Dick Dale, the guitarist known as the inventor of “surf rock,” died on Saturday, March 16 in California. His most famous song, “Misirlou,” is perhaps synonymous with surf rock itself, the iconic soundtrack to mental scenes of 1960s waves and wearers of first-generation bikinis dancing on the beach. The song, first released in 1962, was repopularized in 1994 as the soundtrack for the opening credits of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The full history of the song is more complicated.
Like many other cultural treasures—Atlantic Records, American diners, System of a Down—“Misirlou” is driftwood washed up on North American shores following the foundering of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. Misirlou is a Hellenized version of the Turkish Mısırlı which is derived from the Arabic Miṣr with the Turkish adjectival suffix –lı. Misirlou (Μισιρλού) means Mısırlı means Maṣri (مصرى)—they all mean “Egyptian.”
The first known recorded version of the song is by Tetos Demetriades, a Greek born in Istanbul in 1897 who moved the US in 1921, and recorded the song in 1927. The Demetriades version is in the rebetiko style, a tavern-based genre originating with Greek refugees from Anatolia. (Another sign of the song’s Ottoman origin is the use of Turkish-derived Misirlou rather than the Greek Aigyptios (Αιγύπτιος).) That said, the song is fairly standard as far as Eastern Mediterranean music goes, composed in the common Hijazkar (double harmonic major scale) mode, making it accessible for adaptation by many cultures. Indeed, Dick Dale himself, born into a Lebanese-American family in Boston as Richard Mansour, was likely familiar with it from an early age.
The lyrics to the Greek version are interesting in that they show a formerly “Eastern” ethnic group rapidly Europeanizing, partially by exoticizing the subject of the song, the titular Egyptian girl. “τρέλα θα μ’ έρθη, δεν υποφέρω πιά/Αχ θα σε κλέψω μέσα απ΄την Αραπιά” (“Madness will come to me, I will not suffer anymore/I will kidnap you from Arabia”). “Μαυρομάτα Μισιρλού μου τρελή/ Τι ζωή μου αλλάζω μ' ένα φιλί” (My crazy black-eyed Egyptian girl/My life I change with one kiss”). Perhaps it also gives us a sense of center-periphery dynamics in the late Ottoman Empire where Istanbul with its Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Albanians was the center, and Arabia (including semi-autonomous Egypt) was already seen as other—the view from the center about twenty years before that center was ripped apart.
Dick Dale’s accomplishment, then, is abstracting the song from this doomed cultural context and turning it into the engine for an entirely new scene at the aesthetic height of Modernism.