A Song A Day – Misirlou

In this section, we are constantly looking at songs that have stood the test of time and space. Today, we look at another such song which has not only been popular for nearly a century, but also become such a phenomenon that countries across the world are claiming its origin. The song Misirlou (literally “Egyptian Girl”) was is again a traditional folk song whose origins are unknown. Although most sources state that the song was composed by Michalis Patrinos, a Greek rebetiko band leader, there are some claims to the contrary. The song probably originated in Asia Minor, in what is now the borderlands of modern Turkey and Greece (the title means “Egyptian girl” in both Greek and Turkish). It then spread throughout Greece and the Ottoman Empire, and was also presumably picked up by the local Jewish community and spread from there.

The song is about a Greek man in love with a Muslim Egyptian woman. Thus it talks about a cross-faith, cross-racial relationship which was considered a taboo subject in orthodox Greek culture. The original song had a much slower tempo. In 1941, Nick Roubanis composed a Jazz instrumental around this song and credited himself as the composer. The song became a minor hit and was covered by many artists such as Harry James, Freddy Martin, Woody Herman and Jan August.

The song truly reached mainstream music in 1962 when Dick Dale released a solo instrumental guitar version of the song. Dale composed the song when a 10 year old boy challenged to play an entire song on a single string of the guitar. Dale insanely increased the tempo of the song thus giving it the energy required to become a surf rock song. After this the song became so popular that not only did numerous artists perform its cover versions (Beach Boys, The Surfaris, The Trashmen, etc.) but it has also been featured in numerous movies (most notably Pulp Fiction), games (e.g. command and conquer) and other media (e.g. Domino’s ad). In its most recent form the tune was used by the hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas in their song “Pump it!”

The song’s extreme popularity has given it a cult status in many European and Middle Eastern countries. Countries such as Morocco and Iran claim it to be their own folk song. The 2004 Athens Olympics Committee selected it as the most influential Greek song of all times and performed it at numerous venues and in the closing ceremony by Anna Vissi.

The song has been played by so many artists over so many instruments that it was difficult for me to pick a few good videos to show. Here I leave you with a few videos that would cover different styles of music in which the song was adopted. Tomorrow we will be back with another such legendary song. Until then, “Turn up the radio, blast your stereo and Pump it!”

1930 Michalis Patrinos Recording of the song

Dick Dale and the Del Tones playing Miserlou in 1963

Black Eyed Peas performing Pump It!

Misirlou by the London Ukulele Orchestra