2018 marked the end of another legendary icon of Middle Eastern music in America, his name was Eddie “the Sheik” Kochak. He was 97 years old.
Another way to describe Kochak would be to refer to him as a personality. This by no means is meant to be derogatory, it is an extreme compliment. He performed for nearly 70 years and made over 100 recordings during his lifetime. Kochak, like many of his musical peers, elevated traditional Middle Eastern music and kept it alive for decades. He popularized the Arabic dabke Musicians like Mike Sarkissian, his brother Buddy, Fred Elias and many more helped popularize the music which kept it fresh, plentiful and enjoyable for listeners.
To be a personality, you have to have a bit of charisma and ability to brand and market yourself, Kochak was such a person.
Kochak was born Eddie Soubhi Kochakji in Brooklyn, New York. One of six children, Eddie’s parents immigrated to America from Syria.
As a child, Eddie had a deep passion for music and gravitated toward percussion instruments. “Well, I was breaking too many pots and pans. My mother’s pots and pans were getting scarce! And they all saw that I had the feeling in me, that I was gifted with music and tempos. So my sister went out on my birthday and bought me a dumbek” said Kochak in a 2001 interview. I was about twelve years old.” , he studied with one of New York’s top percussionists at the time, Henry Adler.
Eventually Eddie entered the U.S. Army where he toured with special services performing in the USO shows in Europe and the Middle East. The title “the Sheik” came from those military days as his Sergeant had difficulty saying Kochakji and coined the name “the Sheik”.
He played the Green Grove Manor in Asbury Park, New Jersey for a decade as well as at Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center, and Town Hall in New York City. Kochak has been credited for his comedic talent, fine support with the dirbakee (Arabic tom-tom), and resurrecting the debke, native dance of the Middle East. He had long associations with Dean Martin and Danny Thomas (Thomas and Kochak are both of Lebanese extraction). For decades, as a maker and producer of records, not to mention live performances, he ruled the Brooklyn and to a lesser extent the New England “Mecca East” scenes. In the 1980s he played the percussion for Anthony Quinn in the Broadway production of “Zorba.” In the twenty-first century the Sheik has conducted musicians and dancers on stage at an Atlantic Avenue festival in Brooklyn.
“Maurice Sedacca and I had the honor of performing with Eddie throughout the 80s and 90s, Maurice on guitar, me on oud, Eddie on dumbek and singing, for parties, birthdays , shows etc. Eddie, in his sense of humor, would always say to us at some point “You guys are great, when do you leave!” Eddie’s songs were often about pashas, harems, desert Oàsis, caravans, camels at a time when the mid-east was a mystical picturesque land, not what the present day unfortunate reality is. His original songs from the 40s, 50s and 60s used simple popular Lebanese melodies with his English lyrics. He would in intersperse little chants in Arabic with call and response from the audience. “Ya Habibi🎶”, audience would respond – “Ya Habibi🎶!” Eddie often would say in his routine, pretending he’s had enough “And the show goes on and on…and on and on…and on and on! Unlike some musicians who see themselves as “serious” concert artists who disdained playing for belly dancers as beneath them, Eddie loved performing with dancers, and did popular call and response drum solos with them”. – Scott Wilson, oudist.
Kochak was revered by belly dancers from around the globe and his music is still available and utilized for dancers to this day. His list of achievements including touring with Anthony Quinn in 1983 for the Broadway revival of Zorba, The Greek and performing for celebrities like Dean martin and Danny Thomas. His discography is one of the largest of Middle Eastern musicians in America. He truly left behind a legacy.