Gilded Serpent presents...

A Dancer’s Dancer in 1980’s Hollywood

Yasmin in her Flame Costume

An Interview with Yasmin

by Kamala Almanzar
as part of the Golden Era of Tinseltown Series
posted November 27, 2010

Kamala, authorThis interview is the third in a series on the Hollywood Arabic nightclub scene in the late 1970s, early 1980s. Gale Sequeira, a.k.a. Yasmin, is up there at the top of my list of favorite dancers of all time. Beloved by the Arabic audiences who patronized the clubs, and respected by the musicians who appreciated her musicality, she was one of the most sought-after dancers in Hollywood. Her photos paint a picture of a forgotten time in California Belly dance history. These clubs closely resembled their counterparts in London, Paris & Cairo: funky little cabarets with beautiful music, multiple dancers and not a westerner to be seen. I hope you enjoy this memoir from one of America’s forgotten dance treasures.

Kamala: I have to say: I loved watching you on stage! You had this ethereal quality and an amazing musicality. What got you involved in Middle Eastern dance?

Yasmin: Thank you, Kamala for the lovely compliment! I have always loved dance and movement and the music that the Egyptian musicians played for us in Hollywood was inspiring and wonderfully different than anything I’d heard before.

I began taking Middle Eastern dance lessons around 1975 with a teacher named Sophia, who was one of Jamila Salimpour’s progeny here in the San Francisco Bay Area. From the first moment I heard the music, which was “Dances of Port Said”, I was hooked! The sound was mesmerizing, and I loved the rhythms.

I decided to change teachers after a few months and began taking classes with Rhea. This is where it all began. Rhea was wonderfully wild and exotic and she asked me to become involved in her troupe, Nar El Nisaa. With Rhea, I attended my very first West Coast Belly Dancers Convention in Las Vegas in 1976 where Fadil Shahin and Salah Takesh, of the Casbah, provided our music. Fadil started calling me to fill in at the Casbah and after a short while, I became a regular dancer there.

The atmosphere at the Casbah could be dicey at times as personalities clashed and some of the women were very territorial. I also worked at the Greek Taverna and other venues, but the Casbah was like home base where I would return after traveling to dance in other states.

In December 1977, I was asked by the owners, brothers Ardi and Arsi, to be one of the dancers for the grand opening of their new restaurant, the Marrakech in Honolulu, Hawaii. I worked there for four months. When I returned to San Francisco later that year, one of the dancers I worked with at the Casbah, Cassandra, asked me to come to Minnesota to dance at a restaurant and nightclub, in a suburb of Minneapolis, that had a complete floor show including a Greek band, an Israeli singer, folk dancers and a Belly dancer. I worked there from January until April of 1980 and met many wonderful people. Once the contract was finished, I came back to San Francisco.

Kamala: When did you first dance in Hollywood, and what clubs did you work in?

Yasmin: Paula, Rebaba, Majid, Turki, YasminI first came to Hollywood in June of 1980 and lived with my friends and fellow dancers, Paula and Rebaba, who were already working at Khayam. I auditioned, and Majed, the owner, offered me a job as well. The night club itself was nothing to write home about. It had a tiny stage with coffee shop décor and the ceiling was comprised of those acoustic white tiles. The dressing room was the size of a coat closet (remember?) but the place rocked! This was my first experience with the Egyptian musicians and the incredible music they played. I worked at Khayam until it closed its doors in 1981.

(Kamala reminisces: Ah yes, the famous closet where we hid whenever one of the frequent fights broke out!)

Gary and George DebahI worked at the Sahara, on Sunset Boulvard, which had a much larger stage, and it was more elevated than Khayam’s. The owner, Susie, was a sharp Iranian lady who used to be a dancer herself and she ran a tight operation.

At Ali Baba I worked for George Debah. He was a nice man and had the respect of his clientele. His son, Gary, worked the bar, and I remember one of the waitresses there named Sherry. The stage at Ali Baba was small, and the ceiling was low, but the décor of the night club was nice, with murals and art work on the walls.

Aladdin was the last club I worked at in Hollywood. Tony and Walid, Iraqi cousins, opened up the Aladdin after Khayam closed its doors. It was the largest and nicest of the clubs at that time; sometimes it seemed too large on a slow night. They had a nice sized dressing room, and they inherited much of Khayam’s clientele as did Ali Baba.

Kamala: Do you remember which musicians played for you, and what songs you danced to?

Yasmin: The musicians at Khayam were Abdel Khalik on dumbek, Yousri Ishmael on accordion, Megdi on nye, Galal sang and played def, and Aziz Khadra on oud. Periodically Adel Asfour would play organ and Aziz would leave and be replaced with Abdullah Kdough on oud.

Later at Sahara, another set of Egyptian musicians came on the scene from London; Menem, who played organ, Ibrahim on dumbek, Shariff on guitar, and the rest of the names escape me.

At Ali Baba I worked with Abdullah Kdough on oud, Henri on kanoon, Fatiah on dumbek, Yousef Mustafa on dumbek, and later Ibrahim on dumbek.

Aladdin was fortunate for Khayam’s closing as they gained the wonderful musicians from there. A few changes came with Megdi and Galal leaving. Ramzi took over on nye, and Samir took over on def. I remember missing Galal’s playful Egyptian songs, but I went crazy for Yousri’s accordion solos and Abdel Khalik’s drum solos.

Some of the popular songs played were El Arousa, also known as Meschaal, Saharet el Soubar, Sahara and Hani.

Yasmin arguing with MajidYasmin, Abu Osta and PaulaKamala: I wish there were videos of some of those nightclubs. Can you give us an idea of what a typical night was like? I remember some of the characters who used to hang out then. We used to sit with Abosta, who looked possibly like a very large woman dressed as a man.

Yasmin: We generally arrived at the club in the evening around 8:00 p.m. and did two shows a night. We were always welcomed to eat at the various establishments and Khayam’s cook, Hafif, made the most delicious chicken kebabs! Ali Baba’s cook, Dawoud, also had a wonderful menu.

Majed, the owner of Khayam was pretty temperamental and we argued sometimes about show times or other things. Khayam would sometimes get pretty raucous but most of the clientele I met while working there followed me from club to club, especially once Khayam closed its doors.

I remember Mike and Sarkis, a couple of Lebanese gentlemen who always asked me to sit with them and chat. When I worked at Aladdin, they surprised me and flew my mom in for my 27th birthday. I was so touched by their kindness.

Abu OstaOne of my favorite people was the man you mentioned, Abu Osta. He didn’t speak a lot of English, but he loved all of us girls. He was like an uncle who welcomed us at his table, shared his bizir (pumpkin seeds), bought us drinks, danced with us, and kept us tucked under his protective wing. We always thought that perhaps he was a hermaphrodite because of his appearance, but he was a sweet, sweet man.

Kamala: I remember we had to make a lot of our costumes, because there weren’t many costume vendors around. Sobo glue was our best friend!

Yasmin: There were not any costume vendors that I recall, but I purchased some costumes from other dancers in San Francisco as well as making many of my own. Working six nights a week until the wee hours of the morning left days for costume design and sewing. It occupied my winter months in Minnesota too. I remember making my large seed bead/rhinestone silver costume while living in Hollywood, and it turned out so heavy! My flame costume had the Sobo trademark, made with appliqués, ready made fringe, and wire but it turned out to be one of the prettiest costumes I remember wearing. Marie Silva helped me finish the bugle bead fringe on my green and gold costume, belt design copied from an old Erte’ book, but alas! it never saw the stage. Badir

L.A. was heaven for fabrics though. You could find anything you wanted, and if they didn’t have it, you could have it made, like the beautiful gold lame’ sunburst skirt and veil I had pressed for a costume.

Kamala: Who were the dancers you worked with, and was who were your influences? You were such an inspiration to me, since I came to the clubs with little experience dancing to live Egyptian music. You always seemed so at ease on stage, with a vast knowledge of music!

Yasmin: At Khayam I worked with Paula, Rebaba, Sophia (Safi), Badri, Nabila, and of course, you. There were others whose names I don’t remember. At Sahara, I worked with Rebaba, Shirin and Jacqueline among others. When the Egyptian musicians came to Sahara, there was a dancer named Marty that accompanied them. She was a little bit heavy and a bit trashy but boy, when she was in the right mood, could she move! I also worked with Shirin, Jacqueline, Rowia, Marie, and you at Ali Baba and when Aladdin opened, it was myself, Jacqueline, Shirin, Nabila and others whose names escape me.

Kamala: What did you do after you left the Hollywood nightclub scene? What are you doing now?

Yasmin: When I left Hollywood, I returned to San Francisco; I danced locally at the Baghdad, Pasha, and Sheherazad but the Middle Eastern scene in San Francisco was on its way out and most of these clubs and restaurants closed down by 1984. I joined a troupe that Samra put together and did some performances at the Oz Nightclub, the California Club, and elsewhere. About ten of us went up to Tahoe for a few years in a row to dance at the Camel Classic Golf Tournament.

I married in 1985 and have two beautiful children, Cori and Antonio. I’ve worked for a well known construction company in the Bay Area for over twenty years, and I am very fortunate to have maintained friendships with my dearest friends from my days as a Middle Eastern dancer, Katerina, Paula, Rebaba, Sophia (Safi), and Mish-Mish.

Ali Baba's with Abdullah and Henri
Ali Baba’s with Abdullah and Henri, (ed- Yousef on drum?)

Ali Baba's w Aziz and Henri
Ali Baba’s with Aziz and Henri

Adel Asfour plays, Yasmin dances

Promo ad for Khayam Restaurant
Promotional advertisement for Khayam Restaurant

Promo ad for Alladin's
Promo ad for Aladdin’s
Shirin top right, next row down Jacqueline Lombard bottom left & Yasmin bottom right.

 

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MaryEllen Donald