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"Misirlou" (Greek: Μισιρλού < Turkish: Mısırlı 'Egyptian' < Arabic: مصر Miṣr 'Egypt') is a song dating back to 1927, originally as a Greek rebetiko composition influenced by Middle Eastern music. The song then gained popularity among Middle Eastern audiences through Arabic (belly dancing), Jewish (klezmer), Armenian and Turkish versions.
The song eventually gained worldwide popularity through Dick Dale's 1962 American surf rock version, which was responsible for popularizing 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 and The Ventures as well as international orchestral easy listening (exotica) versions by musicians such as Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. Dick 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).
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) with the Turkish -lı suffix, literally meaning "Egyptian".
While the exact folk origin of the song is not well established, it's somewhere in Anatolia. The earliest known 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's 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 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#).
In 1941, Nick Roubanis, a Greek-American music instructor, released a jazz instrumental arrangement of the song, crediting himself as the composer. Since his claim was never legally challenged, he is still officially credited as the composer today worldwide, except in Greece where credit is variably given to either Roubanis or Patrinos. Subsequently Bob Russell, Fred Wise and Milton Leeds wrote English lyrics to the song. Roubanis is also credited with fine-tuning the key and the melody, giving it the Oriental sound that it is associated with today. The song soon became an "exotica" standard among the light swing (lounge) bands of the day.
In 1943, Miriam Kressyn wrote Yiddish lyrics to the song. In 1944, Lebanese musician Clovis el-Hajj performed this song and called it "Amal". This is the only known Arabic language version of the song to date.
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The song was rearranged as a solo instrumental rock guitar piece by Dick Dale in 1962. During a performance, Dale was bet by a young fan that he could not play a song on only one string of his guitar. Dale's father and uncles were Lebanese-American musicians, and Dale remembered seeing his uncle play "Misirlou" on one string of the oud. He vastly increased the song's tempo to make it into rock and roll. It was Dale's surf rock version that introduced "Misirlou" to a wider audience in the United States.
The Beach Boys recorded a Dale-inspired "Miserlou" for the 1963 album Surfin' U.S.A., solidifying "Miserlou" as a staple of American pop culture. A wealth of surf and rock bands soon recorded versions of the song, including the Ventures, Astronauts, Surfaris, and Bobby Fuller Four. Hundreds of recordings have been made to date, by artists as diverse as Agent Orange and Connie Francis (1965).
"Missirlù" was a 1967 Italian single, sung by Gino (Cudsi) and Dorine.
The song was sung by the Turkish singer Zeki Müren in 1971 as "Yaralı Gönül" with lyrics by Suat Sayın, a Turkish singer and composer. The Russian dobro player Eugene Nemov recorded an instrumental version in Moscow 2006.
Phil Woods plays a clarinet on "Misirlou" on the album Into The Woods.
In 1945, a Pittsburgh women's musical organization asked Professor Brunhilde E. Dorsch to organize an international dance group at Duquesne University to honor America's World War II allies. She contacted Mercine Nesotas, who taught several Greek dances, including Syrtos Haniotikos (from Crete), which she called Kritikos, but for which they had no music. Because Pittsburgh's Greek-American community did not know Cretan music, Pat Mandros Kazalas, a music student, suggested the tune "Misirlou", although slower, might fit the dance.
The dance was first performed at a program to honor America's allies of World War II at Stephen Foster Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh on March 6, 1945. Thereafter, this new dance, which had been created by putting the Syrtos Kritikos to the slower "Misirlou" music, was known as Misirlou and spread among the Greek-American community, as well as among non-Greek U.S. folk-dance enthusiasts.
It has been a staple for decades of dances held at Serbian Orthodox churches across the U.S., performed as a kolo or circle dance. The dance is also performed to instrumental versions of "Never on Sunday" by Manos Hadjidakis – though in the Serbian-American community, "Never on Sunday" was popularly enjoyed as a couple's dance and actually sung in English. "Never on Sunday" was often one of only two songs performed in English at these dances, the other song being "Spanish Eyes" (formerly "Moon Over Naples") also internationally popular in its time.
The Misirlou dance also found its way into the Armenian-American community who, like the Greeks, were fond of line dancing, and occasionally adopted Greek dances. The first Armenian version of "Misirlou" was recorded by Reuben Sarkisian in Fresno the early 1950s. Sarkisian wrote the Armenian lyrics to "Misirlou" which are still sung today, however he wrote the song as "Akh, Anoushes" ("Ah, My Sweet") while later Armenian singers would change it to "Ah Anoush Yar" ("Ah, Sweet Lover"; Yar meaning sweetheart or lover, from Turkish).
More recently, the song was selected by the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee as one of the most influential Greek songs of all time, and was heard in venues and at the closing ceremony – it was performed by Anna Vissi.
In March 2005, Q magazine placed Dale's version at number 89 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks.
Other notable recordings
- Xavier Cugat recorded the song in 1944.
- Korla Pandit performed the song in 1951 for Snader Telescriptions
- The Cardinals recorded the song on the flip side of "The Door Is Still Open" in 1955.
- The Beach Boys recorded the song for the album Surfin' U.S.A. from 1963.
- Vince Guaraldi recorded the song for the album In Person from 1963.
- Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, founding fathers of Tiki and Exotica music, recorded two covers of the song.
- A Serbian version of this song titled "Vranjanka" ("The Girl from Vranje") was created by Serbian singer Staniša Stošić. This version is widely sung across the territory of the former Yugoslavia. When Pulp Fiction appeared, it was a surprise to many to find out that the song was indeed Greek.
- The influential British Fingerstyle guitarist Davey Graham plays a fingerstyle guitar version on his albums, Live at St Andrews' Folk Club 1966 and After Hours: Live at Hull University 1967. On the St Andrews' recording Graham introduces the song: 'I was in Greece last year, and I saw that the Greeks dance alone, which I thought was a bit queer at first; this is a tune, a song really, about a girl called Miserlou'.
- French-Algerian rock star Rachid Taha recorded an Arabic, drum'n'bass-inspired version, titled "Jungle Fiction".
- American ethnomusicologist Harry Smith made several recordings of Naftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia, a prominent Jewish orthodox rabbi who lived on New York's Lower East Side as he sang and told stories in Yiddish. On January 1, 2006, NPR presented a story on the efforts of his grandson Lionel Ziprin to preserve these recordings and played some of them in their story. One of the pieces sounds identical to the melody of "Misirlou". (The melody can be heard, beginning at 4:13.) NPR: A Grandson's Quest To Preserve His Jewish Heritage
- A version with Yiddish lyrics is often performed at weddings, and has been recorded by Klezmer Conservatory Band on their CD Dancing in the Aisles. The style is a hybrid of Ashkenazic Klezmer and Mizrahi (Jewish songs set to Arab melodies).
- The United States Library of Congress holds two recordings created in 1939, each sung a cappella by a different woman. 
- The Trashmen recorded the song for their debut album, Surfin' Bird, in 1964.
- The Dick Dale version of the song was sampled in The Black Eyed Peas song "Pump It"
- Takeshi Terauchi & Blue Jeans, a Japanese band, did a cover of this song
- American Thrash metal band Dark Angel did a short rendition of "Misirlou" on their song "Psychosexuality" for their 1991 album Time Does Not Heal.
- Australian string group Deep Blue rearranged the piece for string orchestra.
- A live version of the song was recorded by Marinella, on her album Me Varka To Tragoudi in 1999.
- In 2011, 2Cellos covered this song, played as classical music. They are a cello duo consisting of Croatian cellists Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser.
- In 2012, 3 virtuoso violinists recorded Misirlou. The group called Trilogy consists of Hrachya Avanesyan, Lorenzo Gatto, Yossif Ivanov.
- "Misirlou" is used in the opening and closing credits of The Ruthless Four (Italian: Ognuno per sé), a 1968 Italian Western film directed by Giorgio Capitani and starring Van Heflin
- The Dick Dale version of "Misirlou" is used in the opening scene of Pulp Fiction.
- The beginning of the song also made an appearance in the 1996 film Space Jam, during a short scene parodying Pulp Fiction.
- In the soundtrack of the video game Red Alert, Frank Klepacki adapted an earlier song from the game series to the style of "Misirlou", as a tribute to it.
- A version of the song performed by Patrick Abrial was used in the opening scene of the French film Taxi. Other versions of the song are featured in each of Taxi's sequels; Taxi 4 used the song "Pump It" by The Black Eyed Peas.
- It was used when the Paris police join the final chase scene in the 2000 film Taxi 2
- A version of the song cover by The Red Elvises was used in the soundtrack of the cult film Six-String Samurai.
- "Misirlou" has been featured in the video game Guitar Hero II as well as Konami's Guitar Freaks and Drummania games.
- The Dick Dale version is used in the opening credits of the TV series Kitchen Nightmares.
- "Misirlou" is featured in the 2006 video game Rayman Raving Rabbids.
- The Martin Denny, slower tempo, version was used in a scene near a swimming pool in Season 2 episode of Mad Men, titled "Jet Set".
- It was used in the unrated trailer for the 2009 film The Hangover.
- The song Walk Don't Rango on the soundtrack of the Rango is a reference to Dick Dale's surf rendition of "Misirlou".
- The Dan Rudin version was used in a mashup as runway soundtrack for the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2012.
- Dick Dale's version was released as DLC for the video game Rocksmith 2014.
- "Mısırlı". SesliSozluk Online Dictionary. Seslisozluk. Retrieved 2009-11-10.
- "Theodotos ("Tetos") Demetriades".
- "Michalis Patrinos' "Misirlou" (1930) sample of Tetos Demetriades' "Misirlou" (1927)". WhoSampled. Retrieved 3 August 2012.
- "Surf Music and Seventies Soul: The Songs of 'Pulp Fiction'". Rolling Stone magazine. Retrieved 7 July 2014.
- "Korla Pandit – Miserlou". YouTube. 2007-06-06. Retrieved 2012-06-17.
- Liner notes, Marinella - Me Varka To Tragoudi, BMG Greece - RCA: 72383, 1999
- Original (MP3) versions of Greek Song Misirlou
- Dick Dale's Extensive Explanation at the Wayback Machine (archived September 27, 2007) (with guitar tabs and standard notation)
- Yiddish lyrics for Misirlou with English translation
- Misirlou, from Klezmer to Surf Guitar (NPR Weekend Edition Sunday, January 8, 2006). (It should be noted that the program makes some patently incorrect statements – Rembetiko is not "a slow circle dance"; it does not have origins in Thraki; the Jews of Constantinople were Sephardim, not Askenazi, etc.)
- Playlist of a KGNU broadcast listing 25 performances of Misirlou.
- U.S. Library of Congress recordings.
- Misirlou played by Trilogy on violins on YouTube.
- Misirlou by Tetos Demetriades-1927 on YouTube.