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Gilded Serpent presents...
Dancing with the Legends - Honoring the Musicians who Shaped our Dance World...
Eddie Kochak, the Sheik, the Man
by Elizabeth Artemis Mourat, and Christy Guenther,

Part I : Introduction
by Elizabeth Artemis Mourat

Throughout my life, if I wanted to do something, I usually found a way to do it. If I wanted to experience a place, I eventually got there. The reward of living this way is that I have very few regrets. I rarely say; “I wish I had…” There are a few notable exceptions to this. I wish I had visited New Orleans before Katrina and I wish I had met and danced with George Abdo. As for New Orleans, she will make a fine comeback and I will go and enjoy her splendor. But, George Abdo has passed on and there can be no comeback for him.

There are wonderful musicians who are still with us who I know or who I want to know. These legends still walk among us with dignity and brilliance. They each have their story to tell and they deserve our respect and admiration. This is what inspired me to write the "Dancing with Legends" series of articles.

I began my dance career 35 years ago at the tail end of that magical musical era when every club had a band. It's been my great fortune to perform with some of the fabulous legends of that era. They were a bridge from the Old Country across the ocean to the New World. The nightclubs were a respite place, an oasis for home sick immigrants. This was before electronic technology synthesized the sound of music and separated the hands from the strings, the bows from the hands and the breath from the wind instruments. This was before there were elevator music and drum machines, before disco beats became integrated into anything we dance to and before fusion styles had come into our dance world. These musicians were mostly right off the boat and their sound was truly indicative of their lives, their cultures, their joys and their pain.

There are many fine things about our technological world and the music it created. We have a lot to thank Leon Theremin and Robert Moog for. New musical styles and sounds and fusion dance forms are springing up like mushrooms after a good hard rain. Pop is really, really fun to dance to. All this fresh blood is pumping new life into a generation of artists and they are colorful and creative and rich with ideas. But where would we be without our roots? None of this would exist without the origins of the traditional music. Before there were CDs there were cassettes, before cassettes, there were records but before there were records, there were human beings on every stage where there were dancers. When those musicians went into the studio, they played together as a band, just as in the clubs and the villages back home.

They played with each other and to each other and the recorded music was alive and real and totally in the moment. The synergy was palpable. That music was cohesive and true to that adage, the “whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” The recording industry does things differently today because each musician sits in a booth accompanied by only headphones.

Then his recorded contribution is combined later to tracks recorded by others who also sat alone in that booth or another booth just like it far away. We can thank technology because many of the old records are now available on CD. The snap, crackle and pop of records are gone and the music shines brightly and rings as true as it did the day it was recorded. This music continues to vibrate with a passion and soul that reaches across decades, over oceans and even beyond the abyss that separates us from those who have crossed over. The music of the era of legends can still seize the hearts that know how to listen and charm tired commuter feet out of their world while bringing them into a fiery dimension of dance joy. It has become my mission to rediscover the stories behind the legends and share them with the next generation.

I owe special thanks to my friend and colleague Bonita Oteri who helps me with my writings. I also want to thank Christy Guenther (1) who wrote one section of the original version and helped in innumerable ways. She was a baby dancer when we wrote this piece and she is now a professional dancer in the Baltimore and Washington, DC areas. This article begins with a typical Eddie experience, which we wrote in 2001 (2). Then progresses to show you how his music continues to inspire the new generations of dancers and ends with an interview with him.

A Typical Eddie Experience in 2001-
I have been in love with Eddie Kochak’s music since I was a “baby dancer” over thirty years ago.  Now, I often see how the same music speaks to my students. I thought it would be interesting to write an article with one of my students so that we could combine her impressions with my own. The timing was perfect, since a lot of his music is now available on CD (3). We interviewed him in 2001 shortly after he received the prestigious Little Egypt Award from the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance (IAMED) (4). He was honored for a lifetime of achievements and for his dedication to the dance community. It is valuable to see how the world looked to my student Christy Guenther back then.

I had lunch with Eddie in his Brooklyn apartment not too long ago.  I could not help but notice the awards, the plaques and pictures of him with famous people.  How humble he is and how gracious. We ate humus and olives. We drank a little wine and the nostalgic story of his life unfolded. He is a lovely man and he charmed me thoroughly. He played and sang for me and drew me cartoons. We reminisced and he did not remember the first time we met, but how could he? I was still a pup, a small face in a crowd of new dancers and that marathon show was my first big concert. I was so scared that I could hardly speak. He called me “Habiba” and warmed me with his smile. I requested my songs and later that night I danced. I never forgot his patience and skill at releasing the butterflies from my young stomach. Eventually we became friends and I cherish my connection with him.

Those were the days when the only music available was on records and we had to piece together songs on cassettes in order to perform to it. Eddie had the great idea to put an entire show on a record. He named each song and briefly described it to and there was a lot of information on the record jackets. We all used his music.  The dancers learned from him and I continue to learn from him now. When I left the interview, he pressed into my arms a carefully wrapped picnic. He said, “Artemis, Habiba, tonight after your show, you’re gonna be hungry on that long train ride back to DC.” Late that night, while I ate my picnic on the train, I felt blessed to know him. 

Part II: Through the Eyes of a new dancer (2001)
by Christy Guenther

As one of Artemis’ “baby dancers” and a music teacher myself, I feel privileged to have the chance to write about a man who has such a deep love of music and a real affection for the women who dance to it!  Eddie has taken the rhythms that so many of us find difficult to grasp at first, and he has made them more accessible. I will never forget the day that Artemis used one of Eddie’s rumbas for our class’s warm-up. I had heard rumbas before because my mother used to compete in the Latin dances, but I had never experienced any with such a haunting melody.

The clarinet soared around and through me and right then, I felt something “click.” For just a moment, I was no longer an uncoordinated beginner. I had a glimpse of what it was to “feel” the music, without thinking about which arm was supposed to be raised or which direction the figure 8’s were supposed to go. It was a gift!

imagined that this was what the “good dancers” felt when they danced. This was what it felt like to “get it.” As soon as the moment came, I thought too much about it, and it was gone. I realized that I was again doing everything exactly backwards. But still, it had happened! I laughed and asked Artemis what she was playing. “It’s Eddie Kochak – a rumba,” she said. “It’s a shame that people aren’t putting out as many rumbas as they used to.”   

Eddie shares the cover with Hakki Obadia

So it was Eddie Kochak who had helped me reach that temporary state of grace and I was to learn that there was something unique about his music. So that evening after class, I bought his cassettes from her. I went home and discovered that the rumba was only one of many gems he had recorded! Every song seemed to have a life of its own. Each was its own tiny world and upon entering it, I found I had to dance. Eddie’s songs would never be “background music” for me! They held me and moved me and I was happy.

And in the months that followed, I saw myself beginning to move in a way that pleased me. There were times when I look in the mirror, and I saw a woman dancing with freedom and joy. In those moments I forget everything else. And most often, those occasions of grace came to me while dancing to the music of Eddie the Sheik. For that, I owe him a debt of gratitude!

What is the best way to speak to a woman’s heart?  History tells us that it depends on who she is. Solomon gave his courageous and intellectual Queen of Sheba his ideas, and then immortalized their passion in his beautiful song. The lover in O. Henry’s famous short story sells his pocket watch to buy a comb for his wife’s long, lustrous hair.  And in the movie “Phenomenon,” the main character falls in love with a woman who makes chairs. Of course, he buys every one!  But what if the women you admire are dancers -- if their heartbeats have somehow become entwined with the passionate rhythms of beledi, karsilama and ciftetelli?  How do you show your love for these women? Well, if you are Eddie Kochak, you communicate the rhythms. 

Part III:Interview with Eddie in 2001
by Artemis and Christy

Eddie was born in Brooklyn of Syrian parents. He has a deep love of the rhythms he grew up hearing. This is second only to his honest affection for the women who dance to them, including his mother and sister. He says, “We had a happy, happy family with music and dance and fun. Most of the time was spent in the house, always entertaining. My mother and sister used to sing and dance around the house. Whenever we had relatives and friends over, we always had a ball, a party.  And if there wasn’t a party, they would create one (he laughs) and have a good time! I think I take a lot after my mother, who was talented with singing and dancing. I am happy for all these little house parties we had. Just a happy home, thank God!”

Speaking of his early experiences with percussion instruments, he laughs! “Well, they would be having these parties, and the records would be playing, and they would be dancing and singing, and they would give me one of my mother’s pots or pans to beat on.

Well, I was breaking too many pots and pans. My mother’s pots and pans were getting scarce! And they all saw that I had the feeling in me, that I was gifted with music and tempos. So my sister went out on my birthday and bought me a dumbek. I was about twelve years old.” 

Eddie became a professional musician specializing in Middle Eastern music. He was in the Special Services Division of the Army and in this capacity he entertained American troops in the Italian, Greek, and Egyptian theatres of war during World War II. He did it all - as a vocalist, a comic and an emcee. He balanced this with a performance career back home, since his immediate success in these overseas arenas led to many offers to perform on both Arabic and American concert stages. As he says, “I entertained, sang, played drums, danced, emceed, did comedy, all of that. I always had my own American band, and we entertained at many parties where people wanted a combination of Arabic and American, Greek and American or Turkish and American music. This is all before the belly dance scene came out.” Eddie also made over 100 recordings in Arabic, Armenian, Greek, Turkish and Israeli music

Throughout his entire career and still to this day, Eddie has contributed his performances to innumerable charity events. In this capacity, he appeared at the Dean Martin "City of Hope" telethon, where he was given the Award of Hope. He also worked with Danny Thomas for ALSAC, which is for St Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

In the late 1960’s, Middle Eastern dance gained popularity in the United States. After having seen the dances done with the freedom they were meant to have, Eddie was concerned when he saw how some American dancers struggled with the music.

Eddie decided to create recordings that made Middle Eastern rhythms more accessible to the American dancer. He explains; “The sounds of the Middle East were a little different, a little harder for the beginner. I felt the need of the girls who were getting into the belly dance field, because they were not able to enjoy the music of some Middle Eastern recordings.” So, in Eddie’s recordings, he helped to showcase the heart of each rhythm in a way that truly expressed its beauty. He helped the dancers to find their joy!

A busy performance career included a 5-year tour with Anthony Quinn, as part of the play Zorba the Greek. “From coast to coast,” he says, “I was visiting the belly dancers and the belly dance schools. It hooked me up with my music and albums and cassettes, and my music was running hot, thank God. And I was visiting most of these schools and participating in belly dance seminars here and there.” Eddie found that because of the nature of the play, belly dancers would never be far from his life on tour with Zorba the Greek. When asked how he became involved with the production, Eddie reminisces, “I was called by the Anthony Quinn people. They were looking for a percussionist, a dumbek player to play in the show. They wanted somebody who could play with a Greek and Arabic feeling, for Anthony Quinn. Well, they got in touch with most of the musicians’ unions from coast to coast but they couldn’t find what they wanted. And here I was, Eddie the Sheik, local 802 (his union chapter number), in New York, making belly dance albums and working in the recording studios. I got the call from the president of the union, and he said, ‘Tell the people that only one man could do this, and that is Eddie the Sheik.’  Well, my president told me about Zorba the Greek with Anthony Quinn, but at the same time I was recording one of my Strictly Belly Dancing albums, and it was going real fine. But, I’d have to audition for Anthony Quinn, and I didn’t think I wanted to audition for anybody. Well after they told me what the salary was, I said, ‘Maybe I’ll give it a shot.’ (He laughs), which I did and I landed the job.” When asked how it was to work with Quinn, Eddie remembers fondly, “He was a pretty good guy. I was with him most of the time. He would invite me to play my dumbek, while he sometimes danced. I was like his steady accompaniment when he was invited to restaurants and different affairs. So I had a good time with him.” 

“So being of Middle Eastern background,” he explains, “I had the feel for how to make the music easier for the new dancers. I was the first musician to put together routines, along with my partners Hakkie Obadia and Freddie Elias – two great musicians. Hakkie, being from Baghdad, joined me about forty years ago, and Freddie is a great violinist from Manchester, New Hampshire. We worked together to get our music down the way we wanted it at all the recording sessions. I first took some old songs from the Middle East – public domain songs, especially from Aleppo (5).

Eddie found that the melodies from Aleppo still spoke to him as an adult. He continues, “I thought I could take some of these melodies, put my feelings to them, and create what we now call the Amer-Aba sound. We created simple routines for the teacher to teach and the student to learn.”

He speaks like a man in touch with the heart of our dance. He says, “In Arabic, there is a word; ‘wati’ which means ‘tempo’ and also a word ‘halawi’ which means ‘the sweetness of the way you move and come across to the audience.’ That is what we wanted for the music and the dancers.” He seems to relish every word as he explains. “That’s how it all came about. It started with the musical gift that God gave me and the knowledge to put it down for the American girls so that they could get the feeling. It was all there for them to hear, to feel and they would pick it up more easily.”

Eddie sees his work as something of a calling – one that has benefited many dancers over the years. He speaks of this calling with great joy. “So they danced to Amer-Aba with Eddie the Sheik!”

Note: Many of Eddie Kochak’s albums are now available on CD.  His website is Please feel free to contact him to order CDs and other products directly from him by calling (718) 858–3212. He loves to chat and he might even sing for you. Or you can write to him at:


  • 1 Christie Guenther is also known as Bijou and she is a dancer and music teacher in the Washington, DC and Baltimore areas. She is a founding member of Levialora Drum and Dance and of Baltimore’s first tribal troupe, Shivani.
  • 2 The 2001 parts of this article are courtesy of WAMEDA
  • 3 Eddie has a new CD coming out this year.
  • 4 Eddie is about to receive another Lifetime Achievement award form the Chronicles Magazine.
  • 5 Aleppo is a city in northwestern Syria.

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