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The Golden Era of the Arabic Nightclubs in London

Asmahan of London in 1985

Part 2: A New Era

by Asmahan
posted March 9, 2012
Part 1: here
30 minute video tour added 3-27-12

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. [Ed note- 3-9-12: the video is coming!]

A new era in the club business started with the arrival of two important nightclub characters from Pyramid Street in Cairo (an area where dozens of night clubs line the street and all compete with each other for talent). Ahmed Whardany and Samir Sabot brought a great energy and expertise to London. The club they opened was El Nile, located on the corner of Clifford Street and New Bond Street. It featured a mega show– six dancers on one night, another six the next night, and El Nile presented five singers each night. The star dancers who performed there were Nahed Sabri, Nelly Fouad, and Safa Yousri. I was very fortunate at this time, as the manager of the Pars Persian nightclub was a very distinguished gentleman called Samir Zaki, who later became the director of the Cairo Opera House. He introduced me to the manager of El Nile, Samir Sabot, and I was able to get a good time slot dancing there. I told Samir that I did not “open champagne” and that I loved dancing and wanted to dance every night. Having seen me dance at L’Auberge, he granted my request. I danced every night, as did the star, while all the other dancers performed one night and came just to open champagne the next.

All dancers rehearsed with the orchestra when they started a new venue. We all had to have different music; if a dancer was already using a piece you wanted, you had to choose another. If a new star dancer came, she could “take” a piece from a lower dancer, and the lower dancer would have to change her set.

El Nile
Samir Adeweya performing at El Nile with his orchestra

The standard format was for a magency, taqsim, classic piece, popular song, balady, drum solo and finale. Only the star dancer did a costume change with a second show. A dancer was expected to dance for thirty to forty five minutes, with the star performing an hour. The magency pieces at this time were: “Tammera Henna”, “Siqa”, “Sahara”, “Hany”, “Ranet el Khol Khal”, “Rebab”, “Losy”, “Henna Ya el Henna”, and “Samera”. The famous dancers would bring their own original music and the musicians had to learn it; for instance, when Nahad Sabri came, she had the music “Mashaal”.

The famous singers performing at El Nile were Mohammad Abdel Mouteib, Souhad Mohammed, Nahad Foutah, Adel Salem el Khir, and Mohamed Gamal. There was a fifteen-piece orchestra with Bashir Abdel Al playing nai, Nabil Abdel Al on guitar, Nagati on violin, Sukar al Ghouri on accordian, Samir bin Yamin on def, and on the tabla–the renowned Nabil Hassan. Aboud Abdel Al played a solo violin show. El Nile had the most prestigious clientele. Rolls Royces would pull up in front of the entrance, and when the doors opened, the smell of perfume would fill the air. There was red carpeting on the sidewalk, and it was lined with flowers. The Saudi Arabians, who were so classy and sophisticated that they almost seemed like they were from another planet, would enter the glamorous showroom–this was before the film, “Death of a Princess”, was shown and the Royal Family would still come to the club. It was also the Sadat era when Egyptian tourism was flourishing.

The "Death of a Princess" was a television documentary about a Saudi Arabian Princess who was tried and executed for adultery. It was shown in Britain on the BBC. All the countries in Arabia had copies the day after as videos were made and sent out. The Saudi Arabians took great offence at this. They did not come to London for their summer holiday, they started to go to the South of France and Marbella and to Los Angeles.

Dubai was still under construction; the oil business was flourishing in Libya, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States; and Iraq was funding the lavish life style of businessmen, diplomats, and the wealthy elite of the Middle East.

All these people loved hearing live music and seeing their favorite dancers and singers. Every wedding in the Middle East hired a dancer to entertain and bring good luck to the occasion. No expense was spared and all the dancers looked forward to these occasions. I was fortunate to dance at many weddings, including the wedding of the daughter of Sheik Yemani, the oil minister of Saudi Arabia.

The artists’ union in London was called “Equity”, and it was very powerful. All the clubs were required to employ one British act for each club. This meant that every show had some kind of girl/dancing act, a rock band, a popular singer, magician, or variety act. These acts started the evening show. All the nightclub premises had once featured English show clubs, and the new Arabic takeover of show business met resentment.

Most of the dancers were coming from Cairo to work in the clubs; the British belly dancers resented this and used to report the Egyptian dancers to Equity to see if they all had work permits. At El Nile, a new precedent was being set with not one British act in the show. In addition, a new policy was adopted in which the club would began to take a third of the tips.

There was a lot of money for the artists at this time. Mona Said could make two thousand pounds on the stage at one time. Once she was even given the keys to a Rolls Royce! Some singers could have five thousand pounds on the stage in a one night. El Nile was so influential that if you wanted to perform there, you were obliged to give them a cut of your tips. Soon, all the clubs followed suit.

There were many distinguished Egyptian Diplomats who came to the show. They always talked about the difference in dancers and had to state who was their favorite. Most said that Suhair Zaki was the best dancer, and after her, it was Fifi Abdou. (I was surprised that not many mentioned Nagwa Fouad.)

Vienna

It came time for me to travel, and I went to dance in Vienna for six months. It was there that I became a star for the first time. I performed at a club called Asmahan. It was owned by a Jordanian businessman and was located in the square across from St. Stephens Church, just around the corner from where the Spanish Riding Academy has its famous shows of Lipizzaner horses. I brought my sword, coin costumes, Assiute cloths and some new, glamorous balady costumes that I had just made. Wearing a headdress, using fabric over the crown of my head, helped me balance the sword. These were beautiful to look at; I love the look of coins, jewels, and beads around my face; it just looked so “old world” and Oriental.

The music and choreography for the show was what Metqual had designed. The song for the beginning of the show was the “Hamama Balady”, and I used a Saidi version of “Salam Allay” for the second part with the sword on my head.

The first time I placed the sword on my head, the audience broke into applause; this continued every night, and my show was a sensation. Many of the customers were Saudi Arabian, and the national dance of their country is a sword dance; so it was a big hit.

OPEC had its headquarters in Vienna, and I was invited to dance at their parties. I made exceptionally good money and saved it so that I could go to Cairo. The following two years, I was performing in Cairo. The five-star hotel shows all had a Parisian-style, feathered showgirl act with multiple costume changes and an Egyptian dancer as the star of the show. The famous dancers of this time were Nagwa Fouad, FiFi Abdou, Suhair Zaki, Azza Sharif and Nelly Fouad. I performed at the Meridien, the Mena House, the Nile Hilton, the Cairo Sheraton, the Hayatt el Salem, and the Holiday Inn. There were no singers in the shows at that time. The audiences were always full of movie stars, producers, directors, diplomats, society figures, government ministers, and wealthy business figures, as well as some tourists. However, mostly it was Egyptians, as the foreigners did not know about this secret world. The shows were extravagantly expensive and everyone dressed up. They had fabulous dinners and beautifully set tables. Every night, I did my sword dance as the second show.

Back in London

Upon my return to London, I found the nightclub business was flourishing. All the existing clubs were doing great and London had a worldwide reputation as the place to go to see the top entertainment. A new venue had opened; it was called The Empress and was owned by Mr. Mercer. He had started in Paris with Yil Dis Lar, and brought his concept of a regal, elegant, and glamorous Lebanese-style to London. The club was in beautiful premises in Mayfair, on Berkeley Street, next to L’Auberge. They featured such singers as Tony Hanna, Walid Tawfic, and Warda. A new management took over with the Syrian owner Mr. Attassi. The star dancer was the Egyptian dancer, who danced at El Leil in Cairo, ShuShu Amine. The famous singers who appeared there were Sabah, Yasmine, Adnan Adlan, Wadia Safie, and Fauzi Bakri. Aboud Abdel Al performed his solo violin show. The musicians in the orchestra included Gamal on organ, Mounir Abel Al on violin, Ali Kamal on accordion, Bashir Abdel Al on flute, Attia on tabla, Farouk on tabla, Sheik Tarha on accordion and Mohamad Abdel Al on motzar.

My experience on the stage as a professional dancer was now ten years. It was my dream to have my own music to suit my style of dance. I had seen the shows in Cairo, where every dancer has her distinct performance. Having original music distinguished a dancer, giving her prestige and allowing for personal artistic development. All the star dancers brought their own music and often came to London with a few of their own musicians to produce their show on a high standard.

Mohamad Salem was an Egyptian accordionist and composer who had written several pieces of music that I admired. He had been performing with the orchestra at Omar Khayyam. I commissioned him to write a magencie for me and he composed a wonderful piece that I absolutely loved. I thought that it was the best entrance I had ever heard, he could have sold it to a more famous dancer for much more money. We arranged for the best musicians in London to learn this music and we made a recording to be my demo tape. He gave me the notes, which now prepared me to be on a new level as dancer. Now I had to get a booking in a club that would give me a higher level opportunity. I wanted to have an entrance to original music and do a costume change for my sword dance.

The Empress

I was looking forward to using this music for the first time at The Empress and I had a good meeting with Mr. Attassi who hired me and arranged for my rehearsal which is called a Prova. The manager, a Lebanese gentleman who was very important and considered one of the best in London, had seen me dance in Cairo. He brought me to the club and wanted me to be in the show. The competition between the clubs was fierce. Booking the best artists for the show and then convincing them to get along was difficult.
The atmosphere was rife with jealousy and rivalry.

I knew all the musicians in the orchestra, this was a fabulous collection of talent, several of the Abdel Al family were included in the group. We were beginning the rehearsal, the only musicians who read notes are the violins, organ, accordion and sometimes kanoon. The rest learn a new piece of music by ear. It is amazing how quickly they all learn the parts and put together the show.

I was playing the demo tape and ShuShu Amine came into the room. She told me that I could not use this music, I had to use ANY MUSIC, which meant the public domain pieces that we used every night. She had heard music which was better than hers and she was there to stop me.

She said that her ‘husband’ owned the club and she would say what happened in the show. She was the boss’s girlfriend and could have her way. I told her I was going to use my music and she fired me. So that was it! I was heartbroken as the beautiful stage which curved into the regal room would have been a dream environment to dance in. It reminded me of the Hyatt el Salem in Cairo. This was classic old fashioned elegance, with chandeliers, silver, linen and so charming…….Oh well, there were other clubs.

Club Ad
Advertisement in an Arabic paper for Elf Leila Wan Leila

Elf Leila Wah Leila

Another new club opened in Mayfair on Berkeley Street, it was called Elf Leila Wah Leila, at the location that was the famous English variety club called Churchills, a huge premise owned by Andeel Hammad. The singers included Layla Abdel Aziz, Fareg Abdel Karim, and Mohamed Gamal. Magdi Houseini played his organ solo. The musicians in the orchestra included Ibrahim el Minyawi (who had been my tabla player in Cairo), Ahmed Mouad, Shariffe Zaki, Yahiya Talat, Ali Serour, Farouk el Safi, and Issam el Matrawo. Mamoud Rahsad and Ahmed el Hafauwi were two musicians who had worked with the famous Om Kalsum.

As I now had earned a name from dancing in Cairo, I could do a costume change. The musicians played a show for me, but it was not the same without the mizmar. The star dancer was Safa Usri. She was now using “Mashaal”, since Nahad Sabri had gone back to Cairo. Also dancing in the show was Sheherezade, Mardi, and Nahad Business.

This club was open late and featured singers from the Gulf; for example the Saudi Oud player, Sallah Hassan, who brought many late customers in. The star dancer was on at four o’clock in the morning, and then they would present a singer who would perform for hours or until the police would come to close the club for “illegal drinking” or “being open after the license regulation”. This was not my style of club, and it came time for me to move on. It was my good fortune that an agent who specialized in booking dancers for the Gulf and Arabic venues saw me dance at Elf Leila and approached me about dancing at Cave du Rois.

Cave Du Rois with Sword
Performing with sword at the Cave Du Rois

Cave du Rois

Across from the Ritz Hotel was a jewel of a club called Cave du Rois. It had a gorgeous décor in white leather and marble. It was exclusive and catered to an elite clientele. It opened for dinner with a select menu with elegant service, and the show ended at an early three a.m. It was owned by a Lebanese business man, Hassan Awada, who was also creating a showboat in Paris to sail down the Seine–lovely glass boats that are such a sensation with the French. This club was frequented by celebrities, and the actor, Omar Sharif, was a customer.

The star singer was Sabah–the most famous Lebanese diva of all time. Other singers who were performing included: Fahed Bahlen, Isam Raja, Tony Hana, Souad Mohamad, George Wasouf, Ahmed Dowal, Naga Salem, and Wadia Safie. The star dancers were Zizi Moustafa and Louisa. In the orchestra was Abdel Aziz El Sayed on kanoon, Emile Bassili, on violin (who worked with Om Kalsum), Bashir Abdel Al on nai, Sukar el Ghouri on accordion and Ali Abdou Salem on tabla. The flute player, Sayed, also played mizmar. This was a great advantage to me as there were not many musicians in London who played this instrument, and with it, my sword dance was really special.

Cave du Rois had a changing room built for professional showgirls; so there were vanity tables, mirrored lights, costume compartment, a toilet, and shelves for makeup. It was a pleasure to dance there. The management was very capable, and it was just a smooth and elegant environment. They served a lovely dinner to the staff every night, and I could have even a hot fudge sundae–if I wanted it.

Cav du roi with Emile
This is the Cave du Rois with Emile Basili on violin playing behind me. He played for Om Kalsum

 

More Clubs

I had been sewing costumes for years, and by now, had become known for my original designs. I had great ethnic sword dance outfits with lots of coins and jewelry. All the Arab girls enjoyed being modern, but I loved to look like something from the past. I was wearing my Assiute cloths and headdresses, and the audience always clapped when I put my sword on my head. This tradition had started in Cairo from the first night I had performed this dance at the Meridien Hotel. It became an addiction, to hear that applause every night in the middle of my show! Arabs love to see a dancer balance something on her head, and the sword is just the most dramatic and surprising thing.In the United States, there are a lot of sword dancers, but when I danced it in Cairo in 1981, it had never been seen there. Then, in London in the 1980s, it was still a novelty.

I had brought my dream to life. I had seen the sword dance at the Renaissance Faire, brought my sword under my arm on the plane to London, and I had the most famous Saidi rebaba player in the world to teach me. Then, I carried my sword to Cairo and performed this dance in the most famous venues in the Middle East. Now I was known in London as a dancer with a special show.

There were many smaller less important clubs also in London. Safa Usri opened a small club on Marylebone St. near Baker Street tube station. It was first called Arizona, after the name of a club on Pyramid Street in Cairo, and later, it was called Venus. Hany Mehana was the head of the orchestra; he played the organ and Mustafa Nahas was a singer who performed there, as well as Katcut el Amir, Adel Salam el Khir, Hossam el Amir, Mohamad Fahti, and the famous Warda. The dancers performing were Safa Usri as the star, Shererzade, Amal Sami, Nahad and Mardi. The musicians were Mohamad Abdallah Ragab (who worked with Nagwa Fuoud and Azza Sharif), Asharaf el Sarki, Mounir el Khatib, Surkar el Ghouri, Hagag Quenwi Metgal and Sheriffe on tabla, Abdel Azziz el Sayed, Ali Adbe Salem, Mustafa el Arabi, and Said el Bing on motzar.

The Baracuda Club a casino on Baker Street, became an Arab nightclub for a few years. It was owned by a Lebanese businessman, Habib Ghanim, who had made his money in Africa. All these clubs needed owners with a lot of money who could take a risk and afford the high costs of running these first class clubs. The Baracuda Club existed in the latter period when all the other clubs were all competing for dancers, singers, musicians, and customers. All the clubs only admitted customers that they approved at the door. (No women were admitted without a known customer.) It was not possible for groups of girls to have a night out at these clubs. Most of the clubs did not allow photography with the exception of the resident photographer, as it was very important that customers’ privacy was respected. Many diplomats, members of royal families, ministers, government officials, prestigious businessmen, actors, directors, movie producers and high society people attended these shows.

The Baracuda featured Mona Said as the star, the other dancers were Latifa, Safia, and Naziha. The orchestra featured the composer Mohamad Salem on accordion, Sayed el Fahim on organ, Ibrahim el Akhar on tabla, Ali Ahmed Ali played tabla for Mona, Fouad Abdel Al on violin, Hany Mehana was the chef d’orchestre, Wael on flute, Maher on nai, Ali Abdel Sabour, Khalid Fouad, and Said el Bing on motzar. The famous singers who performed were George Wasouf, Tony Hana, Layla Afram, Fauzi Bakhri, and Gamal Salani. Magdi Housani performed his solo organ show, doing songs from Abdel Halim Hafez.

Sword
My sword dance at Mena House in Cairo
linked to uncropped enlargement

The End of an Era

The Gulf War, which started on January 15, 1990, was the end of the glory days of the nightclub business in London, and also in Cairo. After this, clubs were all struggling, and everyone was affected by the war, either economically, culturally, or socially. I was working at Ramses Hilton in Cairo and could not get another contract for the winter season. I came back to London on a plane on January 14, with a lot of movie stars, the day before the war started. There was a recession in London and lots of clubs were closing and restaurants that had previously featured a dancer now did not offer a show. Islamic fundamentalism was affecting society, and many people did not want to be seen at a nightclub. Many people also could no longer afford to go to these expensive venues.

My experience dancing in those great clubs among the Arab dancers, singers, musicians, management, and customers was amazing. I lived my dream of having an exciting, glamorous and incredible adventure. A dancer could play the clubs any way she wanted. Some dancers “opened champagne” socializing with customers. Although I never did, it did not stop me from dancing in the top clubs at a fortunate time and making good money. My dream was to look like an Arab, dance like an Arab, and be accepted by the Arabs. I wanted to design and sew beautiful costumes, look great on the stage, have amazing music, dance well, and earn my living as a professional dancer. I danced on the stage for a living from the age of 22 to 50. All I did was dance six nights a week, sometimes two or three shows a night.

The generosity and hospitality of the Arabic people still astounds me. They allowed me into their world–even though my Arabic language skills were limited. Arabs have a fabulous sense of humor and the most colorful personalities: everything is a drama, everyone is late, everything is done the hard way, but it always works out in the end! They gave me opportunity, taught me, and provided the most beautiful stages, lights, music, and dynamic environment in which to perform. I was never intimidated, abused, manipulated, compromised, or cheated in any way. Always, they paid me in cash promptly and showed me respect and admiration for being an American but dancing like an Arab.

Asa Sharif
Asmahan applauds for Azza Sharif at her show in Cairo at the Holiday Inn

 

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.

Part 1 of this article here:The Golden Era of the Arabic Nightclubs in London:
Making the Move from San Francisco to London

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   |       |    2 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Anzelle Pieretti

    Mar 30, 2012 - 04:03:15

    Thank you Lynette and Asmahan for this most amazing article and video. What a nice surprise to see you Asmahan after so many years like this!
    Much love to you girl!!
    Anzelle AKA Anisa

  2. No Gravatar
    ANAHITA

    May 31, 2012 - 07:05:19

    Thanks again … the video is fantastic !!!

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