko thought I did a decent job apparently (or more probably thought I was young & hot) because he got hold of me a few days later with the perfect proposition. He was opening a nightclub on Vine, just south of Hollywood Blvd & he wanted me to be the opening dancer. I visited the newly built club to meet the manager, a friendly Egyptian woman & former dancer named Hoda (rumored to be Koko's mistress). The place was enormous. A beautiful raised stage, large enough for a band & a dance troupe, & a fabulous dressing room to boot - glamorous Hollywood style. This was to be Koko's International & Koko meant for it to be the hottest club in town.

Promotional flyer for Koko's International

  So I showed up for work & was greeted by a beautiful Arabic orchestra. I don't remember all the musicians, but I do remember Maurice Saba was on violin & Souhail Kaspar was on tabla. I loved hearing the loud "tack tack" that would announce the beginning of the song. It was all new to me. I was invigorated & this felt like a valid art form. I went onstage with my finger cymbals & wrapped veil & cabaret style, & they seemed to think I was OK. So I settled into a few nights at Koko's, on top of the Gypsy, Stox II & a few other places I really don't remember (I have my old calendars & one place I seemed to work on a weekly basis was called "El Baron". For the life of me I have no idea where "El Baron" was located & I have no recollection of what the club or restaurant looked like!) Hajji Baba's, the 3 ring circus in Inglewood had closed its doors, going the way of most nightclubs - it had just run its course. 

  So Koko's - let me try to paint a picture: The evening would start early with an Armenian band. They would play the usual pop favorites & were super nice guys. To digress a bit - we would discuss how there was a hierarchy amongst the entertainers. The Arabic musicians were at the top. Then came the folk dancers from Arabic countries. Then came the Armenian band, & last & least were the American Belly Dancers. At the end of the night the piles of tip money that had been thrown on the stage for the various acts was pooled & sequestered away by the Arabic musicians. While they were behind closed doors deciding our monetary fate, the rest of us waited & grumbled about possible unfair dispersion of the cash. I'm sure the underlings didn't always receive our fair share.
  So back to scene: After the Armenian band played, the Arabic musicians would set up. Usually another act would come on like a Tannoura dancer, or Vivianne from Lebanon & her two male debke dancers. Marvelous performers all. There were always 2 or 3 guest singers. I was loving this new atmosphere. There were two Belly Dancers a night. I worked with various ladies, but usually with Shirin Burton. Shirin was a blond woman, not the best dancer, but with such a fun personality & sense of humor that she was popular. She & Hoda would exchange banter & as is sometimes the case in these situations - the meaner Shirin would be to the club owners, the more they loved her. I however didn't have a mean bone in my body, & I'm sure they saw me as a pushover. Since I had been Koko's first choice I remained in good standing for a while.

 When you walked into Koko's the first thing you came upon was a large bar. You could usually find Shirin & me there, drinking mixed cocktails & laughing riotously with a few of the club regulars. The crowd was predominately Arab, with a few scattered Armenians. I don't think one Western or American patron ever walked through those doors. Vivianne was good friends with Hoda, & she put on a good show. She would do a debke number with two guys, & later come out to do a bit of Oriental, then a Khaleegy. I was mesmerized, & started practicing the head rolls. Why didn't I ask her to teach me? Stupidity. Vivianne also decided to create a Saiidi choreography with sticks. Shirin & I performed this dance once a night, along with our Oriental solos. 

  I loved working at Koko's. It was a late night & a long show. I was still doing the 5 part cabaret style format, but my dancing was changing as I observed the patrons dancing & the other performers. We still played finger cymbals - objects of fascination to Vivianne & Hoda, who had never played them. When the club closed for the night we would often go out for pancakes - a large group of us chattering & laughing at some awful Hollywood all night joint. There weren't many places to go out to. LA was a ghost town. I remember driving home alone in the wee hours of the morning, blasting my cassette tapes of Elvis Costello or the Clash. Outside of my Arabic world was my New Wave, Punk obsession.

 So there was nonstop action on Koko's stage. He really did create a marvelous nightclub. Now that I had my foot in the door in the Hollywood scene, I got a call to work at a divey spot in east Hollywood called Omar Khayam's. At some point in those early '80s there was a huge change afoot, and I was about to be thrown into the fire. I remember getting a primer from Shadia (of Hajji Baba's & Guy Chookoorian Belly Dance Review fame). She had landed at Omar Khayam's before me & had no idea how to perform there - so she had one of the regular dancers sit in front of the stage gesturing when to enter the stage, ditch the veil, when to leave the stage, etc. So what was different? Everything! An Egyptian dancer named Sahar had come to town & was already stirring up the pot. We all looked at this whole new style & tried to mimmic the movement. Then Nahed Sabri from Egypt appeared at Omar Khayam's with an Egyptian orchestra & a folkloric group, & LA Belly Dance was turned upside down. This must have been 1979 or 1980? Not even sure. 

  So when I arrived at Omar Khayam's I knew I was supposed to enter holding the veil, swish around a bit & ditch the veil. I was not to wear finger cymbals. I knew they played 3 parts - a long Magence (opening), a taxim with beautiful solos from the violin, kanoon, oud & organ, & of course finishing with a popular song that segued into a drum solo. But that's about all I knew. I watched a stunning dancer named Yasmin go on first. My jaw dropped to the ground. She floated effortlessly & knew the details of the music that seemed to stop on a dime out of the blue & change rhythms & time signatures every few minutes. Thankfully she was as kind & sweet as she was a beautiful dancer. I'm sure she must have thought I was God awful, flailing away up there trying to anticipate when the music would abruptly stop & change rhythms. We would sit with a person named Abosta, who I'm not quite sure was a man - possibly a woman who wanted to be a man? He/she hardly ever spoke, & adorable Yasmin would keep the conversation going with her lovely laughter. 

Yasmine arguing with owner Majed at Omar Khayam

  Now I was working at the two Hollywood clubs, as well as the Gypsy & various other places. I was completely taken by the Egyptian style dance & music, but there was still no one to teach it. I watched Yasmin & whatever other dancer with the style I could find (Jacqueline Lombard & Mish Mish were very adept). Slowly I started to familiarize myself with the Egyptian music at Khayam's. There were no recordings & I was too shy to ask the musicians if I could come to their rehearsals or to give me tips. I think I was ashamed to admit I knew so little, though I'm sure it was pretty obvious when I was onstage. Khayam's was a riot - literally. Women didn't patronize Khayam's. It was an obstreperous crowd full of men from various Middle Eastern countries. The club itself was rough around the edges, kind of an Arabic version of a saloon. A long shallow stage & no decor to speak of. The owner, Majed had been in & out of jail, & often would come in with cuts & bruises, as if arriving from a day of fisticuffs. So the dichotomy was intriguing - this seedy club with the most glorious music - a large orchestra playing the latest Egyptian pieces from the world stage of Arabic nightclubs & Egyptian movies. So if it was heaven to be onstage with such glorious music, it was hell offstage. It wouldn't take much to start a full scale riot - someone calling someone else's mother a goat, or insulting a country of origin. Yasmin & I would cower in the dressing room, which was really a closet off the main room while the clamor of breaking bottles, shouting & tables being overturned could be heard. The band played on - reminding me of the band playing while the Titanic was sinking. After the noise died down, inevitably Majed would knock on the door & demand a dancer come perform to get things back on track. So you would tiptoe out, carefully avoiding broken glass & slumped beaten bodies to climb the stage & do a ridiculous show for guys licking their wounds, brushing off the dirt & uprighting the tables. I had attained the glamorous life of a Hollywood nightclub dancer, & truth be told, I was loving it!