The Golden Era of the Arabic Nightclubs in London
Part 1: Making the Move from San Francisco to London
Asmahan at Sultan’s Palace, performing on a stage that was a
giant aquarium, with fish swimming beneath her feet.
Dancing on water! Ali on dumbek, and Joseph Alexander on def
by Asmahan of London
posted January 15, 2012
Lynette contacted me with the idea of a video tour of the famous London Arabic nightclubs. We would go to the premises and film where the clubs previously existed. I would describe the clubs as they were in the glory days. I was a California dancer, who had come to London to dance in the Arabic night clubs. It was my privilege to be a part of that wonderful time. The following is my article about these fabulous clubs, the dancers, musicians, and singers who made this time sensational.
San Francisco 1972
It was my great good fortune to experience Middle Eastern Dance for the first time at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Marin County, near San Francisco. The dance troupe Bal Anat was performing to live music. The sound was exotic and enchanting, and I was totally captivated. The instruments played were santour, darbucka, def, dehola, mismar, miswige, nai, sagat, and sistrums. It was punctuated by zagareets – which I had heard in the film, Lawrence of Arabia. The dancers were performing to choreographed and improvised formats. The interaction between the dancers and the musicians was enthralling, the drums pounded into my heart. The finale dancer was Galya, her beauty and superb dancing left a life long impression. Rhea performed a sword dance which I wanted to emulate. This show inspired me so much, I wanted to become a dancer and perform to live music.
Jamila Salimpour presented a show that she described as “pre Napoleonic” (before western influence in the Middle East). She researched history books, using the photos of dancers from the Orientalists to inform her about the costumes. These ideas were a mixture from the cultures of the Bedouins, Ghawazee and Ouled Nail. No sequins, beaded fringe, lamé, or sparkle was allowed, the dancer’s bodies were covered using Assuit fabric, silk route fabrics, ethnic jewelry, embroideries, and Middle Eastern coins. Ghawazee means “invaders of the heart” in Arabic.
The first Arabic night club show I saw was at the Casbah on Broadway in San Francisco. The club was owned by Fadil Shahin, a talented singer who played oud. He was accompanied by Jalal Takesh, who played kanoon, and Salah Takesh who played darbucka. Also in the band were two musicians who played violin and nai. Rhea, performed her sword dance show, and two other dancers did the traditional show format of a veil dance, taksim, song, floorwork, balady and a drum solo.
After training with Jamila Salimpour, I began dancing professionally at the Casbah, starting a life time of learning about the music and dances of the Middle East. Her teaching featured the style of the dancers from the Classic Egyptian Films; Samia Gamal, Naima Akef, and Taheya Karioka. Fadil performed music from Farid Al Atrash, Om Kalthoum and Abdul Halim Hafez. I was listening to “Abdul Halim Hafez live from the Royal Albert Hall in London,” and was so impressed by the beauty of the music from his orchestra and the interaction with the audience.
There was one Arabic dancer performing at the Casbah, called Princess Samia Nasser. She was from Iraq and had bright red hair and pale white skin. She wore glamorous beaded costumes and was sweet to me. She gave me beauty advice telling me not to wear coin costumes. “You are not making the most of your looks” was her constant comment to me.
Our best customer at that time was the son of the King of Saudi Arabia. He bought me my first drink and used to give me hundred dollar bills as tips which I saved for my future.
Famous violinst Aboud Abdel Al playing
his violin solo at Sultan’s (became L’Auberge).
A Lebanese violinist, Aboud Abdel Al, who had been performing in London and was on a concert tour, came to San Francisco with some musicians from his orchestra. He produced an album of music for belly dance with Fadil Shahin. The musicians were Bashir Adbel Al, Mohammad El Berjway, George Basil, and Chazi Darwish. The entrance music on this recording was a piece called “Siqa”. I did not know how to dance to this music, as it was in modern Egyptian style of which I had no knowledge. It was based on a step called arabesque, from the ballet influence of the Bolshoi in Cairo. These were the days before videos – and we had never seen the dancers from Cairo or Beirut. Saudi Arabian students from Stanford University used to come in and tell us things about Egyptian dancers. Saying, for instance, that they did not do floor work and all wore beaded costumes. Aida, a dancer at the Casbah, invited several dancers to her house to see a home movie she had received of an Egyptian dancer called Samiha. She wore a dramatic orange fringe beaded costume with an orange sequin skirt, showed a lot of her legs, and was dancing in a style we had never seen, to music we had never heard. We were amazed and wondered about the dance world “out there”.
Aboud Abdel Al advised me to go to London to dance at Omar Khayyam. My heart was flying! I had always wanted to lead an adventurous life, and this seemed like the beginning of a great adventure. I would follow my dreams and dance for the Arabs in their night clubs, restaurants, hotel shows, cabarets, and weddings. My life work would be to perform to authentic Arabic music within the context of Arabic culture. It was my plan to dance in London, Paris, Vienna, Beirut, Dubai, Bahrain, and Cairo.
Arrival in London- 1977
My timing, arriving in London in 1977, could not have been more perfect. Beirut and Cairo were the two cities showcasing the most famous and prestigious singers, musicians and dancers in the Middle East. Beirut was then still known as “the Paris of the Middle East”, and when civil war broke out in 1975, the night club business began moving to London.
The most famous night club in London was Omar Khayyam – originally located in Cannon Street and operated by Turkish owners, mostly showcasing dancers from Turkey. Then Jack Ahmet moved the club to Regent Street and brought in Egyptian management, musicians and entertainers. It now had a classic Arabian Nights décor, with beautiful laterns, carved screens, wall paintings, and Arabic furniture in lovely rooms and booths.
My introduction to Modern Egyptian Dance at Omar Khayyam was a night that would again change my life. I had met the show manager, Wadia Jossie, the chef d’orchestre who played nai and oud. I was given a seat at the staff table to enjoy the traditional Arabic hospitality that compliments the artists with dinner and a drink.
The ten o’clock dinner show featured music, three dancers, and one singer. The real show started at midnight. In the audience were mostly Arabs, dressed in the most expensive designer clothes with diamond watches and jewelry flashing in the stage light. There was a scent of expensive perfume mixed with cigarette smoke. The tables were covered with flower arrangements and lavish silver platters of fruit.
The show included twelve dancers and four singers, and the orchestra consisted of fifteen musicians – two darbuckas, deff, dehola, two mazar, kanoon, accordion, nai, three violins, saxophone, oud and organ. I had never heard such a dreamy sound. The music was complicated, powerful, and with such precise and dramatic rhythms. I watched the first dancer, Latifa (a Tunisian) do a pretty show in a purple and black sequin embroidered costume. Then I saw something I had never seen, three different customers threw money on the stage over the dancer. The stage assistant picked the money up and placed it in a large tambourine, and took it off the stage after her show. He also picked up her veil as soon as she released it for the hip drop. Latifa then came out of the dressing room during the next dancer’s show and sat at a table with customers, a bottle of champagne appeared immediately. After three dancers performed their dance and went to sit at a table with champagne, I began to see a pattern.
Photo from publicity promoting Mona Said
when she was dancing at Omar Khayyam
The sixth dancer was Mona Said, and this was her first night. She is Egyptian, but had been performing in Beirut. Mona was sensational! She looked like a pharaonic queen, tall and dark, with a fabulous body, very dramatic and very skillful. She did a drum solo “to die for”!
Five more dancers performed – and then, the star of the show, Azza Sharif, made her entrance. She danced to the music, “Ranet el Khol Khal”. She was out of this world! I had never seen such dancing technique. The choreography and drama of the musicians working with the dancer demonstrated a supreme level of expertise. She changed her costume three times. The costumes were so expensive and impressive, the musical knowledge and level of technique was something I had never ever seen before. I went back to my hotel at dawn in a state of shock, totally unprepared for this level of dancing. I did not sleep a wink.
The next day I had an appointment with Mr. Wadia. We met in a restaurant and he looked at my portfolio. He said that my photos were lovely. However the one in my coin costume, Assuit fabric, and ethnic jewelry, he said that “no dancer has looked like this for a hundred years.”
However he offered me a job dancing at Omar Khayyam. He also said that I had a great body for dance, I was educated, and could learn new techniques. He would get me six new Egyptian costumes, and I would study with the tabla player for music lessons. I knew I was not prepared for this level of show business yet, and I graciously declined.
There was another night club that I had read about in Habibi Magazine. It was the Gallipoli, an elegant Turkish restaurant with a dinner show that was owned by Mr. Mourat. It had previously been a Turkish bath in Queen Victoria’s time and was declared a monument, thus protecting it from renovation. This was a beautiful jewel of a building with authentic materials imported from Turkey, located in a church park at Bishops Gate. It had been showcasing dancers from Turkey like Soroya, Nesrin Topkapi, and Princess Banu. I had a very good audition there wearing a solid rhinestone bedla in peacock colors with a sequin skirt, which I had sewn during my departure. My costumes from now on would all be very glamorous. The musicians were excellent. This show was exactly my style. I played great sagat, did a death defying Turkish Drop, performed acrobatic floor work, and knew all the music. I was using “Azziza” for my veil entrance. Our training in San Francisco had really been Classic Arabic-Turkish, so I was well prepared for this style.
a famous Turkish dancer
I was given a one-year contract and "Star" billing. First I had to obtain a work permit. This meant an agent would prepare documents for the club and have these documents sent somewhere abroad. I would then travel there to collect them and come into the United Kingdom through immigration to get a “special entry” visa. I had the documents sent to the Mamounia Hotel in Marrakesh. The Marrakesh Folklore Festival, which King Hassan arranged once a year, was taking place at that time. Performing in the festival were the Guedra, Berbers, and Moroccan folklore troupes from all over the country. It was really exotic and wild- the Zar was totally enthralling and they just played forever in hypnotic rhythms with the dancer throwing her head and long hair from side to side, putting herself and everyone in a trance. This dance was meant as an exorcism to drive out the evil spirits. They were wearing ethnic jewelry, headdresses, embroidery dresses, jeweled belts and face tattoos; it was a real and authentic display of tribal dancing.
Back in London, I started performing at the Gallipoli on my birthday which is February 27th. There was a good Turkish band that included Erol Grochen on darbucka, Emine Zihn on saz, and Bahri Karaduman on kanoon. This was a beautiful and enchanting environment, providing a classy dinner show to an elite clientele. The dancer went to the table for tips, and the customers were always polite and I was often given twenty pound notes. At that time, twenty pounds equaled fifty dollars.
I ironed my veil and skirts for work and used to iron my money at the same time because it was wrinkled and tacky looking after being in my dancing costume. It looked like new after this process.
Everyone was friendly and professional, the club was run like a family business. On Fridays, they had a special lunch show which attracted rich bankers working in the financial district. English business protocol at this time included really lavish lunch dates. I was the only dancer in this show. Often I made as much money in this one show as I made all week. But I found it really hard to be on the stage at one o’clock in the afternoon. When I arrived home I went back to sleep and got up in a daze to prepare for the Friday night show.
The Gallipoli was also a favorite place for the motor racing world. James Hunt was a regular customer. By now, I felt that I was really on my way – living in Chelsea one block from the Boltons (an expensive neighborhood), working six nights as the star dancer and making good money. I invested in costumes – expensive fabric, rhinestones, sequins, and beads. My expertise as a costume designer would be an important element of my success. Original costumes that had an amazing fit would be my specialty.
My first night performing at
Pars Persian – 1001 Nights
Modern Egyptian Style- 1978
I had my heart set on performing in the Modern Egyptian Style, and went to Omar Khayyam after my shows at the Gallipoli to learn from the famous dancers and secretly record the music from a tape recorder in my purse. I had to learn pieces like “Lelit Hob”, “Nebtidi Minum el Hekia”, “Fatid Gambina”, and all the magencies like “Hanni”, “Sahara” and “Tamera Henna”. Learning this music was essential for me to progress. Then it was up to me to observe how the dancers performed to these pieces. I had always studied with teachers and choreographers, but my greatest teachers were the famous dancers I worked with in the clubs and the musicians who played for me every night. Together, we formed an artistic pursuit.
As a dancer you become at "one" with the orchestra. Musicians play differently for every dancer, they follow and develop the style of the dancer. The dancer is like the conductor, creating movement while being the inspiration that directs the music.
Mona Said had now become the star dancer. She had gone to Cairo and came back with a new style of dance, fabulous costumes, and wonderful original music she had composed. She had trained with Raqia Hassan, though no one yet knew it at the time. All the dancers kept everything a secret. She only performed with her own tabla player, Ali Ahmed Ali. The drum is called a darbucka in Arabic, but for the some reason, it is called a tabla by the dance world in Egypt. So it was called in London.
After a year dancing at the Gallipoli, learning new Egyptian music and practicing new dance steps, it was time to move on. I was ready to dance in the Modern Egyptian Style. My next night club was Pars Persian 1001 Nights. They had a twelve piece orchestra with six dancers and six singers. The club was owned by Mr. Asdulla. He was Persian and much loved by all the artists. He was like a father figure, and he helped me to get started as a dancer. I never had to “open champagne” with customers, and I was even starting to make friends with the other dancers. The clubs made a lot of money from selling champagne, at one hundred pounds a bottle, and the dancers got commission from each bottle they sold.
The customers would send bottles to the stage for singers, and sometimes there would be ten or twenty bottles on the stage.
The first night I danced, Ahmed Shanowy announced me on the microphone (in Arabic) “Ladies and gentlemen we present the Oriental dancer Asmahan”. I asked him to translate it for me. It was then that I learned that the Arabs call this style of dance Raks Sharqi. I ceased calling myself a belly dancer from that point on. I used the term “Egyptian Dancer” as the Arabic term, “Raks Sharki”, was too hard for Western people to understand and “Oriental” dancer alluded to Asians for most people.
The stars dancing at the Pars nightclub during this time, included Jamila, (Persian), Soroya Giseria, (Algerian), and Safa Yusri, (Egyptian). The famous Lebanese singers Wadia Safie, Hallah Safie, Adnan Ahlen and Yasmine an Egyptian, were featured. The musicians who played in the orchestra were: Mustafa el Arab on tabla, Mohamad Abdulla Rageb on def, Mounir el Khatib on violin, Said Ali on nai, Mustafa al Araby on accordion, and Mohamad Adbel Al on mazar. The Lebanese singers have this amazing style of singing called a mawal, which is dramatic prologue which then tranforms into a powerful debke with a drum downbeat. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be in the presence of these artists, this music was like an Arabic opera. The songs are so poetic, romantic, and dramatic.
The show at Pars 1001 Nights.
Since I am the new girl, I am in the very back.
Soroya G’Algeria is the dancer in front in white,
Woman singer with mic- Hallah Safie,
who is the sister of Wadia Safie
Suhair Nagi is behind the accordian player,
Naziha the Tunisian is in the blue costume
For a few months, I was the first dancer in the program opening the show. It would take time to get more prestige. I danced to the music “Siqa”, for my magency, played sagat for the Sabah song “Ya Della” – which impressed everyone.
None of the other dancers played sagat; in fact throughout my career none of the Arabic dancers ever played sagat. We called the entrance music an overture, then orientale, and then later in Cairo it became know as a magency.
I always brought my sewing to work to do in the changing room while we had to wait. Sometimes we had to be in the club at eleven and did not dance until one or two o’clock in the morning. The singers were always going over their time, extending their show when they were making money, and since I didn’t want to waste time just waiting, I sewed my costumes.
There were six dancers and everyone had a different show. When a dancer left, you could take over a piece of her music. Soroya was dancing to “Ranat el Khol Khal”, and when she left she gave me this music for my magency. For my second piece I used the music of “Fatid Gambina”. She gave me dancing lessons and told me to use the choreography that she had taken from Nagwa Fuoad – who had this music written for her. This show format put me in a different league altogether. I was now making enough money to buy some costumes from Egypt. The costume style at this time was massive circle skirts cut on the bias, with cut outs in hand beaded trim. The costume designer was Madame Tawhida. She would bring from Cairo the most amazing embroidered skirts with a beaded bra and belt, cuffs, anklets, sequin panties and head dresses for each costume. I bought ten costumes from her. Even though I had twelve of my own, we were dancing six nights a week and some of the star dancers would come with twenty or thirty costumes. Pars was open on Sunday nights when all the other clubs were closed, so the artists from the other shows would all come to our club. One night, Mr. Wadia came and introduced me to Jack Ahmet and Mona Said. This was a memorable night for me. Jack asked me to come to dance at Omar Khayyam. I could have died and gone to heaven that moment. This was Kismet. However, I never did dance there, but it was my favorite club to go to. I knew and loved all the staff, and they always gave me a lovely little table with free dinner and a beer.
Nagwa Fuoad in her prime, dancing at the Cairo Sheraton.
She had so many magencies written for her that then became public domain for other dancers, such as "Ranat el Khol Khal" and "Hanni".
More new clubs were starting to open. I wanted to experience a new luxury venue called Sultan’s Palace. It was located on Berkeley Street in Mayfair and attracted an exclusive clientele. It had a glass stage with gold fish swimming in it. The star dancer there was Hairitum. She was really overweight but had a following and I even saw her in some films a few years later. Most of the dancers coming to dance were Egyptians and a lot of them wore a Danskin fishnet stocking over their stomachs, it had two seams on the side and a zipper in the back, it held the stomach in.
Most of the dancers wore wigs and were in serious competition with one another. They would put their perfume into plain plastic spray bottles so no one would know what fragrance they were wearing. One night an unknown scent filled the air and all the dancers went nuts trying to ascertain what it was.
It turned out to be Opium, and it became the scent of choice. I always wore Shalimar in those days.
The dancers were making serious money now. The customers were from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Gulf States and Libya; they came with their petrol dollars with money to burn. The Egyptians and Lebanese were there as well but they did not throw their money as easily. The dancers would all bring Samsonite cosmetic bags which locked securely. The Arabic dancers all had expensive jewelry and locked it up in their bags, along with their money. Some of them would leave it with the musicians while they were on stage. One night a dancer called Amira took ill and we had to retrieve her cosmetic bag, in which she had twenty thousand pounds, along with gold, diamond, and turquoise jewelry.
Between all the dancers there was a hierarchy. A dancer would not speak first to someone that was “below her” in ranking.
As an American, I could avoid all that. I just said hello first, was immediately friendly, and that put me in a more powerful situation because I was in control. Everyone was my friend from the beginning. I was very popular with the staff. The musicians were so entertaining. Egyptians have a fantastic sense of humor and we had great fun. They were like my family.
The famous singers performing there were Mouharem Fouad, Souad Mohammed, Layla Afrom, and Naga Salem. The Saidi group Les Musicians du Nil, with Metqal Qenawi Metqal produced a folklore show from Upper Egypt. Aboud Abdel Al played his solo violin show, and the band leader was the famous composer Hassan Aboud Soud. The organist was Sayed Fahim el Sayed, Ibrahim el Akhad played tabla and Joseph Alexander played def. The comedian Ahmed Shanowi introduced the artists.
I asked Metqal to help me with my sword dance music. He was a Saidi master and I spoke with him about the history of the sword dance and he thought that the origins of the sword dance were from the Saidi Tahtib. This is the men’s stick dance that is done in the martial arts style. This suited the character of the sword perfectly. He gave me music to use and we discussed the choreography. One day, I wanted to be able to do a costume change and have a tableau. It was going to be the sword dance.
Orchestra and unknown singer performs
in the show at the Sherezade Club.
Another chic and glamorous night club was opened by a group of Persian brothers. It was located near Piccadilly Circus and was a private member’s club called Shererzade, it was very modern, minimal, on a grand scale with an elegant showroom and an amazing changing room. The musicians were the most accomplished group that had ever come to London. There was one group that played for the singers and another that played for the dancers. (This is how it is in Cairo. Some musicians would never play for a dancer, and the singer’s musicians consider themselves in a higher class than the dancer’s musicians.) They even had a hotel for all the artists from Cairo to stay in for free. I really wanted to perform in such a prestigious venue. They contacted me to dance, and I was delighted to accept. The star dancer was Amira Fouad. The famous singers performing were Fahed Bahlen, Mohammad Rhushdie, Samir Adaweya, and Walid Tawfic. The composer and accordionist, Farouk Salama was the Chef d’Orchestre, Maher Chairi played flute, violin was Fouad Rahaim and Nasser Khaseb, Mohamad Afifi on kanoon, and the famous composer for Om Kalthoum, Ramadan el Subati played organ. I was very happy working there for about three months and then I had the shock of my life when an American dancer named Nancy showed up. She was the girlfriend of one of the bosses and had me fired immediately. I was distraught. Fortunately, Sultan’s Palace had been redesigned and had new owners and managers. I went straight over that night and got a job immediately. It was now called L’Auberge.
L’Auberge featured Mona Said as the star. I danced there for six months and learned so much from her on the stage. This was the best possible dancing lesson, to watch every night, under different circumstances, a great dancer produce her technique and show choreography. The singers there were Adel Mamoun, Naga Salem, Faten Farid, Katcut el Amir, Mouharem Fouad, Ahmed Adaweya, Talal el Mada, Faiza Ahmed, and Shadia. Magdi Housaini, who worked with Abdel Halim Hafez, performed his solo organ show. Hany Mehanna who composed for Nagwa Fouad was the chef d’orchestra. Sahar Hamdi was another star dancer who performed there during this time. She had the most beautiful face and performed a little comedy routine in her show. She was a bit tipsy sometimes and was very unpredictable.
Later Sahar Hamdi would dance at the Cairo Sheraton when I was dancing at the Meridian in Cairo. The Sheraton had the summer show outside around the swimming pool, the entrance to the stage had a bridge covered with flowers over the pool. The dancer would come over the bridge under a spotlight to make her entrance. It was very dramatic.
One night Sahar was quite drunk and fell into the swimming pool coming over the bridge. She was not a good swimmer and was screaming to be saved. Her wig came off and was floating in the water. It was a big embarrassment for the hotel and they fired her. They gave me her contract to finish and I had to carefully come over the bridge to make my entrance for three months.
In London, the customers started coming to the clubs later as they were in the casinos gambling, and there were many places competing for business. When a star singer or dancer arrived to headline a venue, the reservations went for a premium. None of the dancers worked more than one club, and you had to decide which was the best venue to work. The dancers who worked early did not make good money. When I started dancing, the first Arabic I learned after “Shukran” (thank you) was “Ma Feesh Fluse,” (there’s no money). It was tradition to split our tips with the musicians. The customers would throw the money on the stage, so you depended on the stage hand who attended the dancers and musicians to bring you the money. All the Arabic dancers seemed to know exactly how much money they had on the stage – they must have counted it as it fell to the floor. He would count in front of you and take half for the musicians. I never minded giving this money to the orchestra. They worked really hard, often leaving the club at daybreak. They were the heart of the show, the dancer was the soul.
30 minute video: June 2011-Asmahan takes Lynette on a taxi and walking tour of London.
We visit the sites of many of the famous Arabic, Turkish and Greek clubs.
Ready for more?
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