Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Before “Pulp Fiction,” “Miserlou” Had Its Roots in Mediterranean Music

An ancient folk song from the other side of the world morphed into a rock and roll surfer tune.
by Rich Watson 

In the book Quentin Tarantino: The Cinema of Cool by Jeff Dawson, the film director has said about “Miserlou,” the surf-rock anthem he used in the opening credits to his 1994 crime movie Pulp Fiction, “To me it just sounds like rock and roll.”

Many would agree, but the 1963 instrumental is based on a much older song, one with origins far from the land of surfboards and sun tan lotion.

What does “Miserlou” mean anyway?

“Miserlou” is taken from “Misirlou,” a Greek word with Turkish and Arabic roots, roughly translated as “Egyptian girl.”

The song had Greek lyrics. It was a love song about an Egyptian girl, a Muslim, and her Greek lover, a Christian.

No one knows for certain who wrote the original version of the song. It can be traced to the area of southeast Europe, west Asia and North Africa known as the Ottoman Empire. 

The Empire spanned from the fourteenth century all the way into the twentieth. Its capital for much of that period was what today is Istanbul (not Constantinople). Greek, Persian and Arabic were among the languages spoken, as well as Ottoman Turkish. During World War 1, the Turkish War of Independence led to the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and the dissolution of the Empire.

The first recording of “Misirlou” followed.

Tetos Demetriades records “Misirlou”

Tetos Demetriades was born in Istanbul in 1897. During the nineteenth century, the Greeks fought for and won their independence from the Ottoman Empire. In World War 1, the Empire, allied with Germany, engaged in genocide of Greeks (as well as Armenians and Assyrians), which included forced relocation and conversion from Christianity to Islam. 

In 1921, Demetriades emigrated to the US. He was an Ottoman Greek as well as a rebetiko musician. The word is rooted in Turkish, meaning “rebellious.” The music is characteristic of the underclass of Greek urban society during the early twentieth century, not unlike blues music. 

The principal instrument is the bouzouki, a stringed instrument similar to a mandolin.

Demetriades recorded “Misirlou” on the Columbia label in 1927.  He gave the song that name, a Greek pronunciation of the Turkish “Misirli,” or Egyptian. The “ou” suffix denotes the feminine version of the word.

The song was adapted in numerous styles, in Middle Eastern and other cultures, including the first instrumental version, by the Greek-American Nick Roubanis in 1941. He credited himself as the composer. The credit stuck.

Dancing to “Misirlou”

Demetriades, as a rebetiko musician, intended “Misirlou” as a song for “tsifteteli,” or Greek belly dancing. Men can do it, too, but belly dancing is commonly associated with women, as a form of seduction. Here’s an example.

Tsifteteli came to Greece via refugees from the genocide in Turkey who settled in Smyrna. Rebetiko was part of the culture they spread. Most of their songs were sadder than their modern counterparts.

“Misirlou” is also danced to in Serbian and Armenian circle dances.

Then came rock and roll…

Dick Dale’s surf-rock rendition of “Miserlou”

Guitarist Dick Dale was of Lebanese descent. His Arab friends would call him Rashid, Arabic for Richard. He spoke some Arabic.

As a child, he learned of “Misirlou” from his uncle, who played the oud, a pear-shaped instrument with as many as eleven strings. At eleven he moved to Southern California and learned not only the guitar, but how to surf.

As a pro, playing country and rockabilly, he was known for his use of reverb, loud amps and heavy gauge strings. His 1962 debut album, Surfer’s Choice, with the Del-Tones, was on Capitol Records. 

It contained a song called “Misirlou Twist,” which eventually became “Miserlou.” A fan had challenged Dale to play a song with only one string. He thought of the song he had learned from his uncle, who had taught him to play the goblet drum, a Lebanese instrument played fast. 

The result: an up-tempo version of “Miserlou” for surfers. By 1963, Dale became the first rocker to play The Ed Sullivan Show. He also appeared in the movies Beach Party and Muscle Beach Party. He performed “Miserlou” in a movie called A Swingin’ Affair (AKA Rebel in the Ring).

The influence of Arab music can also be heard in the music of the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors and Led Zeppelin.

The revival of “Miserlou”  

Later, Dale said Tarantino saw him perform in Amsterdam in the early nineties. He approached Dale for permission to use “Miserlou” in his forthcoming movie, Pulp Fiction:
…he got me in my dressing room and said, “I’ve been listening to your music for so many years, and ‘Miserlou’ is a masterpiece.” He said, “Can I use that song? I want to play it over and over and over again, so I can get the energy from it. I want to get the energy from it, to create a masterpiece of a movie, to compliment the masterpiece of your song.”
The movie soundtrack was mostly surf rock, plus soul and country music, without a score. It peaked at twenty-one on the Billboard album chart. It helped revive the song. 

In 2004, at the Athens Olympics, Greek musician Anna Vissi performed “Miserlou” at the closing ceremony. The Olympic organizing committee called it one of the most influential songs in Greek history.



Are you familiar with the Mediterranean version of “Miserlou”?

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