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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Misirlou:
The Story Behind the Song

 

By Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin

 

Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

The Greek title of the song "Misirlou" is a Greek pronunciation of the Turkish word Mısırlı which means "Egyptian girl." Before the 20th century, ethnic Greeks lived in large numbers throughout the Ottoman Empire, in what is now modern-day Turkey, the Levant, and Egypt. Therefore, occasionally words from Arabic and Turkish languages will show up in Greek rebetiko songs, and lyrics from this vintage music often speak of "Arabian" women.

The original Greek lyrics tell of a forbidden love between a Greek (Christian) man and an Egyptian (Muslim) woman. Because of the religious and ethnic differences, the subject was quite risqué for its time. The complete translation is available elsewhere on this web site.

"Misirlou" is in the rebetiko style of music, which was created by Greeks whose families fled Asia Minor (Turkey) as refugees in the early 20th century.

Misirlou

 

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Beginnings

Copyright and Earliest Recording

The copyright for this song was registered by Nicholas (Nikos) Roubanis, although some in Greece say that the song is older, and Roubanis merely claimed a melody that already existed.

The first known recording of the song was made by Theodotos (Tetos) Demetriades, in 1927. Later, in 1930, recordings were released by Michalis (Mike) Patrinos and Danai Stratigopoulou.

An Incorrect Internet Claim

Some web sites have incorrectly claimed that "Misirlou" was written in 1919 by a legendary Egyptian music composer, Sayyed Darwish. This claim is based on the fact that Darwish wrote a song called "Bint Misr" (also sometimes known as "El Masreya") which is Arabic for "Egyptian Girl". Apparently, because both "Bint Misr" and "Misirlou" mean "Egyptian Girl" in English, these people think they might be the same song.

However, the two songs are very different from each other. This performance of the song "Bint Misr" by Sayyed Darwish shows that it sounds nothing like "Misirlou".

Misirlou

 

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Greek Versions

Many Greek recording artists have released their own versions of this song.

  • Theodotos (Tetos) Demetriades, 1927
  • Michalis (Mike) Patrinos, 1930 in Athens, 1931 in New York
  • Danai Stratigopoulou, 1930
  • Maria Karela with Spiros Stamos Orchestra, 1941
  • Sofia Vembo, 1947
  • Manolis Aggelopoulos, 1976
  • Glykeria Kotsoula
  • Maria Konstantinidou-Stamatiou
  • Mia Theodoratus
  • Dimitrios (Jimmy) Makulis

Greece

 

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Around the World

English lyrics for "Misirlou" were created in 1940 by Bob Russell, Fred Wise and Milton Leeds, and recorded in 1941 by Mitchell Ayres. These lyrics were entirely different in their meaning from the originals. Other versions of the song were recorded in other languages. Some, such as the French version by Dario Moreno, remained more faithful to the original meaning of the song.

The 1962 release of a surfer guitar version by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones opened a new chapter in the popularity of this song. Dale's father and uncles had been Lebanese musicians. Dale saw his father playing Misirlou on one string of an oud (a Middle Eastern lute), and he decided to try it on a guitar, but with a surf rock flavor. Soon, other surfer bands and rock bands were creating their own versions as well. Dick Dale's version of "Misirlou" was given new life when the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction used it on the soundtrack.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows Mitchell Ayres, the first vocalist to release a recording of "Misirlou" with English lyrics by Russell, Wise, and Leeds.

Mitchell Ayres

As of January 2017, a search of eMusic (one of the commercial music download sites) revealed 601 versions of this song to choose from! Here is a sampling of some of the musicians from around the world who have recorded it:

  • Surf and Rock Instrumentals
    • Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, 1962
    • Ventures
    • Beach Boys, 1963
    • California Guitar Trio
    • Rick Gale and the Surf Riders
    • Astronauts, 1963
    • Surfaris
    • Trashmen, 1964
    • Bobby Fuller Four, 1965
    • Agent Orange, 1981
    • Red Elvises, 1996
  • Other Instrumental
    • Unclassical Piano
    • Harry James, 1941
    • Jan August, 1946
    • Arthur Lyman, 1958
    • Eugene Nemov, 2006
    • 2Cellos, 2011
  • With Lyrics in Languages Other than Greek
    • Mitchell Ayres (English), 1941
    • Miriam Kressyn (Yiddish), 1943
    • Clovis el-Hajj (Arabic), 1944
    • Connie Francis (English), 1965
    • Dario Moreno (French)
    • Reuben and Vart Sarkisian (Armenian), 1950's (under the song title "Ine Orre", lyrics by Reuben)
    • The Devil's Anvil (English), 1967 (its English lyrics were written by Gail Collins, and are different from those used by most other English versions)
    • Gino Cudsi e Dorine (Italian), 1967 (under the song title "Missirlù")
    • Zeki Müren (Turkish), 1971 (released under the song title "Yaralı Gönül", Turkish lyrics by Suat Sayın)
    • Paul Baghdadlian (Armenian, 1970's (uses Reuben Sarkisian's lyrics, but released under the song title "Anoush Yar")
    • Staniša Stošić (Serbian), 1972 (released under the song title "Lela Vranjanka")
    • Harry Saroyan (English), 1994
  • By Musicians Who Play Music for Belly Dancers
    • John Bilezikjian, on Dream of Scheherazade
    • George Abdo, on The Art of Belly Dancing
    • Harry Saroyan (in English), on Saroyan Sings Cairo, 1994
    • Pangia, on Pangia, Volume 1
    • Scott Wilson, on Live at Jebon
    • Desert Wind, on Gaia, Earth Goddess

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Harry Saroyan is one of the musicians who has recorded a version of "Misirlou" for use by belly dancers.

Harry Saroyan

 

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Dancing to It

There are three types of dances that can be done to "Misirlou", depending on what kind of underlying rhythm is used with it:

  • Tsifteteli (belly dance)
  • Zeibekiko
  • Line Dance Popular among North American Folk Dancers

Tsifteteli (Belly Dance)

"Misirlou" has long been a favorite song among tsifteteli dancers (often referred to in English as belly dancers) in North America. In particular, versions of "Misirlou" played slowly have been popular since the 1970's in North America for dancing with a large piece of sheer fabric often known as "peplo" in Greek or a "veil" (in English).

Dancers will make an entrance to fast music with the fabric wrapped around their bodies. They will then use a slower song such as "Misirlou" to bring a quieter energy into their performance, remove the peplo, and dance with it. This segment of the performance often includes sinuous movements such as undulations, hip circles, and infinity (figure 8) movements.

Zeibekiko

This is a solo urban Greek improvisational dance. Zeibekiko dance used to be a men’s dance, although in the last few decades women have also begun to dance to it. It was brought to the Greek mainland by refugees from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in the 1920's.

There is a specific 9/8 musical rhythm associated with the zeibekiko, and sometimes the song "Misirlou" is played with that rhythm. When it is, then it would be appropriate to dance the zeibekiko to it.

The "Folk Dance"

In North America, the song "Misirlou" is used for a fakelore line or circle dance that is popular with folk dance clubs. The dance itself is also typically called "Misirlou" as well. The dance was invented in 1945, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The detailed story behind this made-in-the-U.S. "folk dance" appears elsewhere on this web site.

There's no harm in doing this dance recreationally, so long as you understand it does not accurately represent Greek dance and probably wouldn't be the right choice for an event that celebrates Greek culture.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Panayiota represents the Pondian folklore company "Trygona" in a parade in Ano Hlioupoli in Athens, Greece. It would have been either March 25th (Greek Independence Day) or October 28th (Oxi Day). The year was probably somewhere around 1998.

Panayiota

 

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Related Articles

 

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About the Author

This page was contributed by Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin, who is happy to share her culture and music she grew up with! Here's how Panayiota describes her background:

I always love engaging with intelligent like-minded people, especially artists. I love sharing anything and everything about my Hellenic culture and upbringing, especially music and dance. A conversation with me will bring you back to America's favorite Greek-American movie by Nia Vardalos called My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I love investigating Greek culture, history, music, and dance. Speaking of investigating, I think I missed my calling, I probably should have been an investigator. Instead, I use those skills to dig and dig and dig tirelessly, often times falling asleep on my laptop... just to find the truth. But, most importantly, accurate truth. For me personally, and other respectable folklorists, my culture and accuracy are very important. Each generation of ethnic born artists has a duty to do the best it can to pass down our traditions as was taught to us. We have been given this artistic gift to be the gatekeepers of our heritage and culture.

Panayiota

 

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