The song about an Egyptian girl that became a surf rock classic.
At its height the Ottoman Empire controlled lands across North Africa, through the Middle East, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), and up into the Balkans. By the early 20th century the empire had greatly reduced in size but culturally it was still a diverse mix of elements from the lands it once ruled as well as its neighbors. It’s in this environment that Rebetiko music was formed.
Rebetiko is Greek urban music that began in the early 20th century in Asia Minor. It’s a blend of styles pulling from Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Arabian, and Jewish music. It’s been referred to as the Blues of Greece due to its working class origins and its sometimes scandalous themes.
The song Misirlou is a rebetiko song of the early 20th century (its exact origins are unknown). The title is a Greek pronunciation of the Turkish word “Misirli” which translates as “Egyptian girl”. It’s a passionate song about the singer’s longing desire for a beautiful Egyptian girl. Played in the traditional style the Middle Eastern influences are easy to hear. The earliest known recording of the song was by Theodotos Demetriades in 1927. Since then numerous other versions have been recorded in the rebetiko style but the song reached new audiences through 1960s American surf rock.
The King of Surf Guitar
Surf Rock began in the late 1950s in Southern California. It started as instrumental music with lots of reverb, later evolving into vocal surf with bands such as the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, etc. While a host of bands contributed to the creation of instrumental surf, perhaps the most notable pioneer was Dick Dale aka “The King of the Surf Guitar”.
In 1962 Dale (whose Lebanese-American uncle used to play Misirlou on the oud) recorded an instrumental version of Misirlou, changing the spelling to Miserlou. At a blistering pace of 173 beats per minute (the traditional version is around 78 bpm), Dick Dale’s surf rock version of Miserlou is one of the most famous instrumentals. Miserlou found new fans when it was used in the opening of 1994’s Pulp Fiction. The film brought new life to both Miserlou and Dick Dale’s career.