Gilded Serpent presents...
Salah Takesh
Interviewed by Janine Ryle

Salah Takesh teaches at Indian Valley Junior College and the Novato School District. For years, he was involved in the Northbeach scene during the eighties as a drummer while his brother, Jalaleddin Takesh was a kanoonist and restaurant owner. We asked him to recall some of his experiences for our North Beach Memories series.

Salah was, at the time of this interview, on his way to tour Europe and the Middle East, will be returning in time to participate in the Middle East Music and Dance Camp (his 18th year) and the Lark in the Morning Camp.

Salah usually stays busy playing for private parties and concerts with various musicians. Salah delights in his ability to drum with all the various Middle Eastern communities in the music specific to their countries, whether they are Kurds, Persians, Israelies, Assyrians, Arabs, Greeks, or Armenians.

Salah was originally born in Azerbajian, an area within Iran. His grandmother is Assyrian and from his father's side of the family, he is a direct descendant (5th grandson) of the King of Iran.

Janine is a dancer and instructor in San Francisco. She and her husband Eliott are friends of Salah's. The three of them put on Middle Eastern Music and Dance Jams in Marin for the Bay area dance community. Janine and Salah had a chance to sit down together and talk about his career as a musician, and what the North Beach scene was like.

Janine:
Do you have any stories from your time in North Beach that you can share?

Salah answers:
In 1967 I arrived in the United States. The following 1and 1/2 years I was living with an American family in Turlock, California. My brother, Jalal was playing santur in Modesto at churches and at Modesto Jr. College events. He was busy at college; he was an engineering student, and he was busy weekends playing the santur at church events.

By 1970 we moved to Marin County because my sis got married and we all wanted to be in the same area, and Jalal got a job playing drums and santur once in a while on Broadway. Before the Casbah opened, there was a club called Gigi, today's Big Al's. Gigi's had at least four or five musicians, (believe it or not), mostly Persians. We had Hooshang Magdarian on violin. We had Ali Azerdan on drum, Salimpour on drums, Asghar on santur, and Fadil Shahin on oud. There were another couple Arab musicians, but they had a tendency to play at home more rather than play for dancers in a cabaret or gig.

The Casbah Cabaret opened by 1971. Jalal got part-time job playing drums and santur when Asghar was off. Asghar was the main santur player. How I started is, by accident. I came to the Casbah. I waited in the back room 'til 2 o'clock, until Jalal would give me a ride home. So I was sitting down and minding my own business.

There was a drummer named Gilli-Gilli, an Egyptian. He was the funniest man in the world. (He was a magician.) He did the most unusual and awkward things on stage, like putting a sword in his mouth. He was swallowing knives and forks, you name it. He was bald and had a toupee, and every time he wanted to say "goodbye", he would pick up his toupee and say, "Goodbye"! He would do this on stage!

So Fadil was on oud, Asghar was on santur, Gilli-Gilli was on drum, and Jalal had a part-time job playing drum and santur once in a while. Fadil bought the place I think with percentage down, his brother Walid I believe matched the amount and Pamela Ayoub put big percentage down so they all could purchase the Casbah. I was waiting, and Fadil came down and said, "I heard you are a drummer!". I said well, "I used to play drum in Iran. I won lots of awards, but now I'm studying this and that". He said well, my drummer needs a break; can you go on stage and play something so my drummer can take a break? I said, "Well, you have to ask Jalal because it's not appropriate for me, (his kid brother), to go to the stage when dancers are dancing, I just can't do that without my brother's permission. Actually, he never asked Jalal! He came to me and said, "You have permission to play."

Janine: Uh oh! So what did Jalal do?

Salah: Jalal was on stage on santur, and I got on the stage and Jalal said, "Fine". But I didn't know any Arabic music. He said, "What kind of music?" I said, "Well, I know Arabic rhythms, but I'm not that familiar with their style. All I know are the classical pieces. So he said, "Don't worry, you'll follow. If you're a drummer, I heard the way you are, you won't have any problems".

So we started playing, and I started playing. So far so good! I'd never played with a microphone. The sound was awesome, and I liked it! Everybody was amazed, it sounded so good! But there was one problem, I never looked at dancers. I was too ashamed because I was a little kid.

Janine: You were embarrassed?

Salah: Yes.

The dancers would fall in front of me, and cross legs showing their chest and I was getting red and sweating and I couldn't look,

I still have pictures in which you can see that I wasn't looking. Fadil kept telling me "You need to look at the dancers!" So anyway, the following night Fadil said, "I'll give you a one-night per week job. You're a very good drummer, I need my drummer to take off one night, and I'll give you Sunday nights."

Actually, Sunday nights was the best night on Broadway especially at the Casbah, because all of the Arab community closed their stores, and they would all come to the Casbah. It was a family area, with their wives and children. It was a very cozy area. So, I got the Sunday night jobs with the provision that when I took a break I would go back and sit with families or ladies so that they would know me. Because the police didn't want kids in the nightclubs!

Janine: You were underage?

Salah: Yes, I was 16 or 17 years old. I was very young, so the police were told that I was Fadil's cousin and Jalal's brother so they looked the other way. Usually, in those times, police and nightclub owners worked together to make the area safe. I wasn't a drinker or smoker, and my brother was there anyway! So I got a job. My pay scale was $17.50 a night plus tips, so sometimes I was coming home with $30., sometimes $25. or $26. At that time, for a kid, that was a lot of money!

Janine: How did they work the tips? Did you all split them evenly?

Salah: We had three dancers and dancers gave half of their tips. Dancers made tons of tips! At that time, dancers made about $20 a night, plus they used to make at least $30 or $40 in tips, each, but half of their tips "belonged" to us, and the musicians would split that amount, between three or four of us musicians. The dancers would sometimes make a lot more than we did!
[ Ed. Note: In San Francisco at that time, most adult musicians were earning $50. Or $60. while dancers were paid various amounts depending on their popularity: usually $17.50 to $25. per night, plus tips. All tips that fell on the floor from the dancer' s costume were forfeited to the musicians, and all that were thrown onto the stage were shared only among the musicians.]

Janine: Did tension exist between the musicians and dancers because of that?

Salah: No, absolutely not. I never noticed it, and the dancers mostly were from east coast or Middle East. We had hardly any American dancers. We had Turkish, Arab, Jewish from New York, Boston, Chicago, hardly any dancers from the Bay Area except Jamila (when she used to dance at the Bagdad with Yusuf because they used to date.) Other than that, hardly any American dancers, (maybe one or two) but they were very professional, not the young dancers like you see a lot these days. So I started working, Asghar quit, Jalal became the third musician. He stopped playing santur and started playing kanun, and I became the drummer. Gilli-Gilli quit. His wife was a dancer, Fatima, and she used to dance at the Casbah once in a while. Gilli-Gilli quit. He was an old man. He wasn't a strong drummer. He was Egyptian but he had a funny accent on his rhythms. Especially every time he wanted to use his left hand, he would go up and BOOM! He would pick his whole arm up and hit it with his left hand. Very dramatic!

Gilli-Gilli was a showman. He was a magician, and he wasn't a drummer, not at all! He used to sing. He was around 60 years old. He wasn't built for stage, and he was more charismatic. He quit, and I got his job.

And the rest is history! Yes, it changed my life! When I started, about two doors away was the Bagdad nightclub. I even played in Bagdad with Yusef, Iraqi-Armenian, great violinist, and showman. He used to have other musicians playing for him, Tony, and a Palestinian, no, Syrian oud player. He's a big boss right now in Las Vegas

Janine: Is Yusef still playing?

Salah: No, but every time I go to Vegas I call him up on the phone. Yusuf called me to work at the Bagdad; Gilli-Gilli was still playing at Casbah. Fadil heard that Yusef wanted me. Then Gilli-Gilli quit, and Fadil grabbed me. It was a competition between two clubs, and because I was young, (I was getting better) there was a potential and the musicians noticed that. They were taking me to parties. Everybody was making over $100, but they were paying me $30. So I was cheaper at that time, too!

Janine: Child labor!

Salah: Yes, I was a kid, but that's how my career began.

Janine: Are there any particular people who stand out in your memory either as being really, really nice to you?

Salah: Fadil Shahin became my mentor, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He became my older brother, my father, my teacher; he watched over me. He never let me drink. People would buy me ten drinks a night, and they were thinking I was drinking cognac, but it was tea. Fadil never let me smoke, He accepted me like his son or his little brother. I'm close to his family. I became part of their family, their circle. Every time his brother, Walid, would have parties, I would go. I became the drummer that represented San Francisco! Fadil did that. If there was an event in Los Angeles, I was the drummer. I represented the Casbah from San Francisco.

Janine: So he was instrumental (no pun intended!) in really launching your career?

Salah: Yes, his musical style was different, and I don't blame him! He came from the nightclub scene. With dancers, you could play Music, but sometimes rhythms are different. He played beledi a lot because dancers needed that to follow it. But other than that, I enjoyed playing with him tremendously. I have memories that will never go away.

Janine: Was there anybody in particular who was a real character?

Salah: Aida, Jamila's student! Jamila had three students that I respected a lot. I think the best dancer Jamila produced was Galia. The second best was Noura and the third was Aida. Aida's style mixed with a lot of Kathak dance from India. So she took a lot of things from the Kathak dancers. But Aida was, in my opinion and a lot of musicians' opinions, had a kind of mischief. What do I mean by that? She used to record our music behind the curtain and never told us that she was recording. I just heard a year ago from Fadil. He said Aida brought all your tapes, (over 200 hours) that she recorded in her dressing room, and she wants to give you a copy! I think she should have asked, not been so conniving about it, but that's what she did.

Janine: Maybe she did it so she could practice at home?

Salah: True, true. She was a very good friend of Fadil. She told him a lot of things after everybody left, what was going on, what was happening. Everybody knew it. Other than that, everybody was friendly, from George the doorman, Haroun the bartender, to Walid, my favorite, fun oud player. He came Friday, Saturday nights to play with me. Zahra his girlfriend. I still think he should have married her! Saida came, and she married Jalal. Jalal would never let me play drums for Saida. He always wanted to play for her so he'd get to know her better! Everybody picked on me because I was the smallest. I was the victim. I was innocent, but over all, people were very friendly. We had something like a family. We had another guy, a prince from Saudi Arabia, who brought a lot of changes like giving us big tips, and bringing us to his place. We had a great family, and I miss it very much.

Janine: Do you know of anything that happened there that maybe the public didn't know happened?

Salah: Oh, definitely! Obviously a lot of things happened. It's the nature of human beings that we all make mistakes, and we learn from these mistakes. Mistakes are expensive. We have to pay for them. I dated many dancers and fell in love with a couple of dancers who broke my heart! There were a lot of things happening, but who am I to say?

Janine: That's very diplomatic of you! The musicians all sounded like they got along. Was there a lot of infighting among the dancers? a lot of competition where they would sabotage each other or gossip about the other to get her job?

Salah: By end of 1970s, Jamila used to have student nights and bring a lot of dancers. By then, a lot of our east coast dancers, our original dancers, left for various reasons. A lot of young, American dancers…

Janine: Were they less expensive? Was that one of the reasons?

Salah:

Yes, I'd say financially Fadil was… He wanted to change. He wanted to put more young dancers, more pretty dancers. In my opinion the talent wasn't there.

The stage was too small to begin with. The music was awesome, but the quality of dancer that needed to be there was not there. That was the unfortunate thing. I was too young, going to school, working at nights, I'd get home at 5:30 am and have to go to school! Yes there was a lot of gossip among the dancers. Bert Balladine had a lot of dancers come to dance at the Casbah, and Jamila had dancers there, several other dancers had students there, too. So of course, there was competition, like, "Look, I'm one of So and So's students, I should have first choice," or "I'm one of this other group." But, Fadil was very diplomatic, he kept everybody happy.

Janine: What was different about the East Coast performers, because I know you also played in New York, didn't you?

I used to take summers off, and Vince Delgado and Mark Bell used to sit in for me. There were two other Arab drummers that used to play for me, but Fadil kept my job. He organized it so that I would leave with my girlfriend, (in fact I went for five summers), she was a dancer in the Casbah, I won't say her name!

Janine: AWWWW!!

Salah, laughing: Anyway, we used to go to New York and work in the village in other nightclubs, then go to Europe, go to London and work one night in Omar Khayyam, from there go to Paris, work one or two nights in Jazayer in St. Michel, from there go to Barcelona and work in North African nightclubs. We used to rent a car, or purchase a car in Germany, from there we would drive to Turkey, do our shopping, drive to Lebanon, sell our car there in Beiruit before the civil war. From there, we used to go to Egypt and spend our last penny in Egypt! When the civil war broke out in Lebanon, we stopped going to Lebanon and went to Turkey and Greece; from there we would fly to Egypt.

Janine: But you used to drive from Paris, through the Balkans...

Salah: ...through the old Yugoslavia...

Janine: ...and you can't do that anymore, either!

Salah: Nope! We were kicked out of trains once because we didn't have the transit visa! But it was fun, and it was challenging!

It was the 70's, Communists everywhere. We couldn't go because we had American passports. It was kind of difficult, but overall, Fadil let me go. I played and got experience. The reason I got so knowledgeable about the field of Middle Eastern music, was that I was fortunate to play with hundreds of professional musicians from the Middle East and North Africa. So when I play Persian, I play like a Persian, when I play Turkish I play like a Turk, when I play Turkish folkloric, I play like Turkish folkloric drummer. When I play Egyptian, I can play exactly like Egyptian drummers. I could play like a Lebanese, North African, Moroccan drummer, so that, to me, was an opportunity to work with Moroccans, Egyptians, Lebanese, gulf musicians and that variety gave me experience…

Janine: Instead of being locked into just one style?

Salah: Exactly! That's the unfortunate part of some musicians, they stay in one dimension and they cannot grow. Since my father was Turkish, and my mother was Russian Turk, I was born in Iran and loved Arabic music. I was born in a very unique area. I had the opportunity to see and hear everything. Like with my Armenian friends, and my Turkish friends, I played with everyone!


Janine: What was the difference in the quality in the music and dancers from your work in San Francisco and those summers when you traveled abroad? Did you feel it was more professional in New York and overseas than it was in San Francisco?

Salah: Good question! San Francisco musicians were more "cozy type" musicians. They played only one or two rhythms.

Janine: Was that because of the dancers?

Salah: I don't want to say because of the dancers because, like, Galia loved 9/8. The 9/8 rhythm actually did not become popular until the late 70s in the Bay Area. When you go to New York they don't play 4/4 for you. They play-- mmBOP, mmBOP, mmBOP, mmBOP: 2/4…, fast 2/4, then go to 9/8, then 7/8, then 6/6, then 4/4, then into Samai, and a finale in 2/4. All kinds of rhythms! Even today they do this. But here in San Francisco, you go to Pasha or anywhere else, you get one set of rhythms.

Janine: That's true, and that must get really frustrating for a musician.

Salah: I just talked to Abdullah yesterday and he said "Salah, I'm playing dum-dum tekatek dum tekatek all night, dum-dum tekatek dum tekatek all morning!"

Janine: No wonder it's hard to get musicians to play for dancers sometimes!

Salah: It's very difficult. I think the musicians in New York, (they were the musicians I loved to work with) were my style.

Janine: So they were playing different rhythms, probably more unusual songs?

Salah: Yes. My idol lived in NY, and every time I went to New York, I just wanted to sit next to him.. He knew, and he would play oud,and I used to play his drums. God bless him, he died! He died very young, about 12 years ago. He was my idol, and I was fortunate to go onstage with him, and play with his musicians. He had 6-7 musicians in Finjan, in the Village: bouzouki player, bass, oud, drummer, keyboard in background, and tambourine. Also, the musicians used to come in the Basement and that's the music I loved.
[Ed note: What is the idol's name?]

Janine: Were they getting paid better than in San Francisco?

Salah: Yes, yes, even today, the dancers coming from Chicago and New York get much more than dancers here. Dancers here are getting, what, $40, $50 a night, plus tips?

Janine: Uhh, less!

Salah: Less, O.K.!

Janine: I think it's more like $20, not that that's right, but I think that's about what it is.
[Ed note: Currently the range is between $20. to $50. In most Bay Area restaurants, splitting tips with musicians.]

Salah: In New York, the dancers won't dance for under $50 a night, the same as it is in Paris, or London, or Europe. They have Middle Eastern dancers. When I was in Egypt, I saw a lot of Russian dancers, believe it or not! The times change… but yes, the musicians in NY were more professional, but the musicians in San Francisco were more cozy, more like a family of musicians playing in your living room.

Janine: That's a big difference!

Salah: Yes.

Janine: From all you've learned, what would you tell musicians or dancers starting out today who want to play this music or want to dance to this music?

Salah: Middle Eastern music, in my opinion, is very rich music, very passionate music, very emotional music, very aggressive music. It's the mother of the music of the world, in my opinion. We have a variety of music. You can't compare Armenian music to Gulf music. It's totally different. If I were a musician starting right now… a lot of friends want to get into Ph.D. programs. They need to focus on one subject area. For example: Arabic music or Egyptian music. They should also focus on the kind of music that comes from that area. If you know that you only enhance your knowledge of the music, you'll be a better performer, and you know exactly what you're going to do on stage when the music begins. A lot of musicians today--this is true… You cannot find an Arabic musician to play Persian music; that's terrible! You can find Persian musicians that can play Arabic music, why? Because they're willing to learn. If you find Turkish musicians, and ask them to play North African music, they will get stuck. They wouldn't know, even though the Turkish maqqam system is complicated.. They cut boundaries. But here in America, we're in a diversified country, so we need to learn to be diversified.

Janine: It's different here in San francisco. When you hear music in the nightclubs here, you're not just hearing Arabic music. Somebody's going to ask for a Karsilimah, so you're going to get a Turkish song. Then someone else may want to do veil work to a Persian song, and so you'll get a whole variety from all over the Middle East.

Salah: Yes, and I think that's better! I think that gives you diversity on the stage, it gives you different sounds and variety on stage. I don't like keyboards, electronic music and I think that unfortunately, after Umm Koulsoum, after Abdel Halim Hafez, and Farid Atrache… After they died, in Arabic music, all I hear is keyboard! Maybe I don't have the right CDs! But I just came from Syria with 200 tapes, and in 180 of them, it's all keyboard in them! I find very few tapes that have the classical pieces! But it only takes one person to play a keyboard.

Janine: That's true!

Salah: You have to have a little bigger band if you're going to have a ney and a zurna and….At that time we had original instruments, we had oud, kanun, violin, drums, daff, riqs, bouzouki at that time, we had all sorts of musicians!

Janine: So the clubs must have been expensive to go to?

Salah: No, the drinks were $2.50, then went up to $3. When Pasha opened, drinks were $4. or $4.50. Fadil even allowed me to work one night with the Greek Taverna. I played with the great bouzouki player. I played a trap set. But Fadil didn't want me to play at Bagdad. He even let me play at Scheherezade, a new nightclub that came on Broadway. Anything but the Bagdad! It was competition!

Janine: And they were only 2 doors apart.

Salah: That's right. I had a lot of respect for George, George Elias. I think he was the greatest oud player! He played Farid Atrashe solos perfectly! I have a recording of him. He played perfect solos. I had with him , on many occasions, played on television, KQED, in big events at palace of fine arts representing Arabic music. Fadil didn't know about it!

Janine: Now he knows!

Salah: Jalal took some pictures off the TV. I played many famous occasions with him. He loved to play with me. When I decided not to play at Bagdad, he brought Jamil, the famous Iraqi drummer, from Los Angeles. In my opinion, I think he was one of the greatest drummers. The only problem I didn't like about Jamil was that he put the drum between his legs! But he had the fastest fingers! I learned a lot from him!

Janine: So is there anything else that happened, anything else you remember…?

Salah: I miss it very much! Any more people that stand out? I'm sure a lot stand out! I have a lot of respect and gratitude for Fadil Shahin, his brother, and his family. Once, I cried onstage when Fadil's brother came from Palestine. They were from a religious family, and I didn't know he played oud. He took the oud--all the brothers played the oud--and he played solo. That night, I think everybody was crying. The only person that has that recording…

Janine: Aida?

Salah: …is Jalal!

Janine: So, Jalal did some recording too!

Salah: Jalal did some recording. He has Fadil's brother's solo, which I think is comparable to Ryadeh Sombati's solo. He was at that time compared to Munir Bashir. He wasn't active. He was very religious, and the oud was played in nightclubs. It wasn't his way, but that was a memory I'll cherish the rest of my life. I think Ahmad Sharif, when he came with his oud from Lebanon, I played with him on stage, I played with everyone on that stage, I have tons of pictures, I will show them to you.

Salah: I want to get some of those recordings! I would put out a best of the Casbah Cabaret CD!!

Janine: Digitize them!

Salah: We would have to go into Aida's tape collection!

Janine: What do you think of the scene today as compared to back then? It's just not the same at all, is it?

Salah: No, not at all.

Janine: Is it the caliber or the talent that isn't there, is it the audience, or what?

Salah: The talent is there - we have great dancers, great musicians now, but how do you get them together? The key is; you cannot survive just playing music or just dancing.

Janine: Were they surviving back then, by just doing music or dance?

Salah: Yes! That was the difference. Today, paying rent and expenses… You said just a minute ago that the dancers are only getting $20. How do you dance for $20. and pay $2,000 rent? So, I talked to most of these musicians and most of them have daytime jobs, like I do. I'm the only drummer that has weekend jobs. Most musicians have to work in nightclubs or ask for gigs to play. But I don't ask, so I'm very fortunate about that. Expensive rents, leases, parking situation--you can't find parking, so you have to park in a lot and that ends up costing you $15-20! And that's your salary: $20!And of course the owners are looking for the best price they can get.

If I had a partner who could run it for me, and I could come and play on weekends, I would purchase the Casbah back! I've thought about it a lot, I've gone by there, it's a strip joint, but the guy's making tons of money. I don't think he wants to sell. I wouldn't mind opening something like our Casbah. It's always my hope to find a musician to come join me and open a place, so I hope this interview will make that person available, and come forward so we can open our own place. That's my goal, and, hey! We could do it!


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