Fred Elias Ensemble for the Gilded Serpent, Belly dance journal
Photo from back side of Fred Elias' Album called,
Vina presents Dynamic Belly-Dance Rhythms"

Fred is lower left, others in group listed on album cover include: Richard Bayrouty, Nick Kokoras, George Kokoras, Arthuer Chingris, John Haddad
Gilded Serpent presents...

Dancing with Legends: Interview of Freddie Elias Part 1:

When Boston's Golden Era Rocked to Music Orientale

by Artemis Mourat
posted 1-18-09


Introduction to Artimis’ Interview of Fred Elias by Bonita Oteri
On a balmy day in the revitalized mill town of Lowell, which is North of Boston, we met with Freddie Elias, a legendary musician from the Golden Era of Oriental Music. 

The night was magical in the fading attic of the Greek restaurant where we interviewed him—a room that had seen much laughter, parties, dancing and music and where the air seemed thick with memories and the characters from Freddie’s past. He brought this era back to life for us in his fascinating, poignant, and often hilarious, tales.

An old world charmer and gentleman, this talented musician plays a myriad of string instruments and is still a teacher and performer at 86 years of age. Devotedly, his older sister drove him across back woods country roads from Manchester, New Hampshire, into the Boston suburb of West Roxbury for his teacher’s lessons when he was a youth. With the love and support of his family, and later his dear and close musician friends, he became a recognized master in his field and traveled for long and short-term engagements along the east coast and across the U.S. He cut some classic records—some of the pieces are traditional, while others are a fusion of classical Hungarian Romany and Orientale sounds. Some are even Jazz-fusion—the likes of which I have never heard before. The violin dances across the notes between dynamic crescendos and sweet subtle plateaus and everything in-between. 

Freddie is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. He has seen joyful times at the height of playing for celebrities like Telly Savalas, Danny Thomas and performing for the Saudi King. “I met all sixty of his wives and they were sweet,” he quips with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. He survived World War II as a soldier in The Battle of The Bulge where he lost 11 comrades and where he saw much violence that still haunts him to this day. In 1971, there was a terrible accident that left him partially paralyzed, but by a miracle, he recovered. A man of deep humility, spirituality, and uncompromising faith—his life’s path through music seemed to unfold as he spoke. We traveled back through time together. Most of all, this travel was a tale about the love that binds us all together—blood family ties, secondary “families of friends” and the mentors who become like family—we bond with each other. We change the course of each other’s lives and always, Freddie brings the story back to his deep faith in God, a faith that guides and protects him and all of us over the rougher obstacles on a sometimes harsh road to our ultimate goals.

I was amazed and impressed by the current three-piece band playing in the Athenian Corner Restaurant (* 2) - with Mike Gregian, Costa Maniatakos on oud and Freddie on the violin. He could play Turkish Karsilamas rhythm perfectly for Artemis and perform the classic Egyptian “Leylet Hob” perfectly for me—an Egyptian-styled Belly dancer. I have never seen a band quite so capable of that nowadays, but Artemis says that was the standard in the club days of her youth.

So, please join us on this adventure—time traveling back several decades to an era when Boston rocked to the sound of Oriental music drifting into the streets and luring long lines of customers into the packed nightclubs every night…

 

Greek Orthodox IconFamily and Childhood
I was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1922, and both my parents were Lebanese. My father’s name was Abraham Elias, and my mother’s name was Kereme. My family is Greek Orthodox. I believe that—if we have love, compassion, affection and respect for God, and we have our prayers—we cannot do any more than that. We have to have a lot of faith. My father taught me to respect myself—and everybody. Today, in the temple of society, there are so many tones of animosity. There is no reason to not be decent to each other.

Elias was my grandfather’s name and my original name was: Fuad Brahim Husson. (In those days, you took your grandfather’s name too. Therefore, I was Fuad Brahim Husson Elias. I got tired of writing such a long name; so I became Freddie Elias.

When I was 7 years old, I took a piece of wool from my sweater, unraveling it, and every week, my mother would say,

“We got to do something. I’m buying a new sweater every week here!” (She said this without any exaggeration.) So my dad got me a violin, which I still have. I’m 86 now, and I have had it since I was 7 years old. That’s the one I’m going to play on tonight.

violinI’ve been working with it for quite a while. (We all laugh.) I took lessons for about 13 years. I went to Boston and studied with a fantastic gentleman. He was my classical teacher, and his name was Emanual Onricek. His wife, Ruth Posselt, was a fabulous violin virtuoso. (For some reason, she had a cold every time I saw her.) She told me I was doing well, that I had a good beginning, and that I should keep practicing. I was so flattered by her compliment! I also had another teacher, a gentleman named Harry Hasakian who was my Oriental teacher. I’ll use the term “Oriental.” –and God bless my sister, Alice Elhady, (may she rest in peace)! She used to drive me fifty miles to West Roxbury from Manchester once a week. You know, I was 15 years old then, and at that time, those lessons were $15! Of course, in those days, that was a lot of money! Alice assured me not to worry ever—she had the money set aside for those expensive lessons… She was very good to me. My sister was just rooting for me all those years, --nothing but the best for Frederick! She was sort of the leader of the family. I miss her very much…

icecapades49Later, as I got into the business, I was one of the musicians for the Ice Capades. I was on a small podium on the ice.

The skaters had to drag me across the ice. I was shaking like a leaf, and I had to play the first five notes of Fristz Kriesler’s “Caprice Venoir”. These five notes were supposed to set the tempo and get the orchestra started. I can see it right in front of me like it was yesterday!

Ann Katsikas Elias
Ann (Katsikas) Elias performs in Ice Capades in 1946
more off site

I never really made it on time; so the conductor just threw his hands up in the air, and he did it after that. That is where I met my wife, Ann Katsikas, who was later to become Ann K. Elias. She was a skater, and we traveled together with that show for five years. I got quite tired of that! At that particular time, she said, “It’s time for us to get off the road and go to a conservatory.” She is instrumental in all my doings, and to make a long story short, I went for five years, and I took thirteen subjects at the Boston Conservatory of Music on Fenway Street. My first cousin, Rosalind Elias, was very musical too, and she was going to go to music school. However, we ended up at different schools, and she became a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. She was a wonderful contralto. She was unbelievable. She lived with us, and in six months, they made her an understudy at the Met. (* 3) Can you believe it? She made the Met in six months! Now, she is a successful producer.

Believe me, respectfully, I loved and listened to classical music all day long, but it was not my cup of tea. I always had that Middle Eastern flavor: 9/8s and 7/8s were among my favorites. They still are, and the 9/8 is a very difficult one! They don’t perform Karsilamas as they should. They just ramble through it—like: “Lets get it over with!” –and that’s it!

My father was a great man, (may he rest in peace). He played music everyday. Life without music is a mistake anyway—as far as I’m concerned. Dad said, “Play this, and play that, and let’s be happy.” Life was great, --three sisters, a younger brother, Mom, Dad and myself, and unfortunately, I’m the only one left… We all loved each other and cared for each other; so we had no regrets.

Dad was a Middle Eastern singer. He would chant. My father and my uncles got together—a real typical Middle Eastern social gathering—where they have a couple of drinks, and they start chanting. 

(Freddie starts to chant and sing the famous words: “Amon Amon, Amon Amon”.)

They improvised, and this gift of improvisation was like a gift from God. They would go from mode to mode with such feeling, and it is so involved—the average public and musicians don’t realize. So many musicians do not craft the music right. They have what I call “an un-studious mind.”

They do not study the craft in a deep and meaningful way, and everybody’s in a hurry. They don’t get into it right. They don’t think! If you do not work hard, you cannot protect your craft.

Let me put it in my philosophy. They put their tuxedo pants on, while you and I are dissecting modes in the morning, and they share the glory with us—which is not fair—but I’m not indicating sour grapes here. I’m not being demeaning.

Yes. Let me give you an example. When there is a Greek mode, and I feel stuck, I go home and study it until 4 o’clock in the morning, so that I make sure that I am prepared. The situation may not come to you today or the next day, but along the line, in life, an individual is going to come up to you, and he’s going to say, “Do you know this Maqam? What is the meaning? What is the terminology? What kind of mode is it?” I just want to be prepared—not in a degree of conceit (as I said)—just so I know what I’m doing and what I’m playing. This is for my own benefit. Other musicians can come to work the next day and they could care less. They skim right by what we are playing. They skim by what I was dissecting until 4:00 a.m.!

Oh, here is a story: When I belonged to The Boston Conservatory of Music, I played for King Saud. We played 15 minutes for him—a command performance and a nice surprise – they’re not supposed to listen to music.

Anyway, we were three musicians. We were paid very well and King Saud gave me a gold watch, which was engraved with my name on it.

I think he had planned that anyway. Quite a few of his kids were at the Children’s Hospital, because they had eye problems, and they were spending a million dollars a day between here and Boston. He had sixty wives. He was in the hotel suite—Kenmore Square—in Boston. He had that whole suite, and he had an unbelievably huge safe in the corner. Then, the aide came over, and he says, “He wants you to meet his wives.” So, I met all sixty of his wives, and they were sweet. I spoke a little Arabic, and in broken Arabic, we got along.

Fred Elias Album
LP cover for "Artistic Moods for Dance"

I have a son, Alan, who is 60 and a daughter, Donna, who is a biologist in California. She left the biology job to go onto the Indian Reservation because the kids needed her. She stayed there quite awhile, but then, she left. She lives in Sonora, California, now and she works at a high school for needy children. She left everything. Money was not important to her. That is what she is doing. (I also have a beautiful grand-daughter. She just started college.) My daughter played piano for quite a while, and when she comes home, we’ll get together.

Culture is the beginning of everything! If you don’t understand the culture, you don’t have the respect, the dignity. We have to dwell on our traditions, too, I think. I go by what my Mom said and my Dad said—and my family, and St. Jude, Danny Thomas, Za-Beth, Artemis and Bonita…


The Army and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
purple heartI live in Manchester, NH—near my family. My son and I were injured in the service. We both have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (and also insomnia). I work with him seven days a week. No exaggeration! I try to teach him to focus on positive things. It’s not that bad. We both see a psychiatrist, but a psychiatrist can’t believe that I come in and say, “Good morning!” He says, “Mr. Elias, I don’t believe it.” I say, “Well, we have to focus on positive things. I have ailments, but what carries me on is when I look at the other GIs in the waiting room before I come in.”

I was wounded in The Battle of The Bulge. I got a purple heart. I was very lucky. This is the most unbelievable part of my life: I was in Fort Knox, KY. I just passed my audition. They gave me the first chair for violin in the old Glen Miller’s U.S.O. band. They gave me four stripes for staff sergeant; so I was pretty good. The conductor and I had a disagreement. There was a lot of prejudice back then. I was 18; and I wailed him; so I was sent to the tank corps! I lost four tanks, eleven of my buddies, and I had a lot of violence. WW II… (He pauses)

War is so treacherous! You learn to live with it and fight it. The next day, we’re driving a tank down to maintenance. I hear this beautiful music coming on the short wave radio from Egypt. I was mesmerized. I thought, “My God, I’m back in my own country!”

The next day, we had 2 big speakers, and I get the CW (* 4) set on, and I played the Middle Eastern music really loud. The soldiers started mimicking me. So what did I do? I pulled out my US 45 and fired it into the air. I said, “Hey, don’t you guys ever ridicule this.” I played it as loud as I could and—no problems after that! I’m giving you all these stories because they’re coming to my mind. 

They called me “Sergeant Egypt.” That was my name. I talked to my buddy. His name was Babe. We both were almost dead a couple times. He was from Joplin, Missouri. So, they had a big benefit concert out there in Missouri, and I called on my buddy, Babe, and he couldn’t make it, but we talked on the phone. His granddaughter is a wiz on the computer, and she found me, and recently, Babe called me at the club. We have talked three times already.

I played for Prince Faisel of Saudi Arabia about 15 years ago in Joplin, Missouri. He was very wealthy, and I enjoyed meeting him—but we must always remember that you cannot use money as your measure of wealth… (Oh, I did a sound track for part of a documentary film on Prince Faisel. It was really difficult to make music to go with the images. It took me a month.) Well, anyway, in addition to paying us quite well, he bought 200 record albums from me, and he gave me 50 bottles of expensive perfume. I was giving perfume away for along time to everybody I knew, all the waitresses, everybody!

Part 1- you are here, Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4

 

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!
Ready for more?

4-18-08 Dancing with the Legends - honoring the musicians who shaped our dance world... Eddie Kochak, the Sheik, the Man by Elizabeth Artemis Mourat, & Christy Guenther
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.

1-10-08 John Bilezikjian Where Old World Charm Meets Musical Genius by Elizabeth Artemis Mourat,
First in the series- DANCING WITH LEGENDS… honoring the musicians who shaped our dance world

1-16-09 Thorn of the Rose:Making Friends with Criticism by Najia Marlyz 11-28-08
Thorns make the rose ever more precious; though one’s ego rarely treasures moments of having felt the sharp thorn of stinging criticism. If the dancer is open to criticism—valid or invalid—it can open the door to the process of re-evaluation that otherwise might never happen.

1-15-09 Ask Yasmina #2, Handling Media, Choreography, Name Our Dance by Yasmina Ramzy
In creating a work of art that will enlighten or move an audience emotionally, the artist's intention is to communicate a message or an emotion.

1-13-09 Connections: Yoga and Belly Dance by Narah
I started my Yoga practice not long after beginning to Belly Dance. I was drawn to it and stayed with it as I enjoyed the benefits of its complementary practices. The promises of relaxation, strength, flexibility, and spirituality intrigued me and fit right into my Belly dancing lifestyle.

1-8-09 Apprenticing at ADC by Laura
At first rehearsals were terrifying. The girls were learning new choreographies and positioning and I would follow along in the back, feeling like a bit of a dolt and getting in everyone’s way.

1-6-09 2008 Drum, Dance, & Music Festival Raqs Taiwan with Karim Nagi! by Lisa Chen
She wishes to find the bridge between dancers and musicians, performers and audiences while still keeping its cultural roots alive. DDM is the platform for dancers and musicians working together and exchanging their professional experiences.

1-5-09 Now What? Improvement Ideas for the Growing Dancer by Anna
This article is for those of us that would like to delve into areas of the art form that may be beyond the usual class topics.