The Gilded Serpent presents...
North Beach and Mark Bell
From an interview
with Lynette

Mark began playing the Arabic drum, tabla, in 1972, and the Persian drum, zarb or dumbek, in 1976. Primarily self-taught, he had the great fortune to study with Farahadman in Tehran, Iran, and with Mahmoud Hamouda at the Conservatory of Music in Giza, Egypt. He has performed professionally for over 25 years. Mark and his wife, Elisabeth, form the music ensemble, "Helm." They have three CDs available now and one more in the making. It is the second in the Tribal Dance/Tribal Drums series with the working title, "Etneen", in collaboration with FatChanceBellyDance.

My story starts in 1972. At the time I was living in a teepee in Nicasio, California.  I had come back to Marin County from Oregon where I had contracted hepatitis. The teepee belonged to Martha, sister of the guy (Jan Wenner) who started the Rolling Stone Magazine. I needed a place to stay while I was recovering from yellow eyeballs. The main reason for my return was to attend Ali Akbar College (the school of music teaching the classical music of North India).

Though the dumbek wasn’t part of the curriculum, I included it in my studies. I mistakenly came to the conclusion that playing the dumbek would be easier than playing Indian music. My schedule included my studies at AACM and dumbek lessons at night. I always had my drum with me, playing constantly.

At the beginning of the summer, I was involved in a minor legal hassle, so I needed money for lawyers and to pay back a friend who had put up bond money. Somebody, perhaps it was Vince Delgado, told me that I might be able to get a job a couple of nights a week at the Bagdad. So I went to audition at the Bagdad. My first foray into the Broadway scene resulted in George Elias telling me to go away, as I didn’t know enough of anything (yet). Back to the woods of Nicasio I went.

I played at the Renaissance Faire for Jamila Salimpour in the fall of ''72 (after 8 months of playing dumbek). Jamila had had a fight with Vince the year before, hired this other guy who played in North Beach. She had another fight with him and he quit. All this I found out later. I came into the picture in quite a round about way.

I had a friend, Michael, who had a fruit salad booth at the Faire that year and who in turn had hired other friends of mine. They came back after the first day and said I had to go back with them. I wasn’t really into it, but this one guy, Marco, who was pretty crazy, said I was going or he would knock me unconscious. I knew he would do it, so I went.

Another friend of mine, a San Francisco Sufi, was working at the salad booth. I guess he had made some deal with Jamila to push her cart - a sort of wooden litter/carriage thing - that Suhaila rode around in.  Suhaila was six years old at this point, and she played the part very well; she was very gracious. Granted royalty, she didn’t lord it over anyone; she was very warm and had a lot of class. My friend sent me to deliver the message to Jamila that he wasn’t going to wheel Suhaila around. Off I went with my little metal Syrian dumbek on my back.

"Can you play that?" said Jamila, pointing to my drum,
"Yeah!" said I.
"Play beledi!" said Jamila.
"Play chiftitelli," said Jamila.
“Do you want to play for my troupe?" she asked.
"Yes!" I said.

It was pretty mind boggling to play for Bal Anat. Darioush Sami was playing santour, with strings breaking and flying all over the place. The whole bunch of us hippy drummers was pounding away. Add the dancers with the cymbals and drums, and it was a very big sound. Jamila was in the center with her big drum, trying to control everything, marking the beat with one hand.

It was also at the Ren Faire in ''72 that Salah Takesh played one day. He came on stage and looked at the drumming crew and at me. “Play plenty of 'dooms' so I can trip out,” he said. He wanted us to keep the basic beat so he could improvise over the top. We were reluctantly impressed.

In the evenings, at the Ren Faires, before there were curfews, we used to play until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning - Darioush, Saul, Armando, Ernie and Debbie Fischbach and Trent Anderson. Musically, these jam sessions were more mind boggling. The repertoire included songs from Turkey and Iran, in 7 and 9 beat rhythms. We got to apply theory from class to actual music.

After the Ren Faire of ''72 we also did the Dickens Faire (a Victorian-themed fair by the same organizers) with Bal Anat. I think I started playing at the Bagdad two nights a week, somewhere in there (as the guy who Jamila fired got his wish from George and got two nights off). After the Faire, I started going around to the clubs. I was teaching drums for Bal Anat at Jamila’s Saturday classes. I got to know Rababa, Europa or Karma (my girlfriend at the time), Mish Mish, Anzelle, Nicky, Sonya and Kismet (the last three were the original pot dancers). Around this time I also met John Compton, who used to pick me up hitch-hiking. He had a pickup truck and was doing gardening. He wasn’t yet with Jamila, but he would be with Jay, a “loose rope” walker. John sold hanging fern baskets at the Faire and could make anything grow.

When I started working at the Bagdad, I worked Monday and Tuesday nights. They were incredibly dead nights with maybe 6-10 people in the audience, which was good for me because I needed a lot of work. I had to learn on stage.I had never heard any of the songs George was playing. I really had no idea about playing for dancers in nightclubs.

One of the images I remember that was really cool, was when George Elias would do a Farid al Atrash oud solo. He used to play it a lot for Amina.  

Amina would do an incredible floor taksim, tossing her hair around, flying, kind of beyond the constraints of accepted floor work routines at the time. I don’t know if she tranced out, but it was really wild!

Tasha had started working the clubs in North Beach when she was 16. She just lied about her age. I don’t recall a lot of the details, but I don’t think her parents knew she was leaving Pittsburg (in California, a city about 90 minutes to the east of San Francisco) to dance in The City. She was in high school! She could tell you some good stories.

A couple of dancers (whom I won’t name) just used the club to help their other nighttime activities. One I knew better than the other; she was one of the nicest people I ever met and directed me to source recordings by Abdul Halem Hafez and other singers. George would never tell me about any of that.

In the winter of '72, we did the Dickens Faire with Jamila, doing thirteen shows a weekend. They had Bal Anat in a coffee house nightclub that one would have to stumble across to find. It was not the major production like she put on at the Ren Faire. She had a fight with Darioush and then hired Saul (Sulyman) to do the rest of the Faire. The Dickens Faire was pretty miserable. It was in a warehouse in South San Francisco that was freezing and damp. Shows were every half hour from 10a.m. to 10p.m.; we wore Middle Eastern vests instead of turbans and galabias. The music was good and the show was fun. It was an interesting change playing with Saul. But man, it was cold!

The best thing that came out of the Dickens Faire was that a PBS station asked us (Bal Anat at Dickens) to do a video for their programming. I saw it maybe four or five years later: they were still running it. My initial comment to myself was, “Thank God, the dancers were good!”  It's a good thing that I have a big ego that could shut out what I was doing then. I was awful!

That spring the guy who was working most of the time at the Bagdad wanted to cut down to two nights so he could go to school full time. Then George hired an Arab drummer to replace him, which meant that I got released. I think it was at that time, when I was 21 or 22 years old, that George said, "You’re a nice kid and smart. Why don’t you go back to school? How old are you? You are way behind the Arab drummers. Why don’t you go do something else?"

He was right in that when you aren't born in the culture, you don’t have it in your subconscious mind. You look like a total fool because there are a lot of breaks and stops in the music, and you may have never heard the songs before. If you are playing three or four hours a night, that is a lot of songs to just walk into and play cold. Even if you learn 200 songs, most of these guys know 2000 songs or more! You are at an incredible disadvantage to figure out what is going on!

Unfortunately for George, the drummer he had hired got killed over a used car in Kansas City or someplace like that; so George had to beg me to come back five nights a week!  At that time, I had been living out of my car for a couple of months, trying to go to AACM with virtually no money to buy instruments, let alone food. I was more than happy to head back to North Beach!

Soon (I think 1973) I finally got enough money together to get a room in John Compton’s house in San Anselmo. (It was on San Anselmo Avenue off of Center Street.) In that period, Rhea was studying polarity therapy and did a session on me. I had two fingers that were previously partially paralyzed that came back!  She healed me!  I went to her because I was so tense from playing drum. She didn’t work on my hands specifically; it was a side benefit. I am quite thankful to her!  She was in a car accident and got hurt very badly; her sessions were not the same after that. My original finger injury occurred on the bus with Steve Gaskin, famous for "The Farm”, and “Spiritual Midwifery". Somebody had a roll of carpet balancing on the stove in the bus. It started to roll and I went to catch it and caught my hand on the edge of the stove, causing a deep stab to the back of my hand.

Another colorful character in the scene was Rashid Kadmeri, a guy from Casablanca, who had been drumming on his own. He was the one who got me into doing left hand finger rolls. He helped me to get my left hand to be an integral part of drumming instead of its just flopping about!  This tied in really well with having Rhea fix my fingers.

Samra was another complex dancer in Jamila's troupe. She said she was half Arabic, and studied the Arabic language between sets. She was always going to school and had other non-belly dance gigs too. She showed me the kind of drive you need to succeed. She was at dance classes at 7 or 8 a.m., off to university in the afternoon and dancing in the clubs at night.

Reyna was Italian and had black hair down to her ankles. She was a dancer in the club, and maybe studied with Jamila at some point. Her best bits were in the Casbah, where she would really work over a guy with her eyes and expressions. When she knew that she had him hooked, she would do a fish eye or some grotesque look, looking really weird, to gross him out. It was a game she played. One time when she went for tips, she went into the men’s room just to be funny. (She knew nobody was in there.) We played "Zalati Zane" one night and I remember in the chorus where everyone says “Hey!”, she would walk to the front of the stage and strike a "weight lifter hulk" pose and, flexing her biceps, say "HEY!" in a deep voice.

Working at the Bagdad five nights a week gave me quite a reality check. It was a funny place. I remember a couple of fights where the police would haul people out the door in hand cuffs and of course we would just keep playing. Somebody would run in off the street and then somebody would follow just behind him...a mini-riot and here comes the cops! George just took it all in stride.

There was a whole world with layers of consciousness that I had no idea about. The intrigues between the dancers and customers, the dressing room scene and past histories between George, Yousef, Fadil and Jalal. I had no idea and nobody filled me in. I was in my own world trying to figure out the music.

George was always funny when there was a taxsim, because he would turn on a rhythm box. To this day I can’t stand boleros. I would just stop, and wait until it was over. He knew I really liked the Abdul Halim song called "Ma-oud" . He would wait until I was two feet from the door to take a break and he would start playing it to keep me from going outside. He was playing with me. When your club is dying and you have to amuse yourself, you do anything to keep yourself going: games or whatever it takes. He knew that I would come back and sit down to listen.

One of the other things I remember from that time was one night when I had just come out on a break and Jalal was out on a break from the Casbah, when a Chinese gang pulled up and were going after some Chinese guy with chains. Maybe it was up by the Mabuhay Gardens. (It was a restaurant at that time, not a punk club as it became later.) They were chain-whipping the guy, and an SFPD car was just sitting there in stopped traffic.  Jalal ran over to the cop car and said, “Hey, hey, they are killing that guy!”  Jalal just tossed up his hands when he realized the police were not going to do anything. When the gang noticed the police, they left in their van. Then the police turned on their siren and pulled up to the guy bleeding on the sidewalk. The police obviously didn’t want to get involved, as they were outnumbered. But at least they could have turned on their siren to get the gang to leave a little sooner. They sure walked around tough once they got out of the car!

We used to go back and forth on nights off between the Casbah and Bagdad. Salah was playing, Jalal was on kanoun, Fadil, Ali Azadan, a Persian drummer, and Giligili on drum. Fadil played differently from George, who wasn’t always easy to get along with. I would sit in with Fadil for a dancer or two. Also I was looking for musicians better than I was, so I could learn new things.

Mark Jaqua was the coolest guy you’ll ever meet. He was a bongo player that I met at AACM while he was studying tablas. When I first started playing he was interested in the same girl I was. He asked me what it was like to play dumbek. I showed him a baladi rhythm and played him my limited repertoire of baladis. He started playing them immediately. I showed him chiftitelli, which I thought would stump him. He said, “Oh, you mean, 'how much wood could a woodchuck chuck?'” and then immediately played it in a barrage of tabla and bongo strokes.  If I remember correctly, I said I needed to be someplace else and left.

He played at the Ren Faire in '74 with Jamila and then moved on to the Bagdad. He took lessons with Vince for a while, and played on a couple of recordings with Jazayer. He got a job working with one of the TV stations after going to school to get a degree doing tech stuff for the newscasts. He was a very smooth dude. One day at Wild Mountain Café, a Mexican vegetarian restaurant in Corte Madera (run by the Yogi Bhajan Ashram who make Golden Temple Granola.), Mark was there when it was filled with people. He asked if he could share the table with a group and within less than thirty minutes he had two dates with the women at the table. I used to call him Mr. Smooth. He was a sweetheart and one of the nicest people you could meet.

In the spring/summer of '73, I was living at John's when Jamila for some reason got it into her mind that she was going to have a male dancer at the Faire in '73. John was peeking in at Jamila's classes during this time because he was already friendly with many of the dancers due to the Ren Faire connections. 

For some reason, Jamila started talking to me about being her male dancer. That’s like asking a slug to model Versace gowns. So I told her, "Look, why don’t you get John? He wants to do it and he can dance!" 

So, luckily, she got him and not me! John then had one or two weeks before the Faire and practiced all the time! That was the year that Ernie, Bob Thomas (cool dude that later died), (and I don’t remember who else) did a lot of the Faires. I’m confused because I was exhausted from working and hitchhiking back and forth between the Faire and the clubs, carrying my drums. I missed a lot of the fun nightlife at the Faire. After the Faire, I told George I had to quit because I needed a break.

I gave him two months notice, but after two weeks he hired Kasim Razizan, a violinist, and Jamil for drum. It totally changed the dynamic of the North Beach clubs when these guys started playing. The Bagdad was now packed every night. Kasim and Jamil were really good. George wasn’t limited by my ignorance of the repertoire. Plus, he didn’t need to carry the whole load. He could be host and play when he wanted and was having much more fun than he was when he was employing just me. (We had been the only musicians , George and I!) George realized that economizing does not always work out for the best. I got paid less than the Arab musicians because I was an American musician. 

 After this, I didn’t work for months in the clubs. I would still go down to check them out. Then I started working at the Casbah in the spring of ‘74. I got that job because Giligili had had a stroke.

So I got one job because someone was murdered and the other because someone had had a stroke. A lot of my getting the jobs was because I was there available when the opportunity arose. I knew Fadil from my coming in to the club and sitting in. I was lucky! As I look back on it, it’s always been really hard for western musicians to get jobs in the Arab clubs.

Mark in 1973

Jamila had a lot of student nights at the Casbah. She was mad at George (owner of the Bagdad) because he told her he made his money by selling drinks (in response to some desire for focus from Jamila). She also preferred having her dancers employed at the Casbah because of this. So we had a mixture of Bal Anat dancers along with some of Bert Balladine's students. My favorite dancer who studied with him was Safia (Mary Polino). She was inside the music and smooth! Like a goddess!

I think Salah left for the summer to go travel in the Middle East. I was working at least five nights a week while he was gone. (We had been splitting the nights when Giligili became ill.) There I was: back in the center of the North Beach scene!

Rassah studied with Jamila (and was a close friend of Malea's). She accompanied me to a party in Santa Cruz where the husband charged us at the door to get in, saying it was for the musicians. I had no problem with this because it was Sirocco and they were my friends. Then the hostess noticed me there, and realizing that her husband probably had charged us, fell all over herself saying how honored she was that I was there, as if playing in North Beach gave me royalty status. Rassah commented to me on the side, "Remind me never to go anywhere with you where you are known!"

Owsley Agustus Stanley III is the grandson of the Kentucky Governor (1915-1919), he lived with, and sponsored the Grateful Dead in the 1960s. He was also famous for a type of LSD- "Owsley's Acid." He is rumoured to now be living in Australia.

This was also the year of the big Bal Anat revolt. Augustus Stanley Owsley III said when I walked into the back room after the showdown, “Ah, you're that revolting fellow!” 

Pita Gooley was doing the faire, this was  Patty Farber’s group. (Babaganoush? Pita Gooley’s ? Or was that the name for just the musicians?) In response to the new competition, Jamila decided we were going to streamline Bal Anat down to mostly solo dancers. Just the best dancers, and in essence we were going to "kick some butt!" One of the main problems with this theory is we never practiced. I never saw the whole show until two days before the Faire, when we had a dress rehearsal at the Casbah. At least I felt good about the musicians. They were Ernie Fishbach, Freddie Mahia, (known as a flamenco guitarist that Ernie had drafted into playing mizmar) and another guy (I think his name was Doug).  I remember that upon awaking, he would hang upside down in a tree for a while.  Mark Jaqua and I were on drums. Looking back, maybe I should have been worried! The dress rehearsal was okay.

We were supposed to be doing two 30-minute and one 45-minute show. It ended up being two 45-minute shows and an hour-plus show.

I started the show chanting, “Need money!” and the audience threw money on the stage. Sometimes that was the highpoint. For some reason, Ernie and Freddie decided before the Faire that they wanted to take over the show. So for virtually the entire six weeks, they would play each measure a little faster than the preceding measure in an attempt to get Jamila to get off the stage and stop controlling everything. Jamila would look over at me as she noticed that things were getting messed up. I would look over at her and smile like everything was totally fine. Meanwhile, I was trying to hold back the mizmars (Ernie and Freddie).

There was a lot of stuff going on both during and between the shows. Jamila forbade anyone from our group to watch Patty Farber’s show. Of course, we all went to watch from the front of the audience, and when we would scan the audience, lo and behold, there was Jamila!

There was another notable thing, I’m not very good at reading lips, but I think that at each of John’s shows he would have 20-30 women saying “I love you!” from the audience while he danced.

Details of the revolt
That last Saturday of the last weekend of the Faire, as John started doing his back bend with his tray, Jamila looked at me and with her lips, motioned me to do a drum roll during John’s backbend. I knew that if I rolled for John, I might never catch up with the mizmars, and it would turn into total chaos. I looked at her and acted confused. She passed the instructions down through the dancers. I said, "Really, are you sure?" The moment passed and she was pissed. I ran into her the next morning and she said, “I want you to roll for John.” I didn’t want to get into the thing with Ernie, so told her I wouldn’t. She said, “Can’t or won’t?” I said "I won’t." She said, “You’re fired." I said, "I quit." This story got back to the rest of the band. They all decided they were going to wear black armbands to protest my absence. While Jaqua was on stage setting up, Jamila told Ernie backstage to take off the armband. He refused; she fired him. Freddie said he wasn’t going on without Ernie. Doug still played, and then Jamila had Aida pick up the mizmar and do that show. It was awful! Aida was a basoon player and not used to the playing the mizmar. We hung around and listened, of course. Then she called up Salah to help with the last two shows. At the end of the day, when she offered Mark Jaqua the position of lead drummer to teach the girls in the troupe the drum (taking my position), he declined. He couldn’t stand the politics. "Big Black” is what he called Jamila.

More to come.... including Habi'Ru and Helm!
Mark Bell can be contacted at :

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