MISIRLOU – Words and Music by NICHOLAS ROUBANIS – string arrangement
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“Misirlou” (Greek: Μισιρλού< Turkish: Mısırlı ‘Egyptian’ < Arabic: مصر Miṣr ‘Egypt‘) is a traditional song from the Eastern Mediterranean region. The earliest known recording of the song is a 1927 Greek rebetiko / tsifteteli composition influenced by Middle-Eastern music. There are also traditional Arabic (belly dancing), Armenian, Persian and Turkish versions of the song. This song was very popular from the 1920s in the Greek and Armenian communities formed from former Ottoman citizens who had settled in the United States of America.
The song was a hit in 1946 for Jan August, an American pianist and xylophonist nicknamed “the one man piano duet.” It gained worldwide popularity through Dick Dale‘s 1962 American surf rock version, originally titled “Miserlou“, which popularized the song in Western popular culture. Various versions have since been recorded, including other surf and rock versions by bands such as The Beach Boys, The Ventures, and Consider the Source as well as international orchestral easy listening (exotica) versions by musicians such as Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. Dale’s surf rock version later gained renewed popularity through its use in the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction and again through its sampling in The Black Eyed Peas song “Pump It” (2006) and Mad Men: “The Jet Set” (2008). A cover of Dale’s surf rock version was included on the Guitar Hero IIvideo game released in 2006.
Misirlou (Μισιρλού) is the feminine form of Misirlis (Μισιρλής) which comes from the Turkish word Mısırlı, which is formed by combining Mısır (“Egypt” in Turkish, borrowed from Arabic مِصر Miṣr) with the Turkish -lı suffix, literally meaning “Egyptian”.
The first known early recording of the song was by the rebetiko musician, Tetos Demetriades, in 1927. Theodotos (“Tetos”) Demetriades (Greek: Θεόδοτος (“Τέτος”) Δημητριάδης), an Ottoman Greek, was born in Istanbul, Ottoman Empire, in 1897, and he resided there until he moved to the United States in 1921, toward the end of the Turkish–Greek conflict during the last phase of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and establishment of modern Turkey. It is likely that he was familiar with the song as a folk song before he moved to the United States. Later, in 1930, Michalis Patrinos, another Ottoman Greek from Izmir, Ottoman Empire, and his rebetiko band recorded a cover version in Athens, Greece. As with almost all early rebetika songs (a style that originated with the Greek refugees from Asia Minor in Turkey), the song’s actual composer has never been identified, and its ownership rested with the band leader. Demetriades, who lived in Istanbul, Ottoman Empire, until he moved to the United States in 1921 at the age of 23, named the song “Misirlou” in his original 1927 Columbia label, which is a regional pronunciation of “Egyptian” in Turkish (“Mısırlı”), as opposed to the corresponding word for “Egyptian” in Greek, which is Αιγύπτιοι (Aigyptioi).
Initially, the song was composed as a Greek tsifteteli dance, in the rebetiko style of music, at a slower tempo and a different key than the orientalized performances that most are familiar with today. This was the style of recording by Michalis Patrinos in Greece, circa 1930, which was circulated in the United States by the Orthophonic label; another recording was made by Patrinos in New York City in 1931 as well.
The song’s oriental melody has been so popular for so long that many people, from Morocco to Iraq, claim it to be a folk song from their own country. In fact, in the realm of Middle Eastern music, the song is a very simplistic one, since it is little more than going up and down the Hijaz Kar or double harmonic scale (E-F-G#-A-B-C-D#). It still remains a well known Greek, Klezmer, and Arab folk song.