Misirlou is a song that doesn’t have a known creator but millions of people have listened and danced to it over the years. And many have heard it without knowing its history. It exists in a large number of different (and sometimes very different) versions.
In “modern times”, many people became familiar with the song for the first time
while watching the movie Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), in which Dick Dale’s surf version of Misirlou plays a very prominent role in the movie’s soundtrack. Dale had grown up with the song (he had a Lebanese background) and his energetic version in 1962 became a big hit. Dale influenced bands such as the Beach Boys and The Trashmen with his guitar playing. Dale’s version, and therefore Dick Dale himself, gained renewed popularity with the success after the movie.
Widespread from the 1920s onwards
Misirlou became very popular in the 1920s in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, among Greek, Jewish, Turkish and Arab communities. Misirlou became a well-known folk song in this area, which was still part of the Ottoman Empire. The song is about an
Egyptian girl. Wikipedia provides the following information on the background of the title:
“Misirlou (Μισιρλού), … is formed by combining Mısır (“Egypt”
in Turkish, borrowed from Arabic مِصر Miṣr) with the Turkish li-suffix,
literally meaning “Egyptian”. Therefore, the song is about an Egyptian
woman. The original Turkish word Mısırlı is, however, genderless”.
The first recordings of Misirlou
But let’s back up a bit, to 1927 to be precise, when the first known recording was made by Theodoros “Tetos” Demetriades. Tetos was born in the Ottoman city of Constantinople in 1897, but decided in 1921 to emigrate to the United States. This was a very troubled period
just before the “great catastrophe” when more than a million Greeks were forced to leave Asia Minor and half a million Turks had to leave Greece.
Misirlou was a song that Tetos brought with him to the United States but which
was probably already known there among Greek/Jewish/Armenian communities when
Demetriades came to the country. This first recording can be said to be in the style of
rebetiko and intended for tsifteteli, a popular dance in Anatolia and in the
The origin of the song is thus unknown according to many. But sometimes Michalis Patrinos can be seen as the author of Misirlou. Patrinos made a famous recording in 1930.
But he did not write the song. Patrinos sings here in his Smyrni dialect so that Misirlu sounds like Musurlu.
Unprecedented popularity until today
Misirlou became immensely popular, first in the Mediterranean countries but then on several continents. The song has been performed in a variety of styles and genres. Here are some famous versions:
- Jazzy instrumental recording by Nick Roubanis (1941), who is sometimes also incorrectly credited as the songwriter
- Big band leader Harry James who reached #22 with the song on the US charts.
- English lyrics were given to Misirlou by Chaim Tauber/Fred Wise/Milton Leeds.
- Pianist Jan August scored a rather unexpected Billboard placement with his equilibrist version of Misirlou in 1946.
- Turkish-Jewish Dario Moreno gave the song French lyrics (1951). He has also done a Spanish version of the song.
Here is also a Spotify list with many mixed versions of Misirlou:
A good song never dies, which is true of Misirlou. In addition to Dick Dale’s success with the song in the 60s and 90s, for example, the hip-hop band Black Eyed Peas had a hit with Misirlou under the name Pump It.
On the occasion of the 2004 Athens Olympics, Misirlou was named one of Greece’s most influential songs of all time. The song was played during games in all stadiums and during the closing ceremony of the Olympics when Anna Vissi sang the song.
Text in Greek and English
Μισιρλού Μισιρλού μου, η γλυκιά σου η ματιά
φλόγα μου ‘χει ανάψει μες στην καρδιά,
αχ γιαχαμπίμπι, αχ γιαλελέλι,
αχ τα δυο σου χείλη στάζουνε μέλι, οϊμέ.
Αχ, Μισιρλού, μαγική ξωτική ομορφιά,
τρέλα θα μου ‘ρθει, δεν υποφέρω πια,
αχ, θα σε κλέψω μέσ’ απ’ την Αραπιά.
Μαυρομάτα Μισιρλού μου τρελή
η ζωή μου αλλάζει μ’ ένα φιλί,
αχ γιαχαμπίμπι, μ’ ένα φιλάκι,
αχ απ’ το δικό σου το στοματάκι, οϊμέ.
My Misirlou, your sweet eyes
Have lit a flame in my heart
Ah ya habibi, ah ya leleli,
ah Honey drips from your lips
Ah Misirlou, your magical exotic beauty
Will drive me crazy, I can’t stand it anymore
Ah I will steal you from Arabia
My black-eyed crazy Misirlou
My life changes with a kiss
Ah ya habibi, with a little kiss,
ah From the little mouth of yours, oh!
(*Cover image based on fbartondavis from Pixabay)
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