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Band of Gypsies

How two musical soul mates found each other, then lost each other--then found each othe again.

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By Neal Pollack

Johnny Horria first met Najib Bahri ten years ago at Alkhayam, a Middle Eastern nightclub at Foster and Western. They were both packing instruments--Johnny had an oud, "the grandfather of the guitar," and Najib the darbuka, a goblet-shaped, single-headed drum. Najib was playing for tips. Johnny had stopped in for a drink.

Johnny was astounded by Najib's solos. After nearly 20 years of gigging, he'd finally found his musical soul mate. "This," he said, "is the guy I want to play with."

Najib was born in Tunis in 1953, part of a long line of musicians. His grandfather was a renowned sitar player, and his father played the oud with the Tunisian National Theater. His uncles were famous for playing the piano, accordion, and violin. According to Najib, the darbuka came to him before he was born.

"It's a tradition with pregnant women in Tunisia that when they've got some vice you have to give it to them. For instance, if when my mom got pregnant, she said, 'You know, I'd love to have six beers now,' and we were in the desert, you have to bring her six beers. Anyway, she was with my father in a restaurant, a club. And they started playing darbuka. She patted her stomach and said, 'Oh, I wish my boy inside here would come out darbuka.'"

So it was ordained, and by age 13 Najib was traveling to Algeria and Morocco with his family's band. By 16, he was on his own and playing darbuka at Le Bardo, a nightclub in Paris's sixth arrondissement. He later hooked up with a 25-piece ensemble fronted by Lebanese violinist About Abdelhal and his five brothers. The band took up residency in London, and Abdelhal brought in an American ballerina named Cathy to belly dance.

Najib and Cathy fell in love, and Abdelhal fired them in a fit of jealousy. They then traveled across Europe and the Middle East with their own four-piece band, playing in Belgium, Holland, Egypt, Greece, and Syria. In 1983 they were married in Cathy's hometown of San Francisco.

Their marriage more or less ended the relationship, and Najib lit out alone with his darbuka, flat broke. He played stints in New York and Detroit, and finally settled in Chicago, where his partnership with Johnny began.

Johnny is an Assyrian whose musical gifts were also foretold. He was born in Basrat, Iraq, in 1957. His parents went to see the movie Johnny Guitar when his mother was pregnant. "My mother, she was in love with that movie, and she said, 'If I have a son I will promise to buy him a guitar, and he will be a guitar player. If I have a son, I call him Johnny. Johnny Guitar.'" She had a son and named him Gadjo, but he soon grew into Johnny Guitar.

By age four he was taking lessons. "It was really magic when I first heard the sound of the guitar," he says. "We were walking through an alley, and I heard a guy on guitar. I started playing the air, like I already knew how. Then my mother told me the story of the movie." By the time his family relocated to Beirut in 1971, Johnny was playing guitar professionally. In the 70s he lived in Italy, France, Spain, and Greece. He had relatives in Chicago and moved here in 1979. Almost immediately, he started a heavy-metal band called Babylon, which covered songs by Pink Floyd and Deep Purple.

But by 1988 Johnny's tastes had changed. When he met Najib they started a band called the Jungle, which played "world music" just as that was becoming popular. The Jungle stayed together for four years, and then Najib went to Paris to visit relatives, including a daughter from an early marriage. He quickly ran out of money and was forced to roam around Europe and North Africa, playing darbuka to get by. Johnny grew tired of waiting for him and decided to start a pizzeria.

Johnny's Gourmet Pizza and Pasta, which he ran with his brother Bob, opened at Clark and Armitage in 1993. "It was very elegant gourmet pizza, with fresh herbs," he says. "The first two weeks, I had a write-up in the Tribune. I thought this was going to be easy. Then I was being tied up there every day from six in the morning until twelve midnight. I became a prisoner of pizza."

His brother wanted to cut corners, and Johnny wanted gourmet cuisine. "It was like that movie with the two Italian brothers and their restaurant," he says. A year after it opened, the pizzeria was kaput.

Johnny tried to contact Najib but couldn't find him anywhere. He went ahead and formed a Gypsy Kings cover band called Bandido d'Amor, which he fronted along with another guitarist named John Albazi. Bandido d'Amor didn't take long to catch on. They played regularly at the Mad Bar and Bossa Nova. They opened for Tito Puente three times and jammed with Al Di Meola. But the band had creative difficulties. Albazi quit, and Johnny stayed on. "I was playing a Wednesday night at the Mad Bar. I say, 'You know what? We're not really progressing.' One day I walk up and I fire everybody."

He disbanded Bandido d'Amor and left for Spain, hoping to play flamenco music. Flamenco was first inspired by a Moor named Zirab, who opened a school in Cordoba in the ninth century at the court of Abd al-Rahman II. According to legend, Zirab, nicknamed "the Blackbird" because of his dark skin, brought with him 20,000 melodies, the five-string lute with lion-gut strings, and guitar picks made from eagle claws.

Johnny was getting closer to the source. "I was in Granada and met all these great guitar makers. They asked me what my ancestry was. I said Mesopotamia, Assyria. They said, 'The guitar was originally from your people. The Spanish took it.'"

When he was a child, Johnny heard Assyrian tribal groups sing rahweh, songs about wine, women, the harvest, and suffering. At weddings, he would sometimes have the privilege of seeing the great Assyrian folksinger King Biba. In 1988 he backed up King Biba on an album, which he considers the highlight of his musical career. As he traveled around Spain, he played pickup oud and guitar in small villages and tiny nightclubs.

In 1996 Johnny finally found Najib in Morocco. They traveled through North Africa, playing rahweh and flamenco, and their knowledge of the music sharpened. They decided to give Chicago another try and soon became inseparable.

Najib: "Sometimes we might have a difference, but two minutes, I'm there, I turn around and say, 'Oh, Johnny.'"

Johnny: "We learn how to understand each other. To be in a band is a marriage situation. That is the whole point. In music, it's all understanding and communication. In everything, marriage, relationships."

Najib: "I'm married to my darbuka now. No women. It's the best way. I love it. When I get nervous, or feeling bad, I take my darbuka and cradle it in my arms."

Once they returned to Chicago, Johnny and Najib played a midnight open mike at the No Exit Cafe. They recorded a six-song demo, did occasional open mikes at the Morseland, and looked for a guitarist and a bass player to round out a new band. Eventually, Bandido d'Amor was born again, with gypsy music pared down to its roots--five-finger flamenco and hard-core darbuka.

They're currently recording a CD in Johnny's apartment, which they expect to have finished in six months. In July they began a regular Sunday night gig at the Morseland. And starting this month, they're booked around town six nights a week--Tuesdays at Souk, Wednesdays at Rhumba, early Thursdays at HotHouse, and late Thursdays through Saturdays at Cafe Med. Bandido d'Amor looks like a career for the moment, but if it doesn't work out, they say, they'll hit the road again.

"Many people, when they travel, they have one year in advance," Najib says. "But not us. We are gypsies. Three hundred dollars, you are in New York. You take the darbuka, and the next day you get a job. You make 500 dollars, and then you are in Paris. You know what I want to do one day? Get a nice van. Go to Europe. We go Marseilles, Cannes, Monaco, Nice, all coast to coast. Then Spain, Morocco, all the way to Tunisia."

"This happened to me," says Johnny. "I bought an old mobile home once. It cost me 800 dollars. This was my dream to do that. Live in the car and just go all over. I wanted to ship it to Spain, but they said it would cost me 3,000 dollars. So I sold it. There's a problem with musicians. You cannot hold a job. You are not satisfied. You always think you want to be on the stage. I spend 50, 60 grand on my pizza place, and I walk out on it for my guitar. You risk anything in life. You risk anything for music. If you're really a true artist, you just walk." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Johnny Horria, Najib Bahri photo by Nathan Mandell.

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