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Gilded Serpent presents...
Romancing the Road
(The Bou-Saada Troupe Tours)
by Yasmela

Summer, 1979. The deserted highway undulated in the blackness like a silk ribbon with a yellow stripe running down the middle.  The windows of the big 72-passenger renovated school bus opened wide to the balmy night air that eddied and flowed through the living room area near the driver's seat.  The Manhattan Transfer crooned a jazz tune from the stereo.  Marj sat behind the wheel with her nightgown billowing around her lap as Tony, our Roadie, stood beside her laughing softly and helping her steer.  Cece peered out from the front of her bunk where she lay with her arms folded under her head.  John and I were deep in the middle of a ferocious cribbage game, which I was loosing.  Marty was tallying up the day's T-shirt sales and Muzzy was silently fingering scales on the oud.  Janet and Jennifer had already crashed for the night and their bunk curtains swayed gently in the breeze.  As our cribbage game folded and John gleefully put the set back up on the shelves that held our games and books, tapes and stereo, I looked around, marveling at where I was in this particular moment of time. I was rolling down a highway in the Central Valley of California in the middle of summer, on my way to another show at another club, just one of many in the middle of a month long road tour. 

Riding the coattails of the hippie era, in the midst of disco fever, I was part of a Middle Eastern dance and music band that cut a rock n' roll swathe across the west for 10 glorious, tumultuous years.  We made it up as we went along; we tried harder, worked longer, took more chances and entertained more people than anyone or any group even thought of doing. 

We played fusion before there was any.  We created our own dances based on photos in books: glimpses of dancers in old films and our imaginations; we were because we were children weaned on '50s fantasy.  We carved our own niche, created our own style, scandalized, delighted, educated and entertained everyone around us, including ourselves.  We were "Bou-Saada".

 From 1974 until 1984 the Bou-Saada Dance Troupe was my life, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Several times a year for 10 years, we took to the road and played shows in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and British Columbia, Canada.  At our largest there were 8 of us, plus a Roadie, and at various times, my two daughters, Jennifer's son, and a dog or two.  Sisters and brothers, groupies and friends and lovers occasionally made their way onto the Kenworth Pacific converted school bus that became our home and haven, our trusted steed and cursed behemoth.  We played music, sang, danced, sold T shirts, spoke a language all our own, and navigated our way through the landscapes of people's imaginations with the northern lights as a backdrop, the rolling plains of Montana as our stage, the towering Douglas firs of the B.C. coast our set.  We ran the rapids of the Rogue River, did street theater from Portland to San Diego, played grimy taverns, outdoor arenas, Shriner banquets, rock n' roll concerts, Army bases and colleges and universities.  Isolated in a small corner of the northwest, we made it up as we went along. 

Every single one of us could play an instrument, sing, dance, run a sound board, set a stage with backdrop, lights, monitors and microphones, hook them up, balance the sound, and put them away.  We made our own costumes and our own drums and used duct tape in a thousand creative ways.  While we never made a living from it, it was our life.  We will forever be bonded by the experience.

The Bou-Saada Bus and All the Mechanics of It
Our first encounter with group touring took place on the Wet Paint bus, a decrepit old vehicle belonging to a band of the same name.  We not only used their bus, but we hired their "roadie" for the duration of that tour.  One tour out was all it took for us to decide that we had to have our own vehicle.  In 1975, Marty and Muzzy found a 1952 Kenworth-Pacific flat nosed school bus with a Red Diamond engine in an old bus yard down near Seattle. Considering how much we used it, and how convenient it became, we had bought it for a song.  The very first thing we were required by law to do was wipe out the "School Bus" designation on the side.  Muzzy roughed out the S and H in school and it became a "Cool Bus".  We held a Bus Benefit to pay to fix it up and paint it, and chose the colors, a nice tan and chocolate with chocolate lettering and metallic highlighting.  Marilyn Bennett, a local artist, volunteered to do the lettering and designed the logo on the front; an elaborate winged Isis, the Egyptian symbol of long life with winged sun and serpents.  We contacted the owner of an empty warehouse down in the old industrial section of the south side of Bellingham and for $10 a day we had the use of the space for painting.  Since it was late winter, we needed to be indoors, out of the damp in a space where we could hook up lights not only to see, but also to dry the paint.  The only thing left to do was to prime the bus for painting. 

 This was a 72-passenger school bus, well over 7 feet high. It needed to be sanded down well before it could take new paint.  Muzzy found several sets of yellow raingear for us, courtesy of the Shell Oil Refinery, and we spent a potluck day out in the northwest drizzle sanding the bus, a real "wet-sand".  Once sanded, we pulled it into the warehouse and wiped it down.   Muzzy rented a compressor and paint gun, masked off the windows, and he and our roadie painted the bus, with two generous coats.

This was no body shop and we needed heat as well as shelter to cure the paint, so they set up our raggle-taggle collection of stage lights around the ceiling and ran them all night, hoping the old wooden warehouse wouldn't catch on fire. 

The bus looked mighty fine with its beige body and chocolate trim.  When it was completely dry, Marilyn came in to do the handwork.  Perched on a tall ladder, she drew the design freehand and then carefully filled in the big wings around a reddish sun.  Two green snakes rose on either side, their hooded bodies standing sentinel over our endeavor.  It was really beautifully done with lots of subtle coloring and shading.  "Bou-Saada Dance Troupe, Bellingham, WA" was lettered in an Arabic-style script on either side of the bus using midnight blue paint with silver highlights.  It looked spectacular!  Muzzy, John and Marty carpeted the interior, floor to windows, for warmth.  They built a couch with a seat that opened up to become a storage compartment to hold all the sound and light system cords.  There was a table with double bench seats facing on either side, a double seat left in the front opposite the drivers seat. Overhead shelving held a stereo system; there was a small icebox on the floor, and two more sets of seats near the beginning of the bunks.  The front section of the bus had 4 bunks.  The mid-section with the side emergency door was rigged for storage including a nice rack for hanging costumes.  The rear section slept 5.  The bottom right-hand bunk had a pullout platform so that Muzzy and I, the only "couple" in the troupe, had a sort of double bed. We pulled the bus out of the warehouse, paint still not quite cured, and headed out to get it licensed.  We had a tour starting the next weekend.

 Licensing required multiple trips to the State Patrol and multiple copies of the proper paper work.  Being of questionable looks to begin with, we decided to take as little risk as possible for something that loomed so large in the face of the world.  It wasn't like we weren't noticeable.  As a matter of fact, the bus was our rolling advertisement, and meant to be so. With a great deal of running around by our longhaired representatives, lots of laughter and head shaking, we finally got our license and were on our way.

 After our first experience on the road traveling with a 30-gallon gas tank, we realized we needed to do something drastic or spend most of our tours scooting from gas station to gas station.  When we returned home, Muzzy found a used 100-gallon gas tank that he installed as a back up. 

Welding the new tank in place was a dicey deal and I kept wondering about gas fumes and explosive ignition, but it worked.  Muz hadn't spent all that time as a refinery roustabout for nothing.  A little pipefitting and welding experience goes a long way.

 We usually started out with the 100-gallon tank and used the 30-gallon only as a backup for emergency.  Switching to the second tank was accomplished by a toggle switch installed inside the bus and there were always several moments of gliding and sputtering before we were sure the second tank was engaged.  The first couple of times it were tense as we held our breath and hoped we would not have to make a dash for the side of the highway.  One never really made a dash in the bus. One lumbered over to the side and coasted to a halt.  To add fuel to the new tank we had to unload a considerable amount from the storage compartment.  Never once did a drop of gasoline get spilled on costumes or equipment, nor did anything get left behind.  On one trip, in the thin air over the continental divide, the bus lurched and heaved itself ever upward and over in alarming jerks.  The carburetor was incapable of mixing an effective fuel ratio at that altitude.  At the snappy pace of 5 miles an hour, we leapt out the door of the bus onto the deserted highway and ran along side, jumping and shouting encouragement.  We held on for dear life as the equipment bounced and rattled in a breakneck plunge as we coasted down the other side.

 The bus's inaugural journey was a 3-week tour to Montana.  We had secured gigs pretty well spaced along the way.  Our first stop was at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA.  Life on the road was pretty nice.  When we tired of mixing with one another, everyone had his private bunk to crawl into.  All the bunks had curtains for privacy. Each occupant decorated his bunk for his own comfort.  There was storage space under the bunks that the upper and lower occupants shared.  The couch could accommodate 2 for lying around, and if we got real bored, we would run up and down the aisles or open the hatch in the storage compartment and stick our heads up to get a better view. 

The bus was a refuge and solace when shows were bad or scary.  It was a little bit of home on the road when times got strange.  It was classy and brassy and startling.  It was also a pain in the ass and one of the main reasons we could do what we did.  Without it, we would probably have been "just another Belly dance troupe".

 We were proud of our bus!  It was a rolling advertisement for who we were, invoking curiosity everywhere we traveled as the Bou-Saada Bus boldly rolled into cities and towns.  Our homeport was listed on the sides and back, and we kept her washed and gleaming wherever we went.  The bus allowed us to put on a real show, one with sets, lights and sound.  We were able to sustain a tour with minimal expense to our employers and because of this we reached places and people who would never have been able or willing to pay us the true costs of transporting such a large operation.  Although it was often a sore point and frustrating for all of us that we couldn't make a living doing something we loved so much. I think we all understood from the outset that our object was to do what we did and any money we made was a bonus.  The two things that ultimately made Bou-Saada feasible were the bus and our sound system.

 For me the bus represented the fulfillment of a dream.  In the mid-'60s, I had participated in Ken Kesey's last Acid Test at the old Cathay Studios in Los Angeles.  After a night of acid-induced revelry in and out of the Acid Test area, we returned to the studio from a wild ride down Sunset Boulevard.  In the wee hours of the morning, Further, the famous Prankster bus, had been pulled into the building.  Pranksters swarmed in and out of the bus, packing up and getting ready to go.  I sat in the goo and muck of a leftover "Happening", listening to the eerie amplified sounds of stoned freaks telling me "You're either on the bus, or you're off of the bus."  I guess I wasn't the only one who picked up this mantra and carried it forward through the years.  It had always been my goal to travel the road in an old school bus.  The Bou-Saada bus did just that, with so much comfort and so much class, offering entertainment along with our gypsy arts.  I can hardly imagine more of an adventure than that.

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